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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Catherine Unwelcome In Odessa

ODESSA, Ukraine -- A statue of Catherine the Great has sparked a fierce dispute in the multiethnic Ukrainian port of Odessa, with riot police confronting Cossack demonstrators in the street after midnight.

The members of Ukraine's revived medieval Cossack movement are enraged about the resurrection of a monument to the 18th-century Russian empress -- which city officials see as a step toward rebuilding Odessa's historic center and securing patronage from the UN cultural organization, UNESCO.

The modern-day heirs of the Cossacks, aligned with Ukrainian nationalists, vilify Catherine as a foreign despot who crushed Ukraine's limited autonomy at the time and disbanded units of their celebrated predecessors.

"We used to have communism. Now we are told how wonderful things were before the Bolsheviks. And people believe it," said Serhiy Gutsalyuk, an "otaman," or leader, of an Odessa Cossack group, as preparations went ahead to restore the monument.

"City authorities will hear nothing of reconciliation. And we will never accept any monument to Catherine the Great," Gutsalyuk said.

Born in Germany, Catherine expanded and centralized the Russian empire over 34 years in power, doing away with the autonomy long enjoyed by Ukraine and other regions.

She never visited Odessa, but the city was linked to her as surrounding territory was seized from the Ottoman Turks by armies serving in her name in the late 18th century.

The 11-meter monument depicts the empress pointing to the site of the city standing astride a furled banner. At demonstrations in July, protesters knocked down a fence at the monument's designated site and erected an Orthodox cross.

Authorities removed the cross and hundreds of comrades from Cossack groups throughout Ukraine massed again days later and clashed with waiting police.

But when the monument was put in place Wednesday, there was no fanfare and no Cossack protesters in sight.