Pro-Russian Militias Are Roaming Odessa

East Ukraine’s major cities are being torn apart by pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian factions as Crimea vows to hold a referendum next week to vote on joining Russia.

Alexey Kravtsov/AFP/Getty

The Ukrainian city of Odessa, famous for its cultural sophistication, talented literary figures and old shadowy alleys, is now torn in two. The fault lines run between citizens, neighbors and friends, with each half wanting a very different future for their country.

On Thursday morning, a few thousand pro-Russian activists gathered outside Odessa’s regional administration building to demand that authorities turn Odessa into an autonomous federal district. Dozens of sporty and muscled youth militia members, wearing balaclavas or surgeon’s masks, marched from their anti-Maidan camp on Kulikovo square to support the protesters. On seeing them, police tightened security around the administrative building.

The protesters chanted: “NATO—No!” and praised the Berkut riot police, who were disbanded after firing on civilians during the violentrevolution in Kiev last month. Many said they did not believe that the upcoming presidential elections, declared by the new leadership in Kiev, were going to be transparent. Their young and popular leader, Anton Davidchenko, stepped out into the middle of Odessa’s square with a microphone in hand. He explained to his supporters that a few hundred Ukrainian nationalist militias had arrived in Odessa the night before and that pro-Russian activisst had to be aware of potential provocations or attacks: “Our duty is to demonstrate against Kiev’s Junta, whom America has paid $5 billion to take over political power; otherwise their armed fascist militia will force us to elect their oligarchs and turn our country into a NATO member!” People applauded.

(Read More on the Crisis in Ukraine)

In an interview after his speech with The Daily Beast, Davidchenko said he did not have immediate proof of the U.S. involvement in Ukraine’s revolution. Instead, the leader of the pro-Russian movement complained about “political repressions” and persecutions by Ukrainian state security (USB) towards him and his activists. “They constantly follow me around, accusing me of separatism,” Davidchenko said.

For the past two months, the politically active population of Odessa has spent their evenings either at the local Euro-Maidan rallies around Duke Richelieu Monument, or at the pro-Russian anti-Maidan gatherings on Kulekovo field square. Traditionally, leaders of both camps make their statements at 6 p.m. Similar “Euro-Maidan” or “anti-Maidan” groups have gathered nightly in every big city across Ukraine.

After Ukraine’ new leaders accused Russia of declaring war last week with the invasion of Crimea, Odessa’s camps have treated each other as enemies and used similar militias for protection: men carrying baseball bats or police clubs, dressed in camouflage, masks or helmets. The pro-Russian camp comprises mostly Russian-speaking activists watching out for “Banderovtsky,” Ukrainian nationalists, followers of Stepan Bandera. Activists of various groups can be identified by their flags: the Euro-Maidan activists carry the flags of Ukraine, and the black and red flag of Bandera’s Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists.

The idea of a Russian—Ukrainian ethnic conflict sounds tragic to those who love Odessa, no matter their nationality—the city has captivated generations of Russian novelists and poets, including Alexander Pushkin, Leon Tolstoy, Anna Akhmatova and Isaac Babel. Many locals feel concerned that as a result of the ongoing post-revolutionary conflict, few visitors will want to travel to Odessa to see its museums and graceful architecture and enjoy its sly local humor.

Last weakened over 15,000 Odessans turned out to an anti-war protest, many carrying the flag of Ukraine. Masked militia with Bandera flags guarded the peace walk.

The conflict boiled over on the following day: a few hundred of Davidchenko’s activists, belonging to a group called People’s Alternative, tore the Ukrainian flag off a flag pole in front of the administration building and put up a Russian flag instead, in a protest against the new government in Kiev. Meanwhile, local deputies held a session criticizing the attempts of Russian authorities to deploy forces on the territory of Ukraine. A dozen protesters got injured while breaking glass and storming the administrative building that day in an attempt to take over the local parliament.

In spite of Russian monitoring agencies shutting down at least 13 pages on Vkontakte social media for supposedly “encouraging terrorist activity,” most activists have continued to connect via Vkontakte (a sort of Ukrainian Facebook). On Thursday afternoon, Odessa’s anti-Maidan page on Vkontakte informed members of the Youth Unity organization: “Important information! Russia did not abandon us and paid each activist 988 UAH ($105.40) in aid for March.” That made the activists of the Maidan angry: “Putin is furious that he lost the game, so he is trying to break Ukraine into weak autonomous regions—the scenario he uses is the same in Crimea, Eastern cities and here in Odessa,” Vadim Birbirenko, a business and Euro-Maidan supporter said.

Parliament member Anatoly Balinov pointed out that “constant ideological competition” was not a new story for Ukraine: “American NGOs financed our developing broadcasting companies, while Russian propaganda TV channels just paid money for their contracts with Ukrainian cable companies,” said Babinov, a member of Odessa broadcasting association, a Soros grantee. “Odessa, an intelligent, multi-ethnic city, will be saved by our great sense of humor,” a city hall deputy, Dmitry Spivak, insisted. The deputy believed that being in the middle between two polar opposite parts of Ukraine, Odessa should allow neither Russian interference in its politics, nor Ukraine’s neo-nationalism. “We hope that very soon Odessa will give birth to new humanitarian reforms,” Spivak said in an interview to the Daily Beast.

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Odessa experts and politicians do not expect either camp to disband before the presidential elections in May. In the meantime, Odessa’s elite and cultural figures are concerned that clashes are inevitable between the two camps, and that before long, one of them will gain enough power to begin to suppress its rival.