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Oksana Makar: can her shocking death change anything in Ukraine?

Makar(edited).jpg

The gruesome murder of Oksana Makar has sent shockwaves around Ukraine, with supporters of the death penalty calling for its reinstatement, and a public outcry that has brought the case to national and global attention. Aleksey Matsuka discusses the implications of Oksana Makar’s death and what it tells us about Ukrainian society.

Aleksey Matsuka
12 April 2012

On the night of 8-9 March, Oksana Makar was brutally raped by three men in her home city of Mykolaiv in the southern Ukraine. When she threatened to go to the police, the men strangled her and then, thinking she was dead, decided to burn her corpse.

She was, however, still alive and lay for ten hours before being discovered with horrific burns on 55% of her body. She was taken to a specialist burns unit in Donetsk, where doctors tried to save her life, but she died three weeks later from bleeding in her lungs, which had been severely damaged during her ordeal.

Oksana’s mother, Tatyana Surovitskaya, who went with her to Donetsk, collected money to pay for her daughter’s treatment, but in fact put it in a deposit account, as the treatment was covered by the burns unit and contributions from charities. At the hospital Surovitskaya recorded a video of her daughter on her mobile phone. ‘They should be shot, and their balls torn off and fed to the dogs. Or just send them to prison and see what happens to them there!’, was the young woman’s verdict on her attackers.

Was Makar to blame for her own murder?

Ukrainians are surprisingly divided into two camps about Oksana – those who sympathise and those who condemn - and she is the subject of passionate discussion on the internet and social networks. Protest meetings held by her supporters have been attracting large numbers of people, but her attackers also have their vociferous followers. People are forming social networking groups for hot debates about the moral aspect of the Makar case.

‘I’m on their side! They are heroes! Nineteen years old and trailing around bars, the slut! Fact! Served the bitch right!’

‘Ilya P’ writing on Vkontakte social network 

The social networking site VKontakte had a group called ‘Oksana Makar… (for Justice)’ . Its moderator, Ilya P. , from Pervomaisk in the Donetsk region, wrote on the group’s wall: ‘I’m on their side! They are heroes! Nineteen years old and trailing around bars, the slut! Fact! Served the bitch right!’  He doesn’t just support the rapists, who are in police custody, but is demanding their release. ‘Free the lads!’ he proclaims, as he drags the dead woman’s name through the mud.

Oksana Makar's mother controversially filmed her dying daughter in hospital. In a clearly distressed state, Makar says of her attackers: ‘They should be shot, and their balls torn off and fed to the dogs'

Katarina P., from Russia, is also active in their defence, collecting donations towards the cost of hiring lawyers, as well as aid for their families and for ‘work with the media’.  Money may even be raised for the suspects Prisyazhnyuk, Pogosyan and Krasnoshchok’s bail.

Another group on ‘VKontakte’ interested in the rapists’ fate is called ‘Oksana Makar Surovitskaya.  Free exchange of Opinions’, run by a Donetsk journalist  who signs herself  ‘Sana’.

The national TV channel 24-TV ran a poll, asking ‘Was Makar herself in any way responsible for this tragic event?’ Of those polled, 77% answered ‘Yes’, 22% ‘No’.

The untouchables

Ukraine’s president Viktor Yanukovich and Prime Minister Nikolay Azarov have called for ‘just punishment’ for the accused: ‘No compromises. Only with the knowledge that punishment is inevitable will these monsters fear to encroach on people’s lives and rights.’ Despite the government’s swift reaction, however, Yanukovich and his administration have not been able to make any political capital out of the case. Indeed, early reports of the crime were quick to point out links between the rapists and Yanukovich’s own party, the Party of the Regions – one of the accused, it appeared, was a member of the party’s youth wing. Later media coverage, however, played down this connection.

Ukraine abolished the death penalty in 2000, but there is a growing call among the public for an exception to be made and the rapists executed. This, they believe, will help put an end to the lawless behaviour of the so-called  ‘mazhory’, high ranking officials and wealthy businessmen and their brattish offspring who can flout the law with impunity. The ‘mazhory’ have been the target of criticism by civil activists, journalists and politicians, and Oksana Makar’s death has added to calls for a clampdown on their activities.

‘A municipal council officer in Uzhgorod started a shoot-out in a café, shouting that the cops couldn’t touch him because he was friends with the son of Uzhgorod’s police chief'

The principle ‘I have money and can buy anyone’ is widespread in Ukraine, since there are no civil checks and balances to power here. But this time, thanks to civil action among Ukrainians , a crime was not hushed up and has resonated around the country and the world, and the behaviour of the ‘mazhory’ has become a topic of general debate.

A Donetsk businessman, Vladimir Klivko, in a recent drunken conversation with the forces of law and order, declared: ‘When I want to, I snort cocaine; when I want to, I shoot up; when I want to, I drink; when I want to, I drive; when I want to, I have sex; when I want to, I use my gun.’ And a municipal council officer in Uzhgorod started a shoot-out in a café, shouting that the cops couldn’t touch him because he was friends with the son of Uzhgorod’s police chief and he would ‘sort everything out’.

Makar_hospital

Makar was transferred to a specialised burns hospital in Donetsk, but doctors failed to save her life. Her funeral turned into a public demonstration against unjust system of unofficial pivilleges in Ukraine. 

 

 

‘Everything can be sorted out’ only if the people who need things sorting out have close links with the people in power. And initially things were ‘sorted out’ for two of Oksana Makar’s rapists/murderers, who were released from custody  when it turned out they were the children of Mykolaiv ‘VIPs’, and were only re-arrested after a public outcry.

Can this case change anything?

It sometimes seems that in Ukraine there is one law for VIPs and another for everyone else. Last year we wrote on the ‘Novosti Donbassa’ website about how traffic police have to memorise the number plates of all city and regional government bigwigs’ cars and never stop them. We were visited at our office by Major Sergey Parshikov, an inspector from the city traffic police department who accused his departmental boss of abuse of power, receipt of illegal payments and use of his staff for his own personal business. He also told us that he had been subjected to harassment by his superiors because of his opposition to the principles by which the current Ukrainian government operates.

‘Clans can be involved in bitter internecine feuds, but they present a united face to the rest of society; they’ll flirt with the voters before elections, but that’s as far as it goes.’ 

Ukraine is at present going through a process of establishing the ground rules of a civil society, and the case of Oksana Makar has shown that citizens can fight the abuse of power and contempt for the law if they present a united front, whether on the streets or social networks. However Makar’s murder has also exposed another issue – that power is concentrated in the hands of a group of people who do not always respect either legal or ethical principles.

In the words of Ukrainian sociologist Maksim Vikhrov, ‘relationships within this class work on a clan and patron-client basis: your place in the food chain is defined by the group to which you belong and who your ‘godfather’ is. Clans can be involved in bitter internecine feuds, but they present a united face to the rest of society; they’ll flirt with the voters before elections, but that’s as far as it goes.’      

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Work has also been redefined. Some workers are defined as 'essential' – but most of them are among the lowest-paid in our societies.

Could this be an opportunity?

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