Ukrainian nationalists in Lviv clash with pro-Russian groups during May 9 Victory Day celebrations on the 66th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany. Dozens of supporters of the nationalist Svoboda Party reportedly attacked a smaller group of pro-Russian activists going to a World War II memorial. Nationalists threw rocks and smoke bombs. One individual, wearing a St. George ribbon from the pro-Russian group, fired a gun with rubber bullets at the nationalists. (Pavlo Palamarchuk)
When conflicts broke out during May 9 Victory Day celebrations in Lviv, some blamed radical nationalists angered by displays of red flags steeped in Soviet symbolism.
Others saw provocations by pro-Russian supporters of President Viktor Yanukovych. What is really happening?
Many people are calling street clashes between pro-Russian and Ukrainian nationalists in Lviv on May 9 an orchestrated campaign by extremists to exacerbate the country’s ideological and geographic divide.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and his Party of Regions have called for an investigation into the clashes, which left 16 people injured, none seriously.
The incidents threaten to undermine Kyiv’s warming relationship with Moscow.
But some political analysts and administration critics blame the president’s supporters, suggesting that the conflicts are a way for Yanukovych to capitalize politically on disorder.
The motive, these critics say, is to reinvigorate Yanukovych’s traditional Russian-speaking electorate in eastern Ukraine.
Across Ukraine, polls show that Yanukovych’s popularity has plunged because of high inflation, continuing corruption and other ills.
Supporters of Ukraine nationalist parties light flares as police try to bring order after clashes in Lviv during Victory Day to commemorate the defeat of Nazi Germany. Nationalists scuffled with pro-Russian activists. (AFP)
Critics of the nationalist Svoboda Party however, say the organization and Russian extremists are two sides of the same coin.
Despite its nationalist credentials, allegations have dogged Svoboda about the sources of its financing. Some suspect people close to the pro-presidential Party of Regions of furtively backing the nationalists, charges denied by Svoboda.
However, on May 12, deputies from Lviv’s Oblast Council blamed authorities in Kyiv for the May 9 riots.
In a statement, the council said that “a cynical provocation occurred on May 9. The ruling authorities openly showed that they are working along the Kremlin scenario, written by the [Russian Federal Security Service] FSB. They are working to whet social standoffs and for the division of Ukraine.”
A furious Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadovyi seemed to concur on May 10.
Judging from those events that happened in Lviv, in Kyiv and other regions of the country, those events that occurred around the red flag, around fights that in my opinion were planned and incited and implemented by the current authorities…all this is the beginning of a project to divide the territory of Ukraine.
- Yulia Tymoshenko, former Prime Minister of Ukraine
“A crime occurred in Lviv yesterday,” Sadovyi said, questioning why police had failed to uphold a court order prohibiting the gathering of political groups on May 9.
“Why did representatives of Russian fascists yesterday raise a [Soviet] flag on the Hill of Glory? Why did the law enforcement agencies not react? Is this unprofessionalism or conscious support for the instigators?”
In a day marked by chaos as much as violence, members of Ukraine’s nationalist Svoboda Party clashed with Communist Party members and representatives of the pro-Russian ultra-nationalist Russkoye Yedinstvo, Rodina and Dozor parties.
The backdrop, of course, was the 66th anniversary of the Soviet and Allied victory over Nazi Germany.
According to various eyewitness and news accounts, over a five-hour period, Svodoba members and fans of the Karpaty soccer club blocked visitor access to Lviv’s famed Marsove Pole war cemetery.
These activists tore off commemorative orange-and-black St. George’s ribbons, a Russian and then Soviet military honor, from those who wore them, including World War II veterans. They burned confiscated Soviet-style red flags and threw rocks at pro-Russian groups.
Supporters of Ukraine’s Communist Party and pro-Russian groups, meanwhile, escalated the violence by forcing their way to Lviv’s Hill of Glory Memorial Complex under police escort.
There, they unveiled a 30-meter-long red flag despite the court order, which also banned the use of Soviet and Nazi symbols on May 9, and previous assurances they would not do so.
Raising the Soviet flag over Berlin’s Reichstag. The historic photograph was taken on May 2, 1945, by Yevgeny Khaldei, just six days before Nazi Germany’s surrender. (Ukrinform)
Demonstrators clashed with police, while residents refused to let the buses leave.
In one of the day’s most unnerving incidences, Sviatoslav Sopilnyk, reportedly a former police captain, shot at Ukrainian nationalist demonstrators, hitting one Svoboda Party member in the knee with a rubber bullet. Although he claims self-defense, a criminal case has been opened against him.
“Judging from those events that happened in Lviv, in Kyiv and other regions of the country, those events that occurred around the red flag, around fights that in my opinion were planned and incited and implemented by the current authorities…all this is the beginning of a project to divide the territory of Ukraine,” said former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
Sadovyi told reporters in his May 10 news conference he blamed law enforcement agencies for not doing their job as violence unfolded.
Like other cities in Ukraine, Lviv does not control its police forces. Rather, they are managed by the Interior Ministry based in Kyiv.
