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ODESSA, Ukraine — Walk up to the motley encampment of pro-Russian, anti-Maidan activists set up outside the stately, columned Odessa trade union building and the first question that gets put to an out-of-towner isn’t political or military.
“Nice building, huh? Want to buy it?” said the man, who gave his name as Vanya. “For you, very cheap. I could trade a bridge. Maybe the Brooklyn Bridge?”
It’s light humor in dark times and in a city like Odessa renowned for its dark humor, sharp wit and wily commerce, these are days of growing shadows.
This legendary Black Sea port has served as a crossroads for centuries — for imperial Russia, for the Soviet Union, for independent Ukraine — and the diversity of its populace is reflected in its architecture, its commercial outlook and its reputation for tolerance.
That tolerance is beginning to be tested, though, as Ukraine grapples with possible default and convulses under uprisings in the east; uprisings that most assume are Kremlin-instigated but that have found fertile ground among disaffected ethnic Russians here.
“We’re worried like everyone, but I just don’t see us being clones of [what’s happening] in Donetsk or Lugansk,” said Irina Rosokhatskaya, a director at the Odessa Regional Historical Museum.
Odessa is Ukraine’s fourth-largest city in population, exceeding Donetsk, the city in the eastern Donbass region at the center of the instability that many fear will lead to war with Russia. On the surface, the port appears to be a busy city of sycamores, sailors, sidewalk cafes and cobblestones. In mid-April, it's a city gearing up for the busy tourist season, more focused on making money than overthrowing governments or fomenting separatist uprisings.
But the turmoil roiling other parts of the country may be starting to intrude. Concerns are growing for a host of reasons: the city’s size; its ethnic Russian population; its proximity to Transnistria, the unrecognized Moldovan separatist region that has been propped up by Russia for more than two decades; and its importance for exporting Ukrainian goods, as well as many Russian goods, such as weaponry.
In recent weeks, there have been several competing demonstrations: pro-Ukrainian, in support of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and pro-Russian, in support of the push for greater autonomy in the east and against what are seen as radical nationalists in the Kyiv government. Earlier this month, dozens of Ukrainian activists draped in blue-and-yellow flags rallied on the city’s Potemkin Steps, made famous in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film “Battleship Potemkin,” about a Russian sailor uprising.
In another part of the city, meanwhile, hundreds of people gathered near the city’s branch of the federal security service, waving Russian flags, singing the Russian national anthem and wearing St. George’s ribbons, a brown-and-orange ribbon symbolizing Soviet heroics during World War II.
On April 17, meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin signaled that from Moscow’s perspective, many parts of today’s Ukraine, and other former Soviet republics, in fact belong to a historic Russian empire. He included Odessa in that formulation.
“It’s New Russia. Kharkiv, Lugansk, Donetsk, Odessa were not part of Ukraine in czarist times, they were transferred in 1920. Why? God knows. Then for various reasons these areas were gone, and the people stayed there,” he said in a question-and-answer event shown live on state television.
Over the weekend of April 12, anti-Semitic graffiti appeared in a graveyard belonging to the city’s once-thriving, now-dwindling Jewish community, according to an official at the city’s central synagogue. That Sunday, men, some wearing masks, burned flags belonging to the nationalist group Right Sector and overturned a car near the local office of the political party, Svoboda, which has espoused nationalist rhetoric in the past.
Outside the Odessa House of Trade Unions, a low-key tent camp has popped in recent weeks, with Russian flags and smaller flags reading “I speak Russian!” flying atop small flagpoles. One sign hanging from a tent read “Ukraine, Russia, Belarus: We are One People!”
At midday on a recent work day, a handful of people leaned on the small stage watching a flat-screen TV as it broadcast a Russian state news program about the declining the Ukrainian currency and predictions of economic collapse. Men nearby, some wearing flak jackets, some wearing camouflage, chopped wood for small barrel fires and a woman handed out bowels of buckwheat porridge, pickles and brown bread. A group of the activists cracked jokes about Americans buying up Odessa real estate and blamed Ukraine’s turmoil on “Kyiv radicals.”
‘Conflict is coming’
Alyona Bakiniva, a 41-year-old studying forensic accounting at the regional Interior Ministry’s training institute, said the Maidan protests that ousted President Viktor Yanukovych in Feburary were justified in the beginning — fueled in part by resentment toward rampant government corruption — but then spun out of control, she said, due to extremist groups like Right Sector.
“In Kyiv, on Maidan, you had Right Sector, extremists, fascists, rioting, overthrowing the government and they’re now heroes?” she said. “Meanwhile, we’re standing up for our rights, protecting our own, and they call us separatists? They call us bandits? Or we don’t count? What’s that all about?”
“Odessa’s always been a tolerant city, but now things are different. I think conflict is coming, maybe war,” said Sergei Yurievich, a 42-year-old bricklayer.
