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Violent Clashes at Ukraine’s Parliament as Lawmakers Debate Autonomy for Eastern Ukraine

Violence returned to Kiev on Monday as protesters lobbed firecrackers, molotov cocktails, and grenades at national guardsmen and riot police outside Ukraine's parliament.

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This post was updated on Sept.1, 2015 at 9:40am

Violence returned to Kiev on Monday as protesters lobbed firecrackers, molotov cocktails, and grenades at national guardsmen and riot police outside Ukraine’s parliament, injuring 120 and killing three, according to the Ukrainian Interior Ministry. The violence erupted shortly after a majority of lawmakers gave their initial approval to a bill that that would give greater autonomy to the areas of eastern Ukraine held by Russian-backed rebels.

Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said some 30 people had been detained and that more arrests would follow. The explosives were being hurled from protesters who had been gathered outside parliament for hours demonstrating against the decentralization vote and who turned violent once news of the bill’s passing reached the crowds. Many of the protesters were carrying banners and wearing t-shirts of the ultra-nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) Party, a right-wing party from Western Ukraine who fears the loss of territory to Russian-backed rebels, and Avakov took to Facebook to criticize Svoboda leader Oleh Tyahnybok and blame the nationalist party for the attack.  

“Tell me, how does Svoboda differ from the bastards who shoot at our national guard at the front?” Avakov wrote, referring to the separatists who have been engaged in a 16 month conflict in eastern Ukraine. Avakov identified the grenade thrower as a Svoboda member who fought in eastern Ukraine in one of the volunteer battalions which are loosely under government authority.

Footage of the clash, shot from within the parliament building, appeared online shortly afterwards. The video captures the intensity of the violence, showing explosives reign down on the guards and police.

In a statement, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk also spoke out against the Svoboda party, saying the attack proves that the party is “worse than the Russian gangsters and terrorists in the East” and that “at a time when the Russian Federation and its thugs are trying to destroy the Ukrainian state … the so-called ‘pro-Ukrainian’ political forces are trying to open a second front in the country.”

Speaking during a televised address Monday night, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko vowed to hold the attackers accountable and said the violence was motivated by populism “for the sake of advertising their party banners” ahead of Oct. 25 local elections. 

At issue is a bill that would give Luhansk and Donetsk greater autonomy from Kiev in order to pass their own laws. Deputies held a heated debate over the bill earlier Monday, with the session highlighting the sharp divisions within Poroshenko’s pro-western coalition. Dozens of lawmakers from the right-wing Radical Party, a member of the coalition, likened passing the bill to treason before briefly blocking off the speaker’s podium, shouting “shame!”, and thumping their benches in protest.

Opponents of the bill said it played into Russia’s hands and would lead to Ukraine losing permanent control over Luhansk and Donetsk, large areas of which are controlled by rebel forces. Pushing through the bill, however, is part of the Minsk cease-fire deal signed in February by the Ukrainian government, pro-Russian rebels, and Russia. Poroshenko is under pressure to institute the controversial reforms by Kiev’s Western allies, who see them as a way to end the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine that has claimed over 6,800 lives.

Still, passing the final reforms will be a tall order for Poroshenko. The first reading of the bill passed Monday with 265 deputies in favor — 39 more than is required. But if the Ukrainian president is to succeed with the second and final reading later this year, he will need the support of 300 of parliament’s 450 deputies. Poroshenko is also preparing to bring other elements of the Minsk agreement before parliament, including local elections, before the end of the year. Given the dissent and violence shown Monday, the president is in for an uphill fight.

SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan

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