Fearing provocations, the mayor said the city had specifically gone to court to obtain an order banning the gathering of political and citizen groups.
Sadovyi said he wanted to know why pro-Russian groups were “allowed to go to the Hill of Glory by bus and why did the police [strike with batons] Lviv residents and protect [the instigators]? These were specially planned things.”
Interior Ministry spokespeople said their ministry had no idea pro-Russian groups would come to the city until the last minute.
If people can’t carry the red flag, then they shouldn’t be able to carry the Bandera flag.
- Victor Rohov, first deputy of Lviv’s branch of the Party of Regions, referring to the black-and-red standard of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, known by the UPA acronym.
Meanwhile, Viktor Ratushniak, a deputy interior minister, told reporters in Kyiv on May 11 that he was satisfied with the reaction of Lviv’s police. “Despite the fact that there were attempts to destabilize the situation, the police prevented the escalation of individual violations of public order into mass disorder,” Ratushniak said.
Ratushniak said investigators are looking into why a red flag was unveiled at the Hill of Glory. But, in his opinion, the clashes were instigated by Svoboda Party members.
Politicians and analysts say the stage for conflict was set by parliament, which voted to allow use on May 9 of the Soviet Victory Day flag – replete with star, hammer and sickle. It also honors the Soviet 150th Infantry Division and symbolizes the 1945 Soviet role in the victory over Nazi Germany.
Soviet symbols are an anathema to many residents of nationally-oriented western Ukraine, which fell under Soviet rule at the end of World War II. Many in this Ukrainian-speaking region view the Soviet period as an occupation. In contrast, pro-Russian and pro-Soviet sentiment is higher in the mostly Russian-speaking eastern and southern regions of Ukraine.
Victor Rohov, first deputy of Lviv’s branch of the Party of Regions, however, said he felt the rights of citizens who wanted to honor Soviet war dead were violated on May 9. He said that many individuals who carried red carnations, which is “the least expensive flower,” were harassed by Svoboda Party members.
As for the use of red flags, he noted a double standard existed in western Ukraine.
“If people can’t carry the red flag, then they shouldn’t be able to carry the Bandera flag,” he said, referring to the black-and-red standard of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, known by the UPA acronym, which is frequently seen in western Ukraine.
Everyone received their beneficial political dividends.
- Taras Voznyak, a political analyst and editor of Lviv’s respected “Ji” magazine.
UPA was the military wing of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists’ faction led by Stepan Bandera (1909-1959), who was killed by a KGB agent in Munich. OUN’s goal was the establishment of an independent Ukrainian state and violence was accepted as a political tool.
Iryna Sekh, a leading Svoboda Party member, said her group had done everything possible to avert confrontation. “These were planned provocations,” she said. “Svoboda did all that we could so this situation would not happen.”
Sekh denied that party members hurled rocks at veterans, but could not stand by as its own members were attacked by pro-Russia nationalists. “Don’t confuse soccer fans with our party members,” she said.
The clashes, meanwhile, are already testing Ukraine’s warming relationship with Russia, where politicians called for an investigation and punishment of those responsible.
They said it was insulting that the wreath Russia’s general council Oleh Astahov tried to lay at the Hill of Glory was seized by nationalists and then trampled.
“What happened in Lviv on May 9, this is a shameful sight, this is an insult to the memory of the fallen, and an undisguised outrage over the symbols of the victory,” Leonid Slutskiy, deputy head of the Russian parliament’s international relations committee, said on May 10.
Slutskiy said Moscow would react to the Lviv events with an “identical situation.”
Analysts said, the May 9 conflicts were a theatrical show that played into the hands of Ukrainian and Russian extremist groups, as well as the Kremlin, police services and the current government.
On May 11, however, Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry testily responded that it expected greater tolerance from its neighbor where sensitive questions of mutual history were involved.
“Unfortunately, the reaction of the Russian side to the Lviv events show that the instruments from the arsenal of anti-Ukrainian campaigns of the past were not thrown into the scrap heap of history,” the ministry said in a statement. “We are convinced that Ukraine and Russia will demonstrate to the entire world an example of tolerance and mutual respect in such sensitive questions as historical memory and state identity.”
Ultimately, analysts said, the May 9 conflicts were a theatrical show that played into the hands of Ukrainian and Russian extremist groups, as well as the Kremlin, police services and the current government.
“Everyone received their beneficial political dividends,” said Taras Voznyak, a political analyst and editor of Lviv’s respected “Ji” magazine.
Kyiv Post staff writer Natalia A. Feduschak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
May 9 Victory Day celebrations included public displays of the Soviet 150th Infantry Division flag, a popular symbol of the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945.
Showing the flag of the Soviet Union is unwelcome in many parts of Ukraine.
Ukraine’s national blue-and-yellow flag is the only one that many citizens want to see flying in the nation.
Many Ukrainians are upset that the Black Sea Fleet under the Russian flag will remain in Sevastopol until at least 2042
The Ribbon of St. George is a Russian medal of honor commonly worn during World War II commemorations.
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