The fire at Odessa’s Trade Union Building, May 2, 2014. (TSN)

One Year Later, Little Clarity About Odessa Tragedy

A year after deadly riots in Odessa, there has been little progress in finding justice.

by Chris Dunnett, Hromadske International

produced by Maxim Eristavi, Nataliya Gumenyuk

What You Need to Know:

✓On May 2, 2014, pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian activists clashed in the port city of Odessa, resulting in 48 dead, the bulk of whom from the pro-Russian camp;

✓While much of the events surrounding the tragedy are foggy, with diverging views highly political, most of the available evidence points to the fact that pro-Russian activists first attacked a pro-Ukrainian unity march of football fans;

✓The events arguably played an instrumental role in escalating the violence in Ukraine, exacerbating a conflict that has now claimed the lives of more than 6,000 and displaced more than a million;

✓On year on, the events of May 2, 2014 remain as impenetrable as ever, with Ukrainian authorities making little progress in fairly executing investigations and bringing perpetrators to justice;

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Pro-Russian rally in Odessa, May 2nd, 2014. Photo: ITAR-TASS/EPA/VOLODYMYR PETROV

Background

Ukraine in May 2014, following the Maidan revolution and Russian annexation of Crimea, was an extremely tense environment. On the heels of Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula, a spate of pro-Russian demonstrations and pro-Ukrainian counter-demonstrations were shaking several cities in southern and eastern Ukraine. Administrative buildings had been seized by pro-Russian protesters in the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, while similar attempts were only barely beaten back in the city of Kharkiv. Several clashes had between the opposing camps had already turned violent, and a pro-Ukrainian activist had previously been stabbed to death in Donetsk. While Odessa had largely avoided a similar fate before May 2, many feared that the city, with its significant ethnic Russian population and proximity to the pro-Russian breakaway region of Transnistria, could become a future flash point.

A pro-Russian militant fires a pistol during the May 2 clashes. (Reuters)

What Do We Know?

On May 2, a Ukrainian Premier League football match was scheduled between the teams Metalist Kharkiv and Chernomorets Odessa. The ultras of both teams, like those of other Ukrainian football clubs, are strong supporters of Ukrainian unity with many of their participants having participated in the Maidan revolution against the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych.

Before the match, both ultras demonstrated solidarity by gathering at 14:00 in an Odessa square and jointly marching in a display of Ukrainian patriotism. They were joined by members of the public, as well as allegedly by some members of Ukrainian nationalist organizations. The demonstrators were then apparently attacked by pro-Russian activists, some of whom were armed with firearms. As word of casualties spread through the pro-Ukrainian side, the clashes between both camps escalated dangerously.

An amateur YouTube video appears to show a line of riot police shielding pro-Russian activists, one of whom fires a gun while chunks of paving stone rain down from the crowd on the other side. A number of reports also spoke of armed protesters using the rooftop of the Afina shopping centre to fire pistols and throw Molotov cocktails. There seems little doubt that the gunshots — and reports of casualties — fueled the anger of the pro-Ukrainian crowd.

After the tragedy, video evidence has since shown that Odessa police failed to respond as pro-Russian activists gathered weapons in preparation of the confrontation. Witnesses and some video and photographic evidence have since shown that police units later failed to separate the two opposing sides, with some pro-Ukrainian witnesses claiming that the police may have even abetted their opponents in the attack on their demonstration.

A video from May 2, 2014 apparently shows Odessa police standing idle as pro-Russian demonstrators unload weapons from vehicles. The video later shows clashes between the two camps.

Eventually, the pro-Russian camp was pushed back by the pro-Ukrainian demonstrators, who took shelter by barricading themselves in the city’s Trade Union Building after pro-Ukrainians burned down their nearby protest camp .

The clashes continued and both sides hurled Molotov cocktails and other projectiles at one another. Eventually, a fire broke out in the building. Many of the pro-Russian activists perished from heat, smoke inhalation, or jumping from the upper floors. Of the 48 that died, more than 40 were pro-Russians who died at the building.

A pro-Russian activist hurls an object at supporters of the Kiev government during clashes in the streets of Odessa on May 2. (Reuters)

The Fallout

The events in Odessa were a clear turning point in the Ukrainian conflict. The deadly clash exacerbated an already tense and unstable situation, hardening the resolve of both sides of the conflict. While Ukraine had largely avoided deadly clashes since the annexation of Crimea, with only a few exceptions, the Odessa tragedy is often seen as a watershed moment in pushing the dilemma towards full-out armed conflict. A year later, the war in Ukraine has claimed more than 6,000 lives and displaced well over a million Ukrainians. After May 2, Odessa stabilized as the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine spiraled into an even deeper quagmire of war and mutual recrimination.

Odessa on May 2, 2015. One year later. While the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine remains gripped by violence, the city of Odessa is under the secure control of the Ukrainian government and has remained largely calm.

The Odessa tragedy was used by the Russian media machine for destructive ends, perhaps playing a decisive role in deepening the Ukrainian crisis. State-controlled or influenced media groups, such as RT or Rossiya 24, provided a one-sided and falsified narrative of the events, portraying the tragedy as the result of Ukrainian neo-Nazis ruthlessly attacking peaceful and unarmed pro-Russian demonstrators. Ukrainians and supporters of the current Ukrainian government accuse Russia of using the tragedy to further Russian military objectives.

