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Odessa’s #Magnitsky

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Almost three years since the start of events on Kyiv’s central square, the world still remembers what in Ukraine is known as the Euro-Maidan movement. Demonstrators forced former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich from power, but not before 100 demonstrators were shot and killed, becoming what my country’s new government calls 'The Holy Hundred'.  Less well-known in the West are the deaths of 50 demonstrators who perished in a fire in the southern port city of Odessa four months later.  But I remember, especially now that the authorities are charging my late colleague and friend with their deaths,
writes Nikolai Skorik.

Vyacheslav Markin was burned to death in the trade union house on Odessa’s Kulikova Field on 2 May, 2014.  Yet, through a perverse twist of logic, Odessa’s prosecutor saw fit to posthumously charge him last week of an act of mass murder in which Markin himself was a victim.  If you think this is strange, then you have only just begun to understand Ukrainian justice under a government of 'reform'.

What actually happened on Kulikovo Field?

After the fall of the Yanukovich government, politicians who had backed the Euro-Maidan movement seized the reins of power in Ukraine.  Some of these figures were reasonably popular in Kyiv, others in the West.  But Ukraine is not a monochromatic country, and many in the East felt they had lost their voice in the central government.  After all, a popularly elected government had been toppled and replaced by a self-appointed one.  There were protests throughout the East, including in Odessa.  Markin was one of those who protested.

On 2 May, a peaceful protest in Odessa was attacked by a band of radicals who supported the new Kyiv government.  Wearing masks and brandishing weapons, they chased the demonstrators across Kulikovo Field and into the trade union building.  Then the building, somehow, caught fire and 50, including Markin, were killed.

Prior to the events of the Euro-Maidan, Markin had been a member of parliament with the Party of Regions which supported former President Yanukovich.  In the new context, that made him a target.  Revolutions require enemies to sustain themselves, and stomping out any trace of the previous government became an obsession of the interim government, which is a little ironic since current President Petro Poroshenko has himself been a member of the Party of Regions.  Polarization became extreme and, to some, violence in pursuit of continued revolution seemed somehow acceptable.

Odessa is a region of vitality and contrasts.  I know this well because I served as its governor before the flamboyant former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, whose appointment continues to captivate the imagination of some international media especially now that he has resigned.  It is a dynamic and politically diverse place, but not one that is generally hospitable to extremism.  That is why what happened on the margins of Kulikovo Field that evening shocked the conscience of my country.  Others, including the European Parliament and the European Court of Human Rights, have also expressed their outrage in resolutions and inquests over the past two and a half years.

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But equally shocking and outrageous is the attempt of the current authorities to pin the blame for the deaths on Markin.  It echoes the efforts of authorities in our northern neighbor, Russia, to posthumously charge the late attorney Sergei Magnitsky – the namesake of US and European sanctions against Russia – with embezzlement after he died in pre-trial detention for exposing the theft in the first place.  Silence by any means the inconvenient voices and stain their legacy, so goes the logic.

Meanwhile, not a single charge has been levied against anyone for the shootings of the Holy Hundred in Kyiv.  That is apparently a more complex matter, because it is closer to the scrutiny of the international community.  Perhaps this charade in Odessa is a trial balloon, an effort to see how much the new authorities can get away with in a world that itself often seems to be on fire.  Who will be charged next?  It’s hard to tell.  But the insult to Markin’s memory that these recent charges raise is a dark sign indeed.

So long as “justice” is little more than a weapon to be used against political opponents, the promise of reform that the Euro-Maidan revolution made lacks credibility at its very core.

Nikolai Skorik served as governor of the Odessa oblast from November 2013 to March 2014 and is currently a member of Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada, or national parliament, with the Opposition Bloc.

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