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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Ukraine’s racism problem: The view from within the country

Unrest at the stadium

On the eve of football tournament Euro 2012 the wave of negative information about Ukraine has swept across Europe. It all has started from discussing the problems provoked by political issues, such as opposition figures’ imprisonment (for example Julia Tymoshenko’s case), political oppression and selective justice in Ukraine, but later it came to the questioning of different aspects of the country’s life, condemning the increasing level of xenophobia and racism in Ukraine. But in the reality many allegations and accusations are very much exaggerated. These allegations don’t really correspond to the real state of affairs and don’t reflect the actual situation in the country regarding this problem. Those condemnations in the Western media of racist incidents in Ukraine have moved into hysteria and real spreading the fear, which is totally unfair.

Of course, Ukraine does have the problems of racism, xenophobia and intolerance, there is no need to deny it, like Ukrainian authorities usually do, and these problems are alarming. But they aren’t that massive and in some cases even less than in some European or neighboring countries. Anyway, the countries of Western Europe face these problems too, so this is really very unfair and even biased to depict Ukrainian people as the racist and haters. But, of course, we have to be honest and admit that Ukraine has these problems, and the issue of discrimination on the ethnic basis has long history and must be resolved.

Ukraine is a multi-ethnic and multicultural country, and the representatives of different nations with their own cultural background historically have been living in this land, learning to coexist and respect each other’s traditions. So, racism and ethnic discrimination are arguably very serious and alarming issues. However, some racist based violent incidents were unfortunately occurred and recorded in Ukraine. Those incidents receive media coverage and are condemned by mainstream political parties, but there is unfortunately lack of adequate and appropriate reaction over those incidents. Human Rights Watch declared that racism and xenophobia remain entrenched problems in Ukrainian society.
ECRI (European Commission against Racism and Intolerance) stated in its report in 2012 that tolerance towards Jews, Russians, Roma and other nationalities have significantly declined since 2000, and this tendency is reflected in a daily life, while those people experience some difficulties and problems in some fields of life. At the same time, according to the information of Interior Ministry of Ukraine no racial murders were recorded and the number of violent incidents based on racial intolerance has declined too since 2009, comparing it to 2006-2008. But the problem is that people who were attacked on racial ground do not always report the incidents to the police. Another important problem is that police itself often fails to classify such attacks as racial motivated, connecting them mostly to domestic offence and hooliganism.

According to the reports of ECRI and NGOs racially motivated attacks occur in Ukraine, but the police and the courts do little to intervene and to resolve this problem. So there are some concerns about attacks against Jews, Roma people, Africans, Asians, people from Middle East, spreading of anti-Semitism, violence against Tatars in Crimea as well. The attacks against foreigners (asylum seekers, migrants, refugees, labor migrants, students) were also reported by Council of Europe for several times. This occurs more often to the visible minorities (for example people of African, Asian or Middle Eastern origin), as they usually are more noticed, they can be the vulnerable targets or racist violence and xenophobia. But those people who were attacked or harassed do not often report about such attacks because of police’s response to them which is often inadequate. Unfortunately, some of the foreigners could be abused by police too, for example, they could be stopped for checking their documents just because they look different. Of course this is very serious problem in Ukrainian society and among the authorities, and it needs a firm solution.
Child of African origin in Ukrainian school

The problem of intolerance and xenophobia in Ukrainian society is very complex and requires deep studying, as it has a lot of historical reasons, but the main issue here is a huge amount of different national and ethnic stereotypes which still lingers in the minds of average citizens of the country. Another problem connected to racism and national intolerance is lack of education and culture, and here the authorities are to blame, as they systematically fail in the task of resolving this problem and educating the whole nation as tolerant and respectable citizens.
Ukrainian singer Gaitana

