History Clashes Lay Bare Ukraine’s Tensions

KIEV, Ukraine -- Unprecedented clashes during World War II commemorations in Ukraine have exposed its deep divisions and raised fears over the risks of disunity in a country completely unaccustomed to street violence.

Over a dozen people were wounded when nationalists and left-wing factions came to blows in the usually sleepy western city of Lviv during May 9’s ceremonies to mark the 66th anniversary of the Soviet defeat of Nazi Germany.

In scenes that have shaken Ukraine, hundreds of armoured riot police failed to keep the opposing forces apart, a nationalist was shot in the leg and smoke bombs created chaos.

The riot police were plainly unable to control the competing groups, a huge embarrassment for the central authorities led by President Viktor Yanukovych in a city that is to host matches for Euro 2012 jointly hosted with Poland.

“We suffered the most shameful Victory Day of our history,” opposition MP Andriy Shevchenko told parliament.

Such violence was not seen even during the 2004 Orange Revolution, a peaceful uprising that forced a re-run of rigged presidential elections and succeeded, as Ukrainians proudly recall, without breaking a single window.

History always touches a raw nerve in Ukraine, with pro-Russian forces in the east nostalgic for Soviet rule which nationalists in the Ukrainian-speaking West regard as an occupation.

When the Nazis entered western Ukraine in 1941, some greeted them as liberators from the Soviets.

Nationalist guerrillas continued to fight Soviet forces in the mountains of western Ukraine into the 1950s and are regarded as heroes in the region to this day.

The main driver within the nationalist forces in the May 9 clashes was the Svoboda (Freedom) movement of right-wing Ukrainian politician Oleg Tiagnybok, a figure gaining increasing prominence in western Ukraine.

They ripped off the black and orange ribbons that are widely worn in Russia to remember the Soviet victory and later broke through a police cordon to clash with pro-Russian leftist movements who had unfurled a 30 metre Red Flag.

“The Bolsheviks sent my mother to Siberia when she was four,” the controversial Tiagnybok told the Kommersant daily afterwards. “Why should I tolerate red Bolshevik rags in the city?” “We did not give into a provocation. We created order.”

But the Russian consul in Lviv, Oleg Astakhov, said he was unable to place a wreath at the grave of the soldiers as Svoboda youths tore it out of his hands. “It’s an insult to the dead,” he told Kommersant.

Many also say the pro-Russian factions were at least equally to blame for bringing in non-locals from the Russian speaking regions of Odessa and Crimea to attend the ceremonies in Lviv.

“The authorities provoked the violence by allowing pro-Russia extremists to come to Lviv or at least by doing nothing to prevent this,” said Viktor Chumak, director of the Ukrainian Institute of Public Politics. “This conflict has shown that a unified history does not exist for Ukrainians,” he added.

The pro-Yanukovych majority in parliament also fanned tensions by adopting a law in parliament in April allowing the Red Flag to fly from official buildings next to the Ukrainian flag on May 9.

Yanukovych has steered clear of making any major statement about the clashes and has yet to decide whether to remove the governor of the Lviv region Mykhaylo Tsimbaluk.

Bizarrely, Tsimbaluk appeared to offer his resignation this week but then said he had been forced into doing so by Svoboda activists who marched into his office.

But the violence has renewed concerns about the national unity of the country of 47 million at a crucial moment in its history as it prepares to mark in August two decades of independence.

In contrast to the events in Lviv, Victory Day in cities in the east of the country like Kharkiv were marked by open air concerts with Russian songs sung against the backdrop of the Red Flag and hammer-and-sickle.

“These two Ukraines, who have different cultures, mentalities and traditions must agree on their cultural borders where every region can mourn its dead and celebrate according to its own tradition,” said Ostap Drozdov, a prominent television anchor in Lviv.

“May 9 presented every normal person with a choice — either adopt a reasonable position and co-exist with a memory of nationalists, Russians, Poles and Jews or become an extremist,” he said.

Source: International The News