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Eyewitness Odessa: Anti-Fascist Resistance in Ukraine

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At the end of World War Two, the city of Odessa in present-day Ukraine was declared a Hero City by the Soviet Union for its determined resistance to Nazi occupation. It’s a designation still valued by the people of this multicultural metropolis of a million people on the western shore of the Black Sea.

On May 2, 2016, Odessans once again showed their great capacity for courage. Defying threats by local and national fascist organizations, thousands of city residents, accompanied by international monitors from across Europe and the United States, gathered to pay their respects to the victims of a fascist massacre and press their demand for an international investigation.

Two years before, forces supporting and opposing the right-wing coup of February 2014 had clashed in the streets of Odessa. The pro-coup side was bolstered by thousands of right-wing soccer fans, known as “ultras,” in town for a soccer match.

Not far from the clashes, activists opposed to the coup had set up a symbolic tent city in Kulikovo Pole (field, or square), promoting a referendum to decide if Ukraine should become a federation in which provinces would have a degree of control over local affairs.

After the street clashes, the pro-coup organizations, including the neo-Nazi groups Maidan and Right Sector, whipped up the ultras to attack the tent city. An enraged mob descended on Kulikovo, setting fire to the tents and driving hundreds of “federationists” into the five-story House of Trade Unions that borders the square. The building was then set on fire. At least 46 people died from smoke inhalation, burns, gunshot wounds or from being beaten by the mob while trying to flee the building. Hundreds more were injured.

Although this massacre was recorded by multiple cellphone video cameras, with some videos clearly showing the faces of the perpetrators, to date not one person responsible for this horrific crime has been brought to justice. The problem isn’t that there haven’t been any investigations – there have been several. The latest, by a special panel of the European Council, released its report in November 2015, severely criticizing what it called the failure of Ukrainian authorities to investigate the massacre.

[German journalist and filmmaker Ulrich Heyden, whose article on the May 2 memorial appears in the current print edition of CounterPunch, has co-directed an excellent investigative documentary about the massacre: “Lauffeuer” or, in English, “Wildfire.”  It was probably this film that led to his being blocked from entering Odessa to attend the second anniversary memorial.]

The massacre of May 2, 2014, has been described as one of the worst instances of civic violence in Europe since World War II. Every week since this horrific tragedy, family members, friends and supporters of those who died, organized as the Mothers’ Council for May 2, have gathered at Kulikovo to lay flowers and remember their dead, often while being harassed by right-wing extremists. Thousands attended the first anniversary memorial on May 2, 2015.

Just a few days after this anniversary memorial, several Ukrainian activists, including three from Odessa, attended the United National Antiwar Coalition conference in Secaucus, N.J. (Organized in 2010, UNAC is a broad alliance of justice & peace organizations opposing U.S. wars abroad and supporting struggles for justice at home.) The Ukrainians brought a photo display of the massacre and spoke about the situation in Ukraine and the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) into Eastern Europe.

Founded in 1949 with 12 member states, NATO now has 28 members, many of which were formerly part of or allied with the Soviet Union. Three states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – border Russia, as do Ukraine and Georgia, both of which countries have been told they will eventually be able to join NATO. That would leave only Finland, which militarily cooperates with NATO, moderately-sized Belarus and the Black Sea as buffers between Russia and the NATO alliance. In other words, Russia is being systematically encircled by hostile states. That, along with the U.S.-promoted NATO missile defense system, which would give NATO a first-strike capability, is what lies at the heart of current U.S.-Russian tensions.

Later, the activists asked if UNAC would attend and help monitor the second anniversary memorial, to be held that May 2, which was being threatened by the extremist organizations. In response, UNAC began putting together a campaign to support the Mothers’ Council, starting with a statement supporting the call for an international investigation. On March 21, Victoria Machulko, president of the Mothers’ Council, spoke in Geneva, Switzerland, before the United Nations Human Rights Committee, asking again for an international investigation into the events of May 2, 2014. In her presentation she referred to the UNAC statement.

