Scuffles, arrests, a bomb scare and high security overshadowed events in the Ukrainian city of Odessa yesterday to mark two years since vicious street fighting and a fire killed 48 people.
About 3,000 police officers and 400 members of the national guard were deployed in the Black Sea port, and people were prevented from laying flowers at what was the epicentre of the fighting due to the discovery of grenades nearby and a telephoned bomb warning.
Minor scuffles broke out near the sealed-off area and at least 40 were arrested, while at Odessa airport pro-government militia and activists forced three prominent Ukrainian politicians with close ties to Russia to turn around and fly back to Kiev.
Ukraine versus Russia
On May 2nd, 2014, pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian marchers fought running battles through central Odessa, as Ukraine reeled from a revolution two months earlier, Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and rising unrest in the east.
The much larger pro-Ukrainian mob chased their opponents into a trade union building overlooking their anti-Kiev protest camp, and during continued fighting the building was set alight, trapping dozens inside. Footage and eyewitness accounts suggest members of both groups fired guns and threw petrol bombs and that most police officers took no effective action, while some appeared to allow pro-Russian gunmen to take cover behind police lines.
Moscow and the separatists it supports in eastern Ukraine denounced a "massacre" by Kiev's "fascist junta", while Ukraine's security services blamed Russia and its local collaborators, some of whom allegedly fled to Russia, Crimea and Transdniestria, a Moscow-backed breakaway region of Moldova just 70km from Odessa.
No one has been convicted over the violence, and the Council of Europe and the United Nations’ high commissioner for human rights have been very critical of Ukraine’s investigation.
The carnage shocked a city with strong historical and cultural ties to Russia, and where regional governor Mikheil Saakashvili, the former Georgian president, now claims figures close to Moscow and organised crime are again ascendant.
About 1,000 people, some carrying pictures of victims of the May 2nd violence, laid flowers yesterday at the police cordon around the gutted trade union building, and released doves and black balloons into the sky. “We will never forgive or forget,” some chanted.
A few kilometres away, people flew Ukrainian flags and mourned pro-Kiev activists killed two years ago, while at Odessa airport people gathered to prevent politicians
leaving the terminal. They are former allies of ex-Ukrainian president
– who fled to Russia in February 2014 – and are seen as having close links to Moscow. The trio had come to attend a planned memorial at the trade union building, but were forced to fly back to Kiev.
"Disciples of the 'Russian world', who are personally responsible for the tragedy of May 2nd 2014, have no place in a patriotic Odessa," said Zoryan Shkiryak, an adviser to Ukraine's interior minister.