Vladimir Kiriyev says he was walking with his children near their apartment in Odessa when he saw an attack on a pro-Russia camp as the assailants backing Ukrainian unity set tents on fire and beat everyone who tried to flee.
That was just one in a series of clashes in Ukraine’s third-largest city on May 2 that culminated in the deaths of at least 40 pro-Russian activists who were chased into a building that went up in flames. The violence, not seen here since World War II, is fanning fear of a full-blown civil war like the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia that left more than 100,000 dead and millions more displaced in the 1990s.
“We must do everything to avoid this military scenario,” Nikolai Skorik, a former governor of Odessa who’s now a local lawmaker, said in an interview. “We have to stop dividing people into two camps, separatists and defenders of independence, unless we want to end up like Yugoslavia.”
For Kiriyev, a 40-year-old father of four, the horror was too great to sit idly by. He joined the mob that stormed the local police headquarters two days later to free 67 pro-Russia activists detained during the fighting.
“Who elected this government?” Kiriyev shouted, outraged over the ouster of Kremlin-backed President Viktor Yanukovych in Kiev in February. “They elected themselves!”
Russia, which refuses to recognize Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s government, says the Odessa mayhem proves “fascists” are targeting ethnic Russians in eastern and southern Ukraine for “genocide.” President Vladimir Putin, who’s already annexed Crimea and moved 40,000 troops to the frontier, has parliamentary approval to use force as needed to protect Russian speakers abroad.
Modern Odessa was founded in 1794 by Catherine the Great to provide a Black Sea port for the Russian Empire’s expansion. By the beginning of the 20th century, it had become Russia’s most important commercial hub after Moscow and St. Petersburg. Ethnic Russians today account for 30 percent of the population.
Authorities in Kiev are waging operations to dislodge separatists who have seized government buildings in a dozen cities and towns in the country’s easternmost regions. Instead of sending in the Russian army, Putin should provide significant military aid to the rebels and fighting will spread south, said Konstantin Zatulin, head of the Moscow-based Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States.
A new flashpoint may come tomorrow if rival camps rally for Victory Day, a holiday commemorating the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II in both Ukraine and Russia, where Putin will oversee a military parade on Red Square.
“Tensions have been building for a long time and now we’ve reached a point of no return,” said Oleg Gubar, a historian in Odessa who’s critical of the central government. “They won’t forgive what happened.”
The loss of regions in the east and south, including Odessa, the largest port, would render the country landlocked and cut the economy in half, said Alexander Valchyshen, chief economist at Investment Capital Ukraine in Kiev.
Ukraine’s industrial base lies in the east, while Odessa and four other Black Sea ports handle 87 percent of grain exports, according to Morgan Stanley. The country is set to be the world’s sixth-largest exporter of wheat this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The site of the blaze, a five-story Stalin-era building that housed the local trade union, is now a shrine, where mourners lay flowers and hold candle-lit vigils. With an acrid smell still emanating from the blackened interior and photos of burnt corpses dotting the exterior, anger is growing. Some of the victims jumped to their deaths to escape the flames.
Scrawled on the facade of the fire-gutted structure are pro-Russian slogans including, “Odessa Is a Russian City” and “Death to Fascists.”
Conspiracy theories are rife on both sides. Pro-Russian groups say the gunmen who started it all by opening fire on a peaceful demonstration by pro-Ukrainian soccer fans were paid by officials in Kiev to justify military action and subdue the rebels by force. Nationalists say Russia planned the attack to spread insurrection and weaken the central government. Both sides accuse the police of inaction and Ukrainian prosecutors have started an investigation.
Ukraine’s government blamed the events on Russia’s Federal Security Service, the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB, and said the fire broke out after pro-Russians threw Molotov cocktails from inside. They were seeking to escape fighting that broke out after a march for Ukrainian unity was attacked.
The speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament, Sergei Naryshkin, said Ukrainian radicals including the nationalist Pravy Sektor group are pursuing “genocide.”
At least 46 people died on May 2, including six in skirmishes in downtown Odessa, making it the bloodiest day in Ukraine since the fighting in Kiev forced Yanukovych to flee to Russia in February.
It was also the “blackest day” in Odessa’s history since the massacre of 1941, when occupying Romanian troops killed thousands of Jews, said Gubar, the historian.
The city of 1 million people is a relatively prosperous trading center that’s long been a beacon of tolerance thanks to its diverse population, which was once about 30 percent Jewish, according to Gubar. That’s now down to about 6 percent.
“Odessa has this image of a cosmopolitan, multiethnic city, where different nationalities have lived together for centuries,” said Vladimir Chaplin, who helps run the local Jewish history museum. “But that’s somewhat exaggerated. There is a history of xenophobia.”
Chaplin said the recent fighting is reminiscent of the pogroms -- the organized killings of Jews -- under czarist rule in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
“What was really frightening about these events is that they reminded me a lot of pogroms,” Chaplin said. “If certain forces want this to happen again, it will.”
Alexander Babich, a pro-Ukrainian activist who got caught up in the skirmishes and is now raising money to help pay the medical bills of the more than 200 people who were injured on both sides, says he fears the worst is yet to come.
“I’m afraid we’re not even half-way through this,” Babich said at the travel agency he owns. “I don’t believe common sense will prevail. It’s being stoked from abroad and our authorities aren’t helping to douse the flames. I’m afraid for my family, my city, my country. This can become another Yugoslavia or Rwanda.”
The Obama administration said May 5 that it’s “extremely concerned” about the deteriorating situation in both eastern and southern Ukraine.
“The events in Odessa dramatically underscore the need for an immediate de-escalation of tensions in Ukraine,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said. “The violence and efforts to destabilize the country must end.”
Oleksiy Chorny, an Odessa leader of the Maidan movement that helped organize the protests that brought down Yanukovych, says he expects Russia to exploit the tragedy.
“The photographs from inside the building are just horrific,” Chorny said. “They can say, ‘Look at how these patriots without any conscience are burning people alive.’’
Putin shifted his tone on Ukraine yesterday, calling on separatists to postpone votes on autonomy scheduled for May 11 and saying he had withdrawn forces from the border, though the U.S. said it saw no evidence of that.
‘‘The responsibility for what is happening in Ukraine now lies with the people who carried out an anti-constitutional seizure of power, a coup d’etat, and with those who supported these actions and gave them financial, political information and other kinds of support and pushed the situation to the tragic events that took place in Odessa,’’ Putin said in Moscow. ‘‘It’s quite simply blood-chilling to watch footage of those events.’’
Putin said today Russia is testing its entire military’s combat readiness in exercises that were planned in November.
Sergei, 46, said he went to the tent camp to visit a friend before being forced to seek refuge in the trade union building. He said the pro-Russia activists he saw in inside included women and old men and not one of them had a firearm, as some officials have claimed.
Sergei, who didn’t give his last name for fear of reprisal, said he was praying for peace at the barricades around the building when the fire broke out and he rushed in to help people escape. Nationalists were beating people who were trying to flee, said Sergei, who broke his hand and injured both his legs when he jumped from a third-story window.
In a bid to assert control over Odessa after the deaths, acting President Oleksandr Turchynov fired the governor and the police chief and deployed elite national guard forces from Kiev.
These tactics may backfire, according to Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin adviser who was born and educated in Odessa.
‘‘The lack of trust in Ukrainian authorities is growing,” Pavlovsky said by phone from Moscow. “They’ve crossed a red line. Talking with Odessa’s inhabitants in the language of threats is very bad policy. It can only lead to more conflict.”