UNAC then updated that statement, calling on the governments of Ukraine, Odessa and the United States to ensure the civic rights of those attending the second anniversary memorial on May 2 in Odessa and again supporting the Mothers’ Council call for an international investigation. Within weeks, the statement had been endorsed by more than 150 human rights organizations and prominent figures from 22 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and North America. (See: www.unacpeace.org)

On April 25, that statement, along with the list of endorsers, was delivered to the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington, D.C., by Ana Edwards, representing UNAC, and Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst and now prominent anti-war activist and co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity. A press conference followed. The statement and endorsers list also was sent directly to the U.S. State Department and the city government of Odessa.

The following day, at a State Department daily press briefing, Deputy Spokesperson Mark Toner was asked by Russian media about the May 2 memorial. Toner answered that the State Department had strongly condemned the massacre of May 2, 2014, supported holding an investigation to bring those responsible “to justice” and condemned threats being leveled against those attending the memorial.

“The most important thing to stress here is that we would obviously support any commemoration of this event … and we would certainly condemn any threats in the run-up to these events,” Toner said.

Even though the U.S. has been heavily implicated in the coup of February 2014, in which a pro-Russian president was replaced by a pro-Western one, this was an important development in terms of bringing international attention to the May 2 memorial.

Meanwhile, under pressure from Maidan and other extremist groups, Odessa’s city council sought a court order banning all gatherings at Kulikovo square from May 1 through May 10. A judge denied the request, meaning the memorial could be held, but also that other groups could gather at the same site at the same time.

Maidan informed the city council that it planned to hold a rally for the “military-patriotic education of youth” – complete with machine guns and pyrotechnics (fireworks). The court ruled that those items would not be allowed. Another organization, called the Brotherhood, called for a mass violent attack on those attending the memorial.

On the government’s part, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), the main federal anti-terrorism unit, announced that a cache of explosives had been found in Odessa and supposedly had been linked to anti-Maidan activists. Mothers’ Council President Victoria Machulko, whose apartment had already been raided by the SBU, was ordered to report for questioning at 8 o’clock on the morning of the planned memorial. She was detained until 10 that evening, forcing her to miss the memorial. Odessa authorities also announced they had received information about a bomb threat at Kulikovo and had closed the square – until midnight on May 2.

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Although some 2,500 local and regional police had been mobilized to keep order during the memorial, Provincial Governor Mikheil Saakashvili, who regards Odessa Mayor Gennadiy Trukhanov as too pro-Russian, called on President Petro Poroshenko to send in the National Guard. In response, Poroshenko sent 300 troops – members of the neo-Nazi Azov Regiment that has been accused of wartime atrocities in the rebel Donetsk province. (It should be noted that last fall Trukhanov was handily re-elected as mayor by an electorate that is only 25 percent ethnic Russian. The multicultural city is about two-thirds Ukrainian, with the rest of the population made up of a range of minority groups.)

In addition to the UNAC delegation, other international monitors were scheduled to arrive from Bulgaria, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland, including members of the European Parliament. Not all were allowed entry into the country. In addition to barring Ulrich Heyden, the authorities held another German journalist, Saadi Isakov, for 20 hours in an airport room with no water or bathroom facilities before sending him home. In his Counterpunch piece, Heyden also mentions Polish journalist Tomasz Maciejczuk, who he says was blocked on April 29 at the Dorogusk-Jagodin border control point. This write can confirm the presence of observers from France, Spain and the Netherlands, as well as from the United States.

The UNAC delegation arrived on the evening of May 1: Bruce Gagnon, International Coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space; Regis Tremblay, an independent filmmaker; and Phil Wilayto, editor of The Virginia Defender newspaper. Gagnon and Tremblay are members of Veterans for Peace. All three are affiliated with UNAC, with Gagnon serving on the coalition’s Coordinating Committee and Wilayto on its Administrative Committee. For whatever reasons, there were no problems at the airport.

