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What Does Renewed Political Violence Mean for the Future of Ukraine?

A string of suicides and murders points to growing political instability in Ukraine.
April 19, 2015, 4:10pm

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

On April 14, former Ukrainian parliamentarian Oleg Kalashnikov sent an e-mail to a friend saying he was receiving a "regular dose of threats and insults," and complaining of "the genocide of dissent, threats of physical destruction, and constant, dirty affronts" in Ukraine today. The next day, he was shot dead on his doorstep. One day later, journalist and historian Oles Buzina was killed in a drive-by shooting outside his home in Kyiv. Both were vocal opponents of Ukraine's post-revolutionary government.

A member of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych's defunct Party of Regions, in the weeks before his murder Kalashnikov was under investigation for organizing violent anti-protest groups during the EuroMaidan Revolution, and for supporting subsequent separatist movements. Buzina was a well-known critic of the new government and had become popular among opponents of the EuroMaidan Revolution. Last month he compared the current administration's strategies in dealing with political opponents to those of the Yanukovych regime.

The two killings are the latest in a spate of murders and suicides of members of Ukraine's opposition. In addition to Kalashnikov and Buzina, seven former Party of Regions officials have been killed or committed suicide since the beginning of the year. Investigations into five of the seven officials' deaths are ongoing, though the government has been reluctant to disclose substantive information about them; when Maxim Tucker from _Newsweek_asked the General Prosecutor's Office about the former officials, he was told that their deaths are a state secret.

The investigation into the murder of former Odessa prosecutor Sergei Melnychuk, who fell to his death from his eighth-floor apartment on March 22, raised concerns about law enforcement's diligence and transparency: police initially reported the death as a suicide, despite the fact that they had been called to the scene to respond to neighbors' reports of a fight. Mykhailo Minakov, a professor at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, held that several of the deaths that have been ruled suicides are in fact quite "dubious."

President Petro Poroshenko has dubbed Buzina's and Kalashnikov's deaths "a deliberate provocation that plays into our enemies' hands."

The secrecy surrounding the investigations into the officials' deaths has brought lingering divisions in Ukrainian society to the fore, Minakov explained to VICE in an email, "provok[ing] deeper cleavages in Ukrainian society, where supporters of the Maidan program [constitute] barely over 50 percent of the population." The "absence of trustworthy information," he argued, has created "an atmosphere of mutual suspicion in Ukraine."

Since Yanukovych was overthrown in February of 2014, the post-revolutionary government has had difficulty erasing longstanding political allegiances to pro-Russian political parties among certain segments of the population, particularly in the country's war-ravaged east. And across Ukraine, the government has struggled to gain the confidence of its people. In a poll conducted in mid-March, 79 percent of Ukrainians called the political situation "fragile." One-third of respondents approved of President Petro Poroshenko's job performance, and only one-quarter approved of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk's performance.

"The Poroshenko government is in a difficult position because when it makes concessions to people in the eastern regions, it loses support from people in the west, and vice versa," Paul Stronski, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told VICE.

The late Oleg Kalashnikov. Photo credit: Yuriy Kirnichny / Getty Images

Though the investigation into Kalashnikov's death is in its infancy, Anton Gerashchenko, a member of Ukraine's parliament and an advisor to the minister of the interior wrote in a Facebook post that, among other motives, police were considering the former Party of Regions MP's "political activity, including in connection with the organization and financing" of protests in support of the Yanukovych regime during the EuroMaidan movement. He said the circumstances surrounding Kalashnikov's and Buzina's murders were "similar."

Stronski believes the wave of recent deaths, regardless of who is to blame, is cause for concern: "The political violence we've seen in Ukraine recently is very worrying and it underscores the fragility of the new government," he said.

The deaths have elicited a "mixed reaction from the [current] establishment in Kiev," according to Minakov. Borislav Bereza, a current MP and former press secretary of the nationalist "Right Sector" group, wondered whether Ukraine is "turning into Al Capone's Chicago or simply returning to the tumultuous 90s." The "wave of banditry, political murders, the rampancy of crime," he said, "must be stopped."

Some in Ukraine have celebrated the opposition leaders' deaths: in March, after four opposition officials had died, Gerashchenko called the string of suicides a "positive moment." "Finally," he announced on live television, "we are seeing the principle of the inevitability of punishment arise in Ukraine."

Ukrainian MP Mustafa Nayyem, one of the leaders of civil society during the EuroMaidan Movement, struck back against those who celebrated the recent murders. "I don't like murder. Even of those who are the most unpleasant, unloving, and hateful to me. But I have even greater contempt for those who take pleasure in these murders and deaths," he wrote in a Facebook post.

What little information is available about the killings has been highly politicized by the Russian and Ukrainian leadership: During his annual televised call-in show on Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the killings were politically motivated, using the opportunity to question the Kyiv government's European aspirations: "this isn't the first political assassination. In Ukraine, there has been a whole series of these murders... in Ukraine, which claims to be a democratic government, and is trying to move towards democratic Europe [the investigation and arrest of the perpetrators] isn't happening."

In a statement on Thursday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko dubbed Buzina's and Kalashnikov's deaths "a deliberate provocation that plays into our enemies' hands," calling on law enforcement "to find the perpetrators and organizers of the recent murders as soon as possible." Gerashchenko announced that he could "not rule out that these murders are organized by Russian special services to create an atmosphere of terror in Kyiv." Other government leaders and members of civil society have echoed this sentiment, suggesting that the murders were an act of provocation by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB).

Related: Ukraine Burning

Corresponding theories quickly proliferated: Ukrainian journalist Denis Kazansky posited that Buzin's murder was designed to look like the February murder of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, giving the Kremlin an opportunity to reflect its own problems onto Ukraine, and discredit the government in Kyiv in the eyes of the international community. Others suggested that the officials, most of whom were being investigated for crimes committed under the previous administration, chose to kill themselves rather than face a lengthy trial and prison sentence—what one Ukrainian journalist called a "harsh form of lustration."

As the death toll among opposition leaders climbs, observers fear that the violence will spiral out of control. Minakov warned that Buzina's murder in particular might "provoke a chain-reaction leading to more tragedies in peaceful parts of Ukraine" because of his popularity among anti-Maidan supporters.

Nestor Shufrich, an MP in the "Opposition Bloc," the successor party to the Party of Regions, offered a more ominous warning: "The current leaders of the country would be wise to remember, that in the history of humanity, political terror in the end turns against those who indulged in it."

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