Ukraine move to cede powers to pro-Russia rebels sparks deadly melee

Demonstrators waving flags of the nationalist Svoboda party clash with police during an Aug. 31 protest in front of the Ukrainian parliament in Kiev, opposing a bill granting autonomy to Ukraine's restive eastern regions.

Demonstrators waving flags of the nationalist Svoboda party clash with police during an Aug. 31 protest in front of the Ukrainian parliament in Kiev, opposing a bill granting autonomy to Ukraine’s restive eastern regions.

(Sergey Dolzhenko / European Pressphoto Agency)

A bill granting autonomy to Ukraine’s restive eastern regions cleared its first parliamentary hurdle on Monday but sparked a violent right-wing protest that left a national guardsman dead and more than 120 people injured.

The recently conscripted guardsman was killed when a grenade was thrown into a cordon of police and special forces guarding the Supreme Council in central Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, where lawmakers had just held a rowdy debate over the proposed decentralization of government.

The clashes outside parliament sent 122 people to the hospital, mostly police and guardsman, the Interior Ministry said in a statement.

Under a Feb. 12 peace agreement between the Ukrainian government and the Moscow-backed separatists occupying two large regions of eastern Ukraine, lawmakers are obliged to grant more autonomy to regional governments to allow them to decide their own economic and foreign policies.


Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen to have instigated the separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine when he sent paratroopers to Ukraine’s Crimea region in late February 2014 and seized the strategic Black Sea peninsula. Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014, stirring international protest over the forced change of established borders that led to the imposition of sanctions on Moscow a year ago.

Kremlin officials deny involvement in the war that has ravaged eastern Ukraine and left at least 6,800 dead over the last 16 months, according to United Nations’ estimates.

The bill debated Monday passed with 265 votes out of the 450-member Supreme Council but faced fierce opposition from nationalist parties, including some aligned with the political factions of President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk.

Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko denounced the measure as a capitulation to Putin’s sowing of separatist unrest in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.


“This is not a road to peace and not a road to decentralization,” Tymoshenko told fellow lawmakers. “This is the diametrically opposite process, which will lead to the loss of new territories.”

Radical Party leader Oleh Lyashko warned that granting autonomy to the rebel-held regions would be “a road to realization of Putin’s plan for destroying Ukraine.”

The right-wing Svoboda party, which holds only a handful of seats in the parliament, shouted down lawmakers who spoke in favor of the legislation as the sole path to resolving the conflict.

Svoboda supporters and masked figures from the Right Sector militia had converged outside the parliament building to protest the first step toward decentralizing governing powers. A reporter with the Kyiv Post estimated the crowd of demonstrators at 1,000, and police said 3,500 officers and guardsmen had been deployed to protect the elegant hilltop building.


Police used tear gas in an effort to disperse the angry protesters, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said in his account of the violence posted on his Facebook page. Protesters picked up the canisters and threw them back into the police cordon, and a hand grenade was also lobbed at the security forces, Avakov said.

Ukraine’s Ukrinform news agency said 30 protesters had been detained, including a “bomb thrower.”

Yatsenyuk went on live television to denounce the protesters as “worse” than the separatists for the internal discord they are sowing among political forces aligned with the Kiev government.

“The cynicism of this crime lies in the fact that while the Russian federation and its bandits are trying and failing to destroy the Ukrainian state on the eastern front, the so-called pro-Ukrainian political forces are trying to open another front in the country’s midst,” the prime minister lamented.


The decentralization bill easily passed the simple majority needed on the first vote, but a two-thirds majority -- at least 300 of the 450-seat Supreme Council -- will be necessary when the constitutional changes to implement it are considered later in the fall session of the parliament that begins Tuesday.

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