An example of RT’s coverage of the events, which has been criticized as biased and misleading:

The Russian FM spoke about how, for some time now, Europe has been very selective in its judgment of such ideologies, sometimes simply “ignoring” telltale signs, some of which have included all-out marches commemorating the fighters of the SS. After violent clashes between radical pro-Kiev activists and people wearing St. George ribbons commonly used by Ukrainian anti-government protesters, the radicals raided a nearby protester tent camp. The camp was then allegedly torched and people residing there sought protection from their opponents in the local House of Trade Unions.

Many Russian media reports tried to trump up the events to make the tragedy as gruesome and black-and-white as possible, exaggerating certain aspects of the clashes. For example, many Russian media outlets reported that many of the pro-Russian victims had been strangled or beaten to death building, insinuating that Ukrainian extremists had purposely massacred a large number of pro-Russians. Other Russian media reports were found to be outright false, with several Russian outlets running with stories that claimed that Odessa’s large Jewish population was under attack and at risk from Ukrainian nationalists.

For its part, the Ukrainian media’s depiction of the events was also one-sided, ignoring the violence perpetrated by pro-Ukrainian demonstrations by focusing instead on the actions of the pro-Russian camp, the incompetence of the police, or improbable scenarios to explain the fire. Some Ukrainian officials and media insinuated that the tragedy was a planned provocation by Russia to irreversibly deepen the conflict in Ukraine and harden divisions. The view that the pro-Ukrainian demonstrators might be responsible for a large number of deaths is criticized by some as not having been taken seriously by the media and government officials.

Pro-Ukrainian demonstrators hold flares and make their way to the trade union building, in Odessa, Ukraine.Photo: AP

The Investigation

Soon after the events, many impartial observers quickly doubted the ability of the fledgling Ukrainian authorities to carry out an effective and impartial investigation into the tragedy and bring to justice those responsible for having committed serious crimes. For one, the crime scene was not properly sealed off the public, shedding doubt on investigators’ ability to properly ascertain the source of the fire and the reason for so many fatalities. Next, investigation into the crime is highly political in nature. While those parts of Ukraine outside of the immediate conflict zone in Donbas have stabilized significantly over the past, placing blame on pro-Ukrainian might be anathema to Ukrainian patriotism. On the day of first anniversary of the Odessa riots influential Ukrainian human rights watchdog called the investigation ‘a failed test for Ukrainian justice’:

While visiting Odesa on April 10, President Petro Poroshenko called ensuring an objective investigation of the events in Odesa on May 2, 2014 “a test of justice for Ukraine’s law enforcement bodies”. It is a test that unfortunately they have thus far failed. This is especially galling given the need to counter Russia’s intensive propaganda campaign which falsely presents the disturbances and fire as a ‘massacre’…

Indeed, the investigation of the Odessa tragedy is largely seen as inadequate or biased by outside observers. While Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has vowed to complete an independent investigation into the tragedy, calling an impartial investigation “a test of justice for Ukraine’s law enforcement bodies,” this has so far failed to materialize. Even while calling for an unbiased investigation and the need for justice, Poroshenko detailed a version of the events that some observers have referred to as improbable and politically convenient. According to this version of events, much of the blame for the tragedy lies at the feet of the deputy regional police chief of Odessa, who supposedly acted to ensure that the two opposing camps would clash. The investigation has ascertained, however, that the tragedy was spontaneous and not pre-planned, which contradicts some reports in both Ukrainian and Russian media.

The investigation also apparently smacks of bias towards pro-Russian activists while leaving possible pro-Ukrainian perpetrators largely off the hook. Of the 22 individuals now on trial, all of them are pro-Russian activists. Those charged are on trial for organizing the riot, as well as using weapons against the pro-Ukrainian demonstration. Among those accused of crimes in connection with the event, half of them have been in detention for the past year on what have been described as flimsy evidence. Only one pro-Ukrainian activist has come under serious scrutiny for murder, and he has not yet been charged with a crime.

While it’s true that the events of May 2, 2014 in Odessa are both complicated and hampered by uncertainty (many potential perpetrators are either unidentifiable or have fled the country), there is little evidence that Ukrainian authorities are taking the correct steps to ensure that justice is achieved. Failing to achieve justice, however, poses serious risks for a country that has seen its very sovereignty under violent attack for well over a year. Inability to reach serious inroads and reach mutual understanding on Odessa only deepens mistrust within Ukraine, while also fueling outside skepticism towards Ukraine’s reforms process and democratic ideals. Lacking an effective and impartial investigation, much of the facts of the tragedy have been illuminated by the 2 May Group, a group of 13 local experts who are independently investigating the events.

Russian government-owed RT and other Russian media outlets have long used the tragedy to justify their policies towards Ukraine. In the absence of an impartial and credible investigation, the Russian state narrative will only gain traction.
A girl stands at improvised memorial inside the torched Trade Union Building in Odessa (photo: thischildhere.org)

Moving Forward

Russia and its sympathizers have long lobbied unfair or disingenuous accusations at the Ukrainian government. An inability or unwillingness to ask tough questions or bring to justice those who committed crimes in Odessa will only grant further fuel to those skeptical of Ukraine’s declared goals of Europeanization. The Russian media and state continue to spread false reports aimed at exacerbating grievances in Ukraine and encouraging instability. Most of all, however, only an impartial investigation can make perpetrators of serious crimes accountable for their actions and fulfill Ukraine’s declared goals of rule of law and justice.

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