In the center of town, meanwhile, in a basement office in a leafy courtyard off a side street, another group of activists — local business owners and others — have formed an organization called “Civil Security” aimed at preventing the events that erupted in Donetsk and elsewhere. Ruslan Forostyak, who runs a maritime electronics business , said he was confident his organization, and the city’s business community, would act to keep outsiders from instigating violence or unrest. For example, he said over the weekend, his group intercepted a bus carrying some 40 people, mainly men, some carrying weapons like shotguns who were heading to join the fight in Donetsk, turned the bus around and persuaded the group to disperse.
“This situation [in Donetsk and Odessa] isn’t spontaneous or natural. It’s all controlled and paid for by certain elites,” he said. “We’re critical of the government too, but let’s reckon with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin first, then we’ll deal with our own problems.”
Across the border
The dozens of nationalities that have mixed for centuries in Odessa have given it a reputation for tolerance that today’s residents speak proudly of. The city gained a reputation as a smugglers’ haven during the Soviet era when capitalism was quashed under the socialist experiment. Its port facilities — container, cargo, oil and gas, cruise ship — are among the largest in the Black Sea, and nearly all ship traffic has been rerouted to Odessa since Russia’s annexation of Crimea all but shut down its ports.
In the Soviet era and after, Odessa was also renowned for its dark, wry humor, giving birth to some of the Soviet Union’s most beloved comics. An old jalopy of a car recently spotted driving around the city with a small billboard attached to its roof captured that vibe, poking fun at the recent referendum held in Crimea that resulted in Crimea being annexed by Russia, saying instead: “We want a referendum! For Russia to unite with Odessa!”
Haim Antsifirov, an assistant to the chief rabbi at the Odessa Central Synagogue, said he hadn’t seen any noticeable worry about the events in Donetsk or Kyiv. The graffiti that appeared in the Jewish cemetery over the weekend, he said, sparked immediate concern, until a local representative of Right Sector called the synagogue, disavowed any involvement in the graffiti, and even, Antsifirov said, cleaned it up.
“People here are more inclined to trade, make money, haggle rather than pick up pitchforks and torches,” he said.
Most people, he added, are also aware of the presence of thousands of Russian troops based in Transdniestr, less than 50 miles from Odessa’s outskirts.
The troops from Russia’s 14th Army have been based as peacekeepers in the Russian-speaking region since the early 1990s when war nearly broke out with Moldova. The region’s government is unrecognized anywhere, and has cultivated a reputation for contraband goods including weaponry and cigarettes, as well as human trafficking: mainly women trafficked as prostitutes into Europe.
NATO’s top military commander last month said the alliance was concerned that Moscow may seek to annex Transdniestr, similar to what happened in the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea. The Transdniestran government has declared its desire to unite with Russia many time, the latest coming on April 16.
“There is absolutely sufficient [Russian] force postured on the eastern border of Ukraine to run to Transdniestr if the decision was made to do that and that is very worrisome,” U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove told reporters March 23.
Still, Antsifirov said the Russians have no basis or motivation to intervene in Odessa or otherwise repeat a “Crimean scenario.” Even if they did, they would find a tough audience among independent- and tough-minded Odessans, he said. “People here don’t have any use for Russia. They wouldn’t work for them, give them anything, do anything for them.”
Winding among rolling farm fields, blossoming apple trees, acres of vineyards and ramshackle villages, the porous border between Ukraine and Transdniestr is by all accounts more of a concept than a hard reality for local residents. In Kuchurgani, a village sitting astride the main highway between Odessa and the Transdniestr city of Tiraspol, border guards ignored locals riding bicycles across, while stopping cars and trucks. Wood smoke from villagers burning branches, leaves and winter blow-downs drifted over the border post.
Slava Emifovich, who splits time between driving a taxi and running a cafe just yards from the actual border, said guards started carrying automatic weapons not long ago, and sandbags are now piled up on either side of the gates.
“The only political question people are worried about around here is the price of gas, and electricity and food and the currency rate,” Emifovich said. “People aren’t worried of annexation. They’re worried because they don’t know how they’re going to feed their families.”
Bordered by Ukraine on one side and Moldova on the other, Transdniestr has virtually no economy to speak of, aside from contraband and smuggling. Of its 350,000 residents, those who are of working age for the most part spend their days commuting to Odessa or the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, to make a living. The ongoing crisis in Ukraine has made working in Odessa harder, as the weakening Ukrainian currency makes meager salaries even smaller.
“How many people died on Maidan? Nothing’s changed. It’s only gotten worse,” said Vitya Kilianchuk, 21, who until recently earned less than $100 a month commuting from Tiraspol to Odessa to wash cars. “Everyone’s blaming Russia for the problems. Ukraine’s itself to blame. It caused its own problems.”