While the UNAC delegation was in Odessa, Ana Edwards and UNAC Co-Coordinator Joe Lombardo coordinated a support team that was in constant contact with the delegation members.

Suffice to say, no one knew what would happen at the memorial itself, which was planned for 4 p.m. But early that morning thousands of Odessans began arriving at Kulikovo square, massing against the locked gates and laying flowers in memory of those who died two years before. At 4 p.m. the Mothers’ Council arrived, to the cheers of those who had come earlier. The official ceremony was marked by speeches, songs and the release of white doves and 300 black balloons. By 6 p.m., the official end of the memorial, some 3-4,000 people had visited the site. (1)

The neo-Nazi organizations also were present. Right Sector held a demonstration that morning in downtown Odessa and then staged a march of some 75-100 members through the memorial gathering itself. Azov members and others jeered the bus carrying the mothers to the memorial, with some displaying the Nazi salute. Something hit the side of the bus, in which the UNAC delegation also was riding. But clearly a decision had been made at some higher level to let the memorial proceed without serious incident.

The next day, Gagnon and Tremblay stayed behind to gather more information for articles and a documentary video, while Wilayto traveled on to Brussels, where Victoria Machulko was to speak before a meeting of the European Parliament about the memorial, the ongoing situation in Odessa and the Mothers’ Council request for an international investigation.

Other speakers included Odessan Ievgen Milev, whose brother died in the House of Trade Unions fire; the German journalist Ulrich Heyden; and Wilayto, who was asked by the Mothers’ Committee to report on the memorial itself and UNAC’s support campaign. The hearing was sponsored by three progressive elected deputies from Latvia and Estonia who have been pressing for an international investigation.

While May 2 has come and gone, the danger to the activists in Odessa has not. A few days after the memorial, Rights Sector staged a recruitment march in the city. There were more threats made against anyone planning to attend the May 9 Victory Day gathering in Odessa, which marks the surrender of Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union. Apparently that event came off without major incidents.

Meanwhile, Victoria Machulko’s apartment has again been raided and she was ordered to report on the morning of May 9 for a second round of questioning by the SBU. The interrogation lasted from 8 a.m. till 3 p.m., after which she was forbidden to speak in public. Her supporters fear that SBU may be planning to fabricate some kind of criminal case against her.

Organizations like Maidan, Right Sector, Azov and Bandera, named after a World War II Nazi collaborator, participated in the right-wing coup that brought a pro-Western government to power. They now have some influence in that new government and want a lot more. Centers of anti-fascist resistance like Odessa stand in their way and the fascists are determined to try and cower them into submission.

As might be expected, the Russian media has been covering these developments. As might also be expected, the Western media has not. Some segments of the European left have been issuing statements and staging solidarity actions, in London and other cities, but overall the anti-fascist struggle in Ukraine hasn’t received nearly the support it deserves.

Thanks to draconian economic “reforms” demanded by the International Monetary Fund, the majority of Ukrainians are seeing their living standards plummet. In addition to their continuing outrage about the House of Trade Unions massacre, Odessans attending the May 2 memorial also wanted to tell this writer about the cuts in their pensions and subsidies for basic services like home heating gas.

The Ukrainian government has no answer to these problems. On the contrary, under pressure from the IMF, it can only offer more austerity. As the population gets more restive, wealthy oligarchs are funding the various fascist organizations to keep dissent under control. It’s a classic case of the rise of fascism of the midst of economic crisis – and how this all plays out in Ukraine may well portend the future of Eastern and Southern Europe. Surely this deserves some coverage by the Western media.

To help support the anti-fascist resistance in Odessa, please contact UNAC at (phone): 518-227-6947 or (email): UNACpeace@gmail.com.

Phil Wilayto is editor of The Virginia Defender newspaper and a member of the Administrative Committee of the United National Antiwar Coalition (UNAC). He can be reached at: DefendersFJE@hotmail.com.

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