Nation & World

As Ukrainians vote, legacy of Odessa fire that killed 48 has port city on edge

As voters go to the polls Sunday to choose their first president after a street revolution ousted Viktor Yanukovych in February, Ukraine is on a knife’s edge. It is sure to grow closer to Europe, the aim of the uprising, but it also could come apart in a civil war that would invite a Russian intervention.

Armed pro-Russian separatists have grabbed the headlines in the past six weeks as they ambushed security forces and seized city halls and police stations in eastern Ukraine. But in the tug-of-war between Russia and the West, this port city in southern Ukraine, Odessa is, perhaps, the biggest prize.

Odessa, a cosmopolitan port city, with its tree-lined cobblestone streets and laid back atmosphere, its statues of the Russian czarina Catherine the Great, who founded it, and the writers and poets who were born or spent time here, seems an unlikely venue for a battle over Ukraine’s future.

But three weeks ago, pro-Russian militants demanding closer ties to Moscow provoked a street battle that ended in the deaths of 48 civilians, many of them pro-Russians burned to death or asphyxiated in a fire at the Trade Union building that had been their headquarters. It was the worst violence between civilians since clashes began, and was abetted by police who appeared to side with the pro-Russians and did not intervene.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks emotionally of the “nightmare and horror of Odessa.” At an international economic forum in St. Petersburg on Friday, he justified Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in March as meant to avoid what happened in Odessa in May.

“If we didn’t do this…we would have more tragedies (in Crimea) than those we see today in Ukraine, in Odessa, where unarmed people have been burned alive.” And he demanded a “very thorough investigation,” and that “criminals have to be found and punished.”

But his real interest may be strategic. With a population of 1 million, it’s a vital Black Sea port and would be a prize catch for Russia. Odessa is part of what Putin calls novorossiya or “new Russia,” a term the czars used for eastern and southern Ukraine. Odessa Oblast, the “state” where the city is located, also controls the land link to Trans-Dniester, the breakaway pro-Russian enclave in neighboring Moldova that has repeatedly called for annexation by Russia.

Odessa is also at the heart of the political struggle between the two front-runners in the race for president _ Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister whose protégés were running Odessa when the conflagration occurred on May 2, and Petro Poroshenko,the so-called “Chocolate King” whose close aides were installed after the melee.

Tymoshenko, 53, who had been imprisoned on corruption charges during Yanukovych’s rule and freed after he fled Kiev, is seen by many here as a symbol of the corrupt old order. One day after the melee, she traveled here and publicly defended the police force, which was widely criticized because almost none of the top leadership was on duty, and those who were seemed to side with the pro-Russians during the street battles.

“They did everything they could,” she said, an astonishing assertion that contributed to the collapse of her campaign.

Odessa is Poroshenko’s home region, and the new crew now running the town and the oblast are solid, many observers here say.

A billionaire who served as Ukraine’s foreign minister and as minister of trade, Poroschenko, 48, earned his fortune as the country’s biggest chocolates manufacturer. At the Maidan Square protests in Kiev that led to Yanukovych’s overthrow, he provided food and drink for the protesters and tried to calm their passions at crucial moments. He leads the field of 21 candidates by a wide enough margin that he may be able to win on the first round, eliminating the need for a runoff.

Whoever wins, lowering tensions in Odessa will be a big challenge.

“The only thing that can make this city calm is an honest investigation,” said Zoya Kazanzhy, a former Maidan activist who’s now deputy governor of the oblast.

Three are now under way _ by the government in Kiev, the national parliament and a group of investigative journalists.

“The main problem is that even if the investigation is honest, the level of disbelief in government is so high that people will not believe it,” she added.

Greek Square, with its mix of neo-classic and nondescript modern buildings, is where the melee began. Today, the only signs of the carnage are floral tributes to the six people who died there, gaps in the street where cobblestones were repurposed as missiles and broken windows in the restaurant next door to the Russian Dramatic theater.

Pro-Russians had called for a massive rally there to coincide with a march through town by soccer fans heading to the match between teams from Odessa and Kharkiv. It was an incendiary invitation; the fans largely were supporters of the Maidan revolution. “Don’t let the Fascists march through our city,” read the online posters, using the common pro-Russia shorthand for the anti-Yanukovych movement. “Help us defend our city from Fascists.”

