Bare breasts, knuckles in Ukraine parliament

A fight breaks out between deputies during the inaugural session of the Ukraine parliament, December 12, 2012.
AFP PHOTO/Sergei Supinsky

By Sergei Supinsky

Ukraine’s austere parliament chamber briefly morphed into a no-holds-barred boxing arena this month, when a group of burly lawmakers used fists and feet to drive home their political points. The Verkhkovna Rada, as the parliament is locally known, has seen politicians resort to violence on prior occasions but the opening session of the new parliament on December 12 and 13 probably set a new standard for legislative slugfests.

Several lawmakers exploded with fury when, thanks to the votes of a few Communists and some independents, Mykola Azarov was re-appointed prime minister. He is a close ally of strongman President Viktor Yanukovych.

This was the first session of parliament after legislative elections on October 28, so I’m not entirely sure who is in the photo above. The big guy in black with the bare midriff is an opposition deputy, but I don’t know the identity of grey-suited man clutching the tie. This photo only captures a glimpse of the battle on December 12, when opposition deputies rushed the speaker’s stand, while pro-government lawmakers attempted to repeal the attack.

The bare-knuckle action was not the only drama of the day. Earlier, four activists from the militant women’s right group Femen -- known for their topless protests -- had demonstrated outside parliament, braving the freezing temperatures in underpants and little else. They were quickly taken away by police.

A topless Femen activist is arrested outside the Ukraine parliament, December 12, 2012.
AFP PHOTO/Genia Savilov

Then, deputies from the nationalist party Svoboda -- using power tools to slice through a fence around parliament to “give the people access” -- fought with police officers who tried (in vain) to stop them. About 100 journalists who’d been inside parliament rushed out to cover the melee. The guards shut the doors behind them, leaving us stuck out in the cold.

A lawmaker from the nationalist Svoboda opposition party slices into the fence around parliament, December 12, 2012.
AFP PHOTO/Sergei Supinsky

But nationalist lawmakers who had stayed inside parliament broke down a door and let their colleagues back in. I was, alas, unable to shoot that, as I was uploading images from the fence-cutting. Meantime, a fight erupted in the chamber between opposition MPs and two deputies whom they accused of defecting to the pro-government camp. Several lawmakers from Svoboda chased the two men -- a father and son -- calling them "turncoats" to prevent them from taking the oath.

Fights of this scale are rare in the Ukrainian parliament.In the 20 years I’ve been a photographer, I only recall two or three other times. Having said that, it’s possible there will be more rumbles after the radical Svoboda’s entry into legislative chambers. Its members fight for real -- I saw two officials throw another to the ground and kick him as he was down. This isn’t the movies, but it felt like the deputies are mindful of the cameras. Everyone wants to look like an action hero.

Lawmakers stampede through the entrance of the Ukrainian parliament, December 12, 2012. (AFP)

I shot the fight pictures from the parliament press enclosure. It’s quite narrow, so the photographers are piled one on top of the other. To get a good spot, I arrived in parliament at 6:30 am, even though the meeting didn’t start until 10:00 am. On December 13, I was first in position, but the day before a competitor had beaten me to it. In both cases, I spent the day squished behind two television camera guys -- not particularly comfortable.

One of the opposition deputies is the famous Ukrainian boxer Vitali Klitshcko, a reigning heavyweight world champion. His party is called “UDAR”, which means “punch” in Ukrainian, and he’s just entered into parliament for the first time. One of his press releases states: “In the United States, a boxer’s fists are regarded as weapons. So the punches of a champion must be like a nuclear bomb. I don’t think I am going to use them for now.”

He stayed above the fray and avoided the parliamentary fight, but a few members of his party were involved in the brawling.

For a second day straight, opposition and government lawmakers brawl on the parliament floor, December 13, 2012.
AFP PHOTO/Sergei Supinsky

When we returned to parliament on December 13, we knew there’d be more action. Upon entering parliament we saw a bunch of deputies yanking off their ties. We were excited, but also felt a certain inner tension. Everything happens so fast -- you don’t want to miss anything. Plus, the action was in more than one spot.

It was critical to quickly pick the right one one, keep a cool head and remain somewhat detached. I told myself not to get carried away in all the excitement.

But apart from all else, I must say -- it was all rather amusing.

Another challenge is getting the right sequence, like a raised fist or the moment a punch lands. Without this dynamic context, a fight photo loses its flow and you end up with a bunch of men where it’s not totally clear what they are doing
AFP PHOTO/Sergei Supinsky