Tensions high in Ukraine in spite of agreement

Tension remains high in Ukraine, in spite of announcements of a possible agreement on a solution among Russia, Ukraine, the European Union and the United States, reached in Geneva on Thursday. The problem is that there was no involvement of disaffected elements from primarily Russian-speaking communities in Eastern Ukraine in the talks that led to the announcement. Though U.S. government spokespersons talk about the protesters in the East as if they were all puppets of Russian President Vladimir Putin, there is little indication that he can order them to stop their agitation against the Kiev regime.

Over the past several days, there have been militant actions in more communities in the Ukrainian East, many involving the physical seizure of town halls and administrative centers by armed groups. Calling the protesters “terrorists,” the interim prime minister in Kiev, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, offered groups which have been occupying city halls a chance to hand over their arms, leave the facilities and accept an amnesty. Otherwise, Yatsenyuk said, the Ukrainian army would move in to oust them by force.

The protesters did not accept this and continue with their occupations. The threatened Ukrainian army intervention turned out to be something short of glorious. In at least one town, Kramatorsk, the Ukrainian troops surrendered to the dissidents, who captured their armored personnel carriers. There were also reports of Ukrainian army troops going over to the dissident side. (In the Crimea, now integrated into Russia, some of the Ukrainian soldiers evidently integrated themselves in the Russian army).

There have been some deaths. On Thursday night a crowd of about 300 dissidents are said to have surrounded a Ukrainian military base in Mariupol, with some throwing homemade bombs at the gate. Troops opened fire on them, killing three. There have been other deaths of both dissidents and pro-Kiev people.

On Thursday, tensions were increased when it was revealed that parties unknown had been passing out a flyer, purportedly from the dissident leadership of Donetsk, which ordered all Jews to register, provide a detailed accounting of all property they own, and pay a $50.00 fee to the dissident government, or risk having their citizenship revoked and being deported. However, local officials denied that this flyer had been issued by the People’s Republic of Donetsk leadership, and pointed out several discrepancies in the phrasing. Most observers now think that this was either a provocation designed to make the dissidents in the East look bad, or a money making scheme by criminal elements. Statements by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt, however, suggested some credence in the authenticity of the documents.

Ukraine, and Eastern Europe generally, have been hotbeds of anti-Semitism over the years , and Oleh Tyahnybok, a main leader of the ultra-right Svoboda party that participates in the interim government in Kiev, is known for public anti-Semitic statements. The flyers may have been inspired, though, from events in nearby Hungary, where a parliamentarian of the ultra right Jobbik party actually did call for such registration by all Hungarian Jews.  

Whoever the authors of the pamphlets and whatever their intentions, this is one more incident which keeps tension high.

Meanwhile, in Kiev, there are indications of tension between Yatsenyuk’s government and some of the extreme right-wing groups that brought it to power in February. The Geneva agreement includes the Ukrainian government adopting language guaranteeing official status for the Russian as well as Ukrainian languages, and allows for some administrative decentralization, although not as much as the Russian-speaking easterners want. These items are likely to annoy the ultra rightists in the Svoboda party and the Right Sector.

But a bigger division in the ruling alliance looms with the issue of demands by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that to get financial help, Yatsenyuk’s government is going to have to impose extreme austerity measures on its population, in a country that is already the poorest in Europe.  

The disturbances that led to the overthrow of the previous president, Victor Yanukovych, were originally protests over his having rejected a deal with the European Union which would have provided credits in exchange for such austerity measures, and accepted an alternate offer from Russia which was much more lenient. The demonstrations that started last December originally backed a demand to accept the European Union agreement. However the ultra right is nationalistic and “anti-Europe,” and joined the demonstrations as an opportunity to raise hell and destabilize the country, as well as out of anti-Russian feelings, not because they have any use for the European Union. Actual implementation of the IMF plan will strengthen the resolve of the Russian-speaking protesters in the East not to give in to the Kiev government, while also antagonizing the far right in the rest of the country.

Photo: A soldier from the Ukrainian Army speaks with local residents in the town of Kramatorsk April 16. Pro-Russian insurgents commandeered six Ukrainian armored vehicles along with their crews and hoisted Russian flags over them Wednesday, dampening the interim Kiev government’s hopes of re-establishing control over restive eastern Ukraine. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)



Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.