What the organizers didn’t grasp was that the Maidan activists also were seething with anger, in part because of repeated attacks by pro-Russians crowds on peaceful meetings.

The pro-Russians also overestimated their support. The 500 who showed up were vastly outnumbered by the 5,000 or so soccer fans and Maidan backers, among them a militia that calls itself the “self-defense force.”

“The anger was collecting for a long time,” said Andrei Yusov, a Maidan veteran who’s now a senior official in the upstart “Kick” party.

Some of the pro-Russians arrived with guns, and in the course of the two hour melee, five Maidan backers were shot dead. Police separated the two groups for a while and then allowed the pro-Russians to attack the others, Yusov said.

There were weapons on the Maidan side as well, and someone _ Yusov and Kazanzhy say they don’t know who _ shot a pro-Russia demonstrator.

Under a hail of stones and Molotov cocktails thrown by the pro-Maidan crowd, the pro-Russians fled to their rallying point, the Trade Union building, about a mile and a half from the city center. A column of some 2,000 Maidan backers followed.

The pro-Maidan crowd torched a tent city where the pro-Russians had been encamped for weeks, forcing the pro-Russians to flee inside, where they barricaded the stairway to the upper floors with furniture taken from the offices, set up a small medical clinic on the second floor and a sniper position on the fourth floor, to protect the rear entrance, said Sergei Dibrov, an investigative reporter with the web site, who’s on the journalists’ investigative team.

“They were prepared to defend it for hours or for days,” he told McClatchy.

Maidan backers threw stones, but after pro-Russians started hurling Molotov cocktails from the roof, the Maidan crowd responded in kind. “They will be burned,” a Maidanist told Dibrov, as both watched the scene.

Dibrov said the fire inside the building apparently started on the ground floor, where the barricade of furniture, and papers scattered all about provided tinder. A gasoline-powered generator full of fuel that had been brought upstairs from the encampment exploded, feeding the fire, as did large drums of gasoline brought to an upper floor staircase.

Flames were leaping out of the windows and some of the estimated 250 pro-Russians inside went to the windows and jumped.

“There was a lot of liquid, wood, and flammable plastic material” in the building, Dibrov said. The temperature rose to 700 degrees on the second floor.

The police and fire departments had stations close by but did not arrive at the scene for a full hour, he said.

Police that night arrested 180 pro-Russians, but two days later a pro-Russian mob besieged Odessa’s police station, and police released them.

Today, the Trade Union building is a shrine to the fallen, but it’s evident from the posters and memorials outside and the graffiti painted on the inside walls that militants hope to turn it into a launch pad for a much broader separatist movement.

A sampling of the graffiti: “Odessa is a Russian city;” “Remember this blood. It is Kiev’s fault;” “Novorossiya: glory to the dead guys.” There are many signs reading “Remember Khatin,” a World War II Nazi massacre of civilians in Belorussia. There are several anti-semitic and racist references, with multiple references to U.S. President Obama as a “black monkey.” Reads one: “We hate you, American rednecks and black monkey Obama.”

If the early May clashes and carnage were intended to provoke a wider response, it so far hasn’t worked. A rally held here last weekend drew perhaps 1,000 people, but there was no central speaker and the crowd broke into groups and passed megaphones around, allowing anyone to speak.

A middle-aged woman who did not give her name summed up their dilemma. “They arrested all of our people, so there is no one left to lead,” she said.

She’s right, said the Rev. Andrey Humburg, a Lutheran pastor at St. Paul’s Cathedral here. When Germany’s foreign minister came for a visit, Humburg was asked to find a leading figure among the pro-Russians. “There is no one,” he said.

He said the militants who answered the call to rally May 2 had completely misread the size of their own constituency.

Still, Election Day will be tense. Pro-Russians “will try” to stage incidents, predicted Anatoliy Boyko, head of an election watchdog group.

“There is a very high level of fear in society,” he said. “A toy grenade, people in camouflage even with toy guns may seed panic.”

But in the absence of an active, trained police force that supports the law instead of a political party, he said, Maidan self-defense will also be ready to counter any challenge, opening the possibility of more clashes.