The murder of a pro-Russian opposition politician and a journalist in Kyiv threaten to further divide Ukraine. While many are pointing the finger at Moscow, others are blaming the government for not doing enough.
It is bitter cold. Rain mixed with sleet is pelting down on red carnations in front of a high-rise building. An elderly woman passes by, stops, bends down and sets the candles, overturned by the wind, upright again. Here, near the center of Kyiv, Ukrainian writer Oles Buzyna was shot dead last Thursday in broad daylight.
Murderers among us
"I respect him," says the woman, a neighbor, who asked to remain anonymous. "He told the truth, so they killed him." She means those who have been in power since the revolution in Ukraine a year ago. Buzyna was one of their opponents. The 45-year-old wrote non-fiction books, newspaper editorials and was a passionate proponent of Ukraine as part of a "Russian empire." Most recently, he was attacked in Russian talk shows because of his sharp tongue.
Another neighbor, out for a walk with her dog, thinks Russian intelligence agencies were responsible for Buzyna's death. "President (Vladimir) Putin knew about it before we did," says the woman in her early fifties, shrugging her shoulders.
Indeed, the Kremlin chief spoke about the murder in Kyiv during a live broadcast on Russian television only about an hour after it had taken place.
"Many in our building did not share Buzyna's views, but we got along well, there were never any conflicts," the neighbor said.
The presumed assassination of the controversial journalist is particularly sensitive. Only a day earlier, on Wednesday evening, opposition politician Oleh Kalashnikov was shot dead in the Ukrainian capital. He too articulated Kremlin-friendly views. The 52-year-old was a former member of parliament for the pro-Russian Party of Regions.
When the pro-Western opposition engaged in street protests in Kyiv in the winter of 2013-14, Kalashnikov joined the opposite event, the so-called "anti-Maidan." "Here, an attempt is being made to carry out a coup," he told DW in January 2014. The Ukrainian activists on the Maidan, Kyiv's central Independence Square, called Kalashnikov a "radical and terrorist."
Did Buzyna and Kalashnikov pay for their political views with their lives? This question is being hotly debated right now in Ukraine.
A letter from a group of Ukrainian nationalists supposedly claims responsibility for this and other killings of pro-Russian politicians. The group calls itself the "Ukrainian Insurgent Army," or UPA. There actually was an organization of that name in Western Ukraine during the Second World War. It fought against the Soviet Union, but its members collaborated in part with Nazi Germany. But the SBU, the Ukrainian intelligence service, says the claim of responsibility is a fake.
The murders of Buzyna and Kalashnikov are the latest in a series. Ukrainian media have tallied around a dozen murders and suicides of members of the former ruling class in less than a year. That is why the government is now taking unusual measures:
Opposition politician Olena Bondarenko has received police protection. "I have to leave Kyiv," she told DW by telephone. She did not want to reveal her current location. The 41-year-old lawmaker and former member of the Party of Regions is known for her pro-Russian views. But she evidently does not see herself as being in acute danger. "Now the police are more worried about me than I am," she said.
Bondarenko sees a connection between the recent killings in Kyiv and previous cases: "They were all opponents of the government." She says she considers it premature to speculate about who was behind the deaths, but says the government has a responsibility, because "it could not guarantee the security of its citizens and opposition politicians."
This is not new. Especially between 1993 and 2005, high-profile murders were carried out again and again in Ukraine. Prominent opposition politicians and businessmen, but also journalists, were killed by gunmen, died in car accidents or allegedly committed suicide. Most cases were never fully explained.
A new wave of hatred
The two recent murders have further fueled the already tense atmosphere in Ukraine. In early April, the parliament in Kyiv adopted several controversial laws that among other things prohibit communist and Nazi symbols and honor Ukrainian nationalists. Especially in eastern and southern Ukraine, these laws provoked much criticism. Whether on television talk shows or social networks, the division in the country has become noticeably deeper. Not infrequently, Ukrainian activists and ordinary citizens even go so far as to praise the killings of pro-Russian politicians, whom they consider "traitors."
In the meantime, notable writers like Serhiy Rachmanin of the Kyiv "Mirror Weekly " have been calling for tolerance. When a part of the population is happy about calls for murder, Rachmanin wrote in a recent issue, it is "a gift for the Kremlin." Such appeals, however, seem to have had little effect.