Riots Fuel Fear of Russian Provocation in Ukraine’s Second City

Police patroled Ukraine’s second-biggest city, near the Russian border, after riots last night left two people dead and an officer critically wounded.

An attack late yesterday on a Ukrainian cultural organization’s office was a “well planned provocation by pro-Russian activists,” Kharkiv’s regional governor, Ihor Baluta, said today in statement on the administration’s website. A fire still smoldered this morning by the office of Prosvita, a group set up in 1868 to protect and promote Ukraine’s language, as forensics officers removed evidence. The blaze burned a smaller building in a courtyard and the offices were ransacked.

All pro-Ukrainian rallies scheduled for this weekend in Kharkiv were canceled because of fears of more provocations, organizer Volodymyr Chystylin said yesterday on his Facebook Inc. page. Governor Baluta yesterday warned people to avoid mass demonstrations and said Ukrainian security services believe pro-Russian activists are preparing acts of terrorism.

Russian troops have massed for exercises near the border, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Kharkiv, a city of 1.4 million people, stirring fears that Moscow will attempt to annex eastern Ukraine. Tomorrow, another majority Russian speaking region of the country, the Black Sea Crimea peninsula, will vote in a referendum on whether to join Russia.

“The riot yesterday was clearly a planned provocation,” Pavel Makarenko, a 28-year-old lawyer said. “It’s one thing to love Russia, as many people in Kharkiv do. But living without Ukraine is impossible for this city.”

Take Territory

Russia’s parliament will consider a law on March 21 that would authorize the Kremlin to incorporate territories of countries where central authority has collapsed and the local population wants to secede. The law could be applied to regions in eastern Ukraine, Sergei Markov, an adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, said today by phone from Sevastopol.

“We would want to be sure we are welcomed with flowers” before we annex any territory, Markov said.

Kharkiv is home to the Malyshev Factory that manufactured the T-34 tank used by Soviet forces in World War II as well as the later generation T-64 and now the Ukrainian T-84 tank.

The city administration was guarded by police in riot gear today after several violent clashes between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian factions this month. At least 105 people have died in connection with protests in Ukraine that began in November against ousted President Viktor Yanukovych.

Pro-Russian protesters stormed Kharkiv’s local assembly chamber and ejected government supporters in clashes, the Unian news service said March 1. Interfax said 97 people were injured in the clashes.

Demonstrators backing Russia marched through central Kharkiv today and a large rally is planned in support of the Crimean referendum tomorrow.

“If Putin comes to Ukraine, that will be the end of him,” Vasily Golovin, a retired 58-year-old, said near the site of the riots. “I can’t read his thoughts, but if he thinks he can invade us, his game is up.”

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