Wednesday 20 Feb 2019 | 16:04 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 20 Feb 2019 | 16:04 | SYDNEY

Restless in Odessa



29 May 2015 15:26

For the Ukrainian Government, the EU summit in Riga, Latvia, last Friday was a bitter pill. EU leaders dashed hopes for fast a track to Ukraine's membership. Kiev received non-committal promises about a visa liberalisation program and pledges of €1.8 billion in loans (national debt has almost reached 100% of GDP). But even this is dependent on structural reform and anti-corruption measures that the country has proved unable to make in twenty-five years of independence.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was visibly disappointed. 'During these (past) 18 months, the Ukrainian people...made a revolution of dignity, and paid a very high price for their European choice', The Guardian quoted him as saying.

Odessa Harbour. (Flickr/mikesub.)

But this result was plain in April when European Council President Donald Tusk and President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker met Poroshenko in Kiev. As a prominent pro-EU Ukrainian oligarch is said to have put it then: 'Couldn't you have told us this before 6000 people died in the Donbass?'

Ukraine remains deeply divided over its European future. Last week I was in Odessa, a city of a million and Ukraine's busiest port. At traffic intersections, billboards carried Poroshenko's portrait with an EU flag fluttering in the background. 'Poroshenko for a European future!' was the message. On the second day, the mayor presided over a thinly attended pro-EU ceremony. That Odessa is a European city was on every official's lips. But Odessa is no less a culturally Russian city. The lingua franca — indeed, the only language I heard spoken on the streets — is Russian.

A Ukrainian analyst explained the city's complex identity politics. 'Most inhabitants don't have a strong connection with Ukraine as a state', she said. 'They came here as settlers after the Russian conquest (in 1794) — refugees from serfdom, Bulgarians, Greeks, Albanians, Germans, invited by Catherine II. They remained grateful to the Russian Empire for the land they received.'

This doesn't necessarily translate into support for Russian annexation.

'There are many pro-Russians', she said. 'But those who are pro-Putin are very few. Most of those who are pro-Russian are in fact pro-Soviet. It's about nostalgia for one big country, the absence of borders, for a time when the rest of the world respected us.'

These divisions resulted in tragedy a year ago. On 2 May 2014, around 45 pro-Russian demonstrators were incinerated inside Odessa's Trades Union Building in a fire allegedly lit by opposing demonstrators. The city is still restless. 'Troublemakers spies and terrorists...stir up anti-Ukrainian sentiment at public markets and on public transport', our analyst said. 'If Kharkhov goes, Odessa will be next. Anything could still happen.' The city has recently experienced a series of bomb blasts, though no one has been killed.

Odessa's tangle of language, history and identity was visible in other ways.

Competing with the Ukrainian Army recruiting posters (in Ukrainian), billboards bearing the Soviet hammer and sickle wished the locals happy Victory Day (in Russian). Commemorating the seventieth anniversary of the USSR's victory over Nazi Germany, the posters seemingly thumbed their noses at a recent law making it a crime to deny the 'criminal character of the communist totalitarian regime of 1917-1991 in Ukraine'.

According to an international observer, local sentiment is 'about 60:40 pro-Russian', although the majority, she said, are 'not so much pro-Russian as pro-federalist...They're not interested in being ruled by Moscow. They want more regional autonomy and are critical of the new authorities in Kiev. For this, they're seen as traitors (by the pro-unity side).'

Each party defined itself in reference to the Second World War. Pro-unity Ukrainian nationalists are engaged in a battle 'to prevent the Soviet Union taking over the country again'. Federalists see themselves as 'saving the city from the Fascists, the way the Red Army did'. There is 'total confusion about historical reality', she said. 'But the Ukrainian famine (1932-3) isn't part of the dispute. It's all about the War.'

She also worried about press freedom in Odessa. 'There are plenty of news outlets', she said. 'But only one has been targeted by police.' The day before, journalists at a pro-federalist website had been charged with Article 100 of the Ukrainian criminal code ('An attack on the unity of Ukraine').

The conflict of narratives — and identities — also reaches into the local history museum. In the middle of the hall dedicated to the Second World War, surrounded by Red Army battle standards and Soviet wartime memorabilia labelled in Russian, were twenty-eight or so portraits bordered in blue and yellow remembering the local men killed fighting pro-Russian rebels in Donetsk. 'War for the Defence of Ukraine', read the accompanying sign in Ukrainian.

One observer criticised the EU's tendency to downplay these tensions and to assume that the whole country was united behind the Government's Europhile rhetoric. 'Public opinion in Ukraine is much more divided than Brussels would like to imagine', he said. 'Europe has created certain expectations, whereas the reality is much more complex.'

Odessa is not necessarily Ukraine. By pushing the 'pause' button, Brussels will disappoint many. But it will also give a divided country a chance to figure out its past as well as its future.