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Analysis & Opinion
10.05.11 Seeing Red
By Andrew Roth

The 66th anniversary of the Soviet and Allied victory over Hitler’s Germany in the Second World War passed peacefully yesterday in Russia, but in the western Ukrainian city of Lvov, where Soviet victory in the war is just as quickly seen as the beginning of nearly half a century of occupation of Ukraine, local celebrations were marred by violence. Sparked by the revival of a Soviet symbol in the form of a red flag, masked nationalists squared off with local pro-Russian and Communist groups, sparking a regional political scandal and providing continuing evidence of a deep cultural split between eastern and western Ukraine.

Authorities saw trouble coming in Lvov, which did not experience trouble for the first time this Victory Day, but local police did little to prevent the escalation of tensions between nationalists and pro-Russian political groups. Agitators from the Ukrainian nationalist Svoboda party rallied against popular symbols of Victory Day, turning those wearing the ubiquitous orange-and-black St. George ribbons away from the local Hill of Glory and desecrating a wreath that the Russian ambassador to Ukraine was supposed to later place at Lvov’s military cemetery. In many places violence broke out, occasionally pitting generally young, masked nationalist protestors against war veterans.

Local residents and eyewitnesses were seriously disturbed by the scenes of violence. Accusations broke out quickly on the popular social networking site Livejournal, where subscribers have uploaded candid and professional videos of the day’s events that show masked nationalists rocking busses holding veterans, burning flags and ribbons and clashing with police. Others, however, argued that pro-Russian protestors, who were bussed into the city for the event, played the chief role in igniting the fights in the streets. “I had hoped that the Lvovians would have the sobriety not to succumb to provocations [by the pro-Russian Russkoye Yedinstvo party],” wrote user ru-indeec, whose account was cited in the Livejournal’s round-up of the events in Lvov, but “when I saw what the [pro-Russian] ‘protestors’ were saying, any hope I had vanished without a trace.”

The Ukrainian nationalists in the region are radicals who certainly bear responsibility for the violent turn in yesterday’s events, said Volodymyr Fesenko, the head of Penta, a Kiev-based political think tank, but the government also played a part in letting events get out of hand. Fesenko noted that local riot police were too passive in their approach to the protestors, but said that more importantly, the revival of Soviet symbols by the country’s parliament created a powder keg in Lvov.

“This is a conflict about Ukraine’s historical issues,” said Fesenko. “In particular in Lvov most people don’t consider the ninth of May to be a holiday, because they consider the Soviet presence in Lvov to have been an occupation. In this case, the Upper Rada’s [Ukraine’s parliament] declaration of a red flag as an official symbol of Victory Day directly provoked yesterday’s conflicts.”

The revival of the Soviet relic and the Victory Day clashes have followed a period of detente between Russia and Ukraine, which has established better ties with its eastern neighbor since jettisoning the champions of the 2004 Orange Revolution, including ex-president Yulia Tymoshenko, from the government. During Viktor Yanukovych’s presidency, the Ukrainian parliament particularly angered nationalists by extending Russia’s lease on its Black Sea naval base in the Crimea in exchange for a significant discount on energy prices. The decision led to a breakdown in order in the parliament, where opposition politicians pelted deputies signing the deal with eggs and smoke bombs.

Members of the Svoboda nationalist political party, who hold a majority in the Lvov regional parliament, stayed on the attack today as they called an emergency session of the local parliament to discuss the culpability of the pro-Yanukovych governor, Mykhailo Tsymbalyuk in yesterday’s events. Tsymbalyuk has already offered his letter of resignation to the president, perhaps in anticipation of a vote by the local parliament that could relieve him of his authority.

Leading politicians in turn issued strong condemnations of yesterday’s nationalist activity. In Kiev, Yanukovych said yesterday that local national activists were agitating for the “sake of cheap popularity,” and that the government would “properly respond” to the situation. The Russian ambassador to Ukraine, who would have delivered a wreath to the national military academy in Lvov had it not been stomped on by Svoboda members, said that “all of these games on this day are an insult to the memory of those buried here, who sacrificed their lives to allow us to live in a normal society," reported the Kyiv Post.

With the two sides of Ukraine so divided over the issue of Ukraine’s historical relationship with the Soviet Union, it may seem that politicians must consciously decide whether to anger the west or the east of the country, while building a base of support in the other half. Yet Fesenko noted that while it’s difficult to unite the two sides of the country around an issue as divisive as Victory Day, practicing some restraint may mitigate the possible damage. “Of course there are going to be conflicts between the communists, pro-Russian organizations and the nationalists, but these arguments over the use of the red flags, which clearly would be seen as a provocation in the west, are completely avoidable, and they should be avoided when it’s possible for the government to do so,” said Fesenko.
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