Earlier today the relative peace of Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, was shattered when a demonstration outside the parliament building, the Verkhovna Rada, turned violent. Rioting reached a climax when a man in the crowd threw a grenade at police, killing a 24-year-old National Guard riot police officer and injuring more than twenty others. As of this writing, at least 122 people, mostly police, were hurt in the ensuing clashes.
As The Daily Beast reported, the backdrop for this gruesome turn was the vote in the Rada to amend Ukraine’s constitution to allow increased autonomy for the embattled regions in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region. Under the Minsk protocol—an agreement first signed by the Ukrainian government, the Russia government, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and the Russian-backed rebels —Kiev would grant the regions of Donetsk and Lugansk more local authority in exchange for an end to the war and the return of the territory to the Ukrainian government. Despite the fact that the Russian-backed fighters have met nearly none of the provisions of Minsk, today’s vote in the Rada was billed as a major step toward reconciliation.
The vote, which passed with the support of 265 of the Rada’s 320 members, was seen by some as a “capitulation to the Kremlin” and its proxies that have been waging war in the east for the last year and a half. Opposition was particularly fierce from members of two far-right political parties, Svoboda and Right Sector, both of which have organized their own units of volunteers to fight against Russian-backed militants in the east. And animus against the bill has only increased because Poroshenko had pledged to only sign the bill if Russian troops withdraw from the east and those troops have clearly not done so.
The rally today was organized by Svoboda andthe Radical Party, and video of the event showed several men in military uniform present in the crowd before it turned violent. Some threw rocks and attacked police officers with sticks.
After the riot police were dispatched and tear gas canisters were fired at the melee, multiple videos show a grenade fly out of the crowd and land among the police officers. According to the latest figures from the Ukrainian government, 21 people were injured by shrapnel from the explosion, and video shows one member of the riot police with fatal injuries.
The Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov says that they have arrested the man who threw the grenade—Igor Vladimirovich Gumenyuk—who apparently had in his possession a second grenade that didn’t explode. According to Avakov, Gumenyuk was a volunteer soldier for Svoboda’s Sich Battalion, on month-long leave from the front. Thus, a solider enlisted in Ukraine’s “Anti-Terrorist Operation” against a Russia-made war has himself allegedly committed an act of terror against a government Russia would like to see fail, if not collapse completely.
While Right Sector called for a rally in solidarity with the national guard—“patriots” whose “blood was spilled,“—Svoboda issued a series of heated statements, accusing the Rada of working in conjunction with the pro-Russian Opposition Bloc, a fact that “provoked Ukrainians to protest” in the first place. The Opposition Bloc consists of former allies and cronies of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, whose Party of Regions was disbanded in the wake of the Euromaidan Revolution, which swept him from power. Svoboda also blamed “provocateurs” for the violence, and later claimed in a party statement that “[l]aw enforcement failed to take appropriate measures to neutralize the provocateurs… Obviously, the usage of an explosive device that an unknown threw at the police was a pre-planned provocation against Ukrainian patriots.”
Today’s carnage represents was the realization of tensions that have been mounting for months in Ukraine. Euromaidan was strongly supported by some far-right groups, including Svoboda and Right Sector, despite ultra-nationalists making up a small percentage of Ukraine’s populace or political demography. Several of these groups then recruited volunteer militias to go fight separatism and Russian military provocation in the Donbass at a time when the fledgling interim government in Kiev could not fully trust its military or police forces, owing to fears of Russian penetration.
Relying on ultra-nationalists, even in part, has proved a devil’s bargain for Kiev, which has struggled to professionalize and centralize an attritional war in the midst of economic wobbliness and uncertainty. In July, a group of Right Sector militants got into a shooting match with agents loyal to a wealthy Ukrainian oligarch and member of parliament Mikhail Lanio. When the police arrived, the militants opened fire with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. They said they were confronting “smugglers,” although Right Sector itself is widely suspected of involvement in Ukraine’s the black market. This was just a turf war, others countered.
Either way, that incident exposed the uncomfortable reality that far-right volunteer battalions expect political and economic rewards for their service to the country. It’s not clear at all how much control over these militants the Ukrainian government can exert. Or how much of their support it can afford to eschew.
Russian-backed fighters have been hammering Ukrainian positions for months with tanks, artillery, and rockets. Ukrainian troops recently told journalists that they feel held back by “red tape,” since returning fire could harm civilians or give the Kremlin a reason to accuse Ukraine of breaking the ceasefire—which in turn could prompt further Russian escalation. Many Ukrainian volunteers are frustrated that they aren’t bringing the fight to the enemy, and their commanders have felt hung out to dry by the Defense Ministry.
Tomorrow is supposed to be the start of a new ceasefire in the Donbass and so today’s violence could not have come at a more precarious time. Will ultra-nationalists accept a new round of peace or resort to bomb-throwing and mayhem to sabotage it? Will someone else sow violence just to implicate the ultra-nationalists?
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatesenyuk said that those who conducted this attack were worse than the Russian-backed separatists, and he called for life imprisonment for those responsible. The Associated Press reports: “The cynicism of this crime lies in the fact that, while the Russian federation and its bandits are trying and failing to destroy the Ukrainian state on the eastern front, the so-called pro-Ukrainian political forces are trying to open another front in the country’s midst.”
Poroshenko, too, gave a nationally-broadcast TV address, calling the violence a “stab in the back”: “It was an anti-Ukrainian act for which all of its organizers without exception—all representatives of political forces—should be severely punished,” he said.
But has he got the will or political capital follow through with this threat and prosecute the political leaders of Svoboda, the Radical Party, or Right Sector? He may not even have the steam to get the constitutional amendment passed at all, given that support for it has fallen since its introduction at Minsk last February.
The process for devolving greater autonomy to the Donbass is phased. When the bill was initially introduced months ago, it passed the Rada with 288 votes. It was then sent to Ukraine’s Constitutional Court, which approved it. Today’s vote was the second of three that must occur for the bill to succeed and, although successful, the result was telling: only 265 MPs supported it—down by 23. It will a third and final vote of 300 to push the constitutional amendment through, and right now those votes simply don’t exist.
One thing is clear, though. It’s been a while since the streets of Kiev ran red with blood, and Kiev is the centre for all that moves in Ukraine. Whether today’s violence pulls the country together, as it did 18 months ago, or tears it apart will likely be determined before winter arrives.