It is obvious that discrimination views and antisocial attitudes based on racism and xenophobia are practiced by a minority of Ukrainian population, by some organizations and ultra-right political parties. The recent scandal with dark-skinned singer Gaitana who represented Ukraine at the Eurovision Song contest has to be mentioned here, when the spokesperson of Ukrainian ultra-right party Svoboda (Freedom) accused Ukraine of choosing the “African girl” and said she shouldn’t stand for Ukraine at the contest because she doesn’t represent Ukraine and Ukrainian soul, in fact insulting the young singer for the color of her skin. But the most unpleasant here is that such racist views are practiced mostly by younger generations, which is very alarming, that such a problem could occur in the minds of the young people, who might be usually more open-minded, especially while Ukraine considers leaning towards Europe and European values, where tolerance and multiculturalism are welcomed. But those attitudes are practiced by the minority of the population and don’t find the wide support among Ukrainians.

It is worth mentioning here that the problem of intolerance in Ukraine is not only about racism, while one of the most tense questions here is the relationships with Russians, and this problem is connected to the permanent language battles in the parliament as well, when some political powers try to manipulate the language question either proposing to declare Russian as a second state or national language or condemning this idea at all while calling for banning Russian language in all national institutions and even at the schools. Generally the sentiment towards Russia and Russians varies throughout the country, but the overall population of Ukrainians and Ukrainian Diaspora has the similar attitude towards Russians and it’s the same or almost the same like the one towards ethnical Ukrainians. But on the other hand the situation is worse in the Western Ukraine, where the relationships between Russians and Ukrainians are traditionally tense, and it has several historical reasons. That’s why the situation with intolerance and discrimination of Russians are more difficult in this region and it’s where most nationalist and ultra-right parties originate from. Those extremist nationalist parties (like above-mentioned Svoboda for example) often use radical anti-Russian and even Russophobic rhetoric, they have strong voice now, but they are marginalized and aren’t supported by the majority of the Ukrainians. 
Romani people in Ukraine
Another ethnical group facing systematical discrimination in Ukraine is Romani people. They are often discriminated by the average people and by police, government and authorities as well. They usually face social discrimination; a lot of them are refused to be given access to some social services like medical treatment, and education. They face problems looking for job and sometimes are even refused to obtain the documents. The problem is worsened by the traditionally negative attitude towards them among the average people, because there are a lot of stereotypes about Roma since the Soviet times and even earlier, and those stereotypes are still alive, when Romani people are considered being lazy, unwilling to work and often accused of being thugs and beggars. Unfortunately some of them prove the credibility of such stereotypes, so the people usually try to avoid Romani if it’s possible, and sometimes it can be very abusive.
Jewish pilgrims in Uman, Ukraine

Unfortunately there are also some hate crimes and harassment against the representatives of Jewish community in Ukraine, but the police doesn’t have enough information whether these crimes were racially motivated. The problem of anti-Semitism is still one of the tensest problems in the case of ethnical intolerance in Ukraine and demands very deep research which isn’t possible to do in the one article. But talking generally, this problem is old enough in the society; the attitudes towards Jewish people were traditionally negative even in the Russian Empire if not earlier. Then the situation worsened in the Soviet times, when Jews were systematically discriminated and refused normal work and social services. There was even a special paragraph in the documents of every citizen of USSR declaring their Jewish or non-Jewish origin, and this paragraph has destroyed so many destinies in the Soviet times. The negative stereotypes and attitudes towards Jewish people were spread in the society and till now they are unfortunately strong enough. Even despite an immigration of a lot of Jewish people to Israel, USA and Europe after falling and disintegration of Soviet Union, the problem of anti-Semitism still remains. However, ECRI reports in 2012 about the decrease of the number of anti-Semitic publications since 2007, so the authorities made some positive steps in this direction (often by ensuring remembrance of victims of Holocaust, improving the teaching of Jewish history etc.). But unfortunately the problem of anti-Semitism is still actual in Ukraine, and even election campaigns are often using the anti-Semitic propaganda, when some political leaders could be accused of being Jewish or benefiting from the Jewish financial support. This occurred for example during 2010 presidential election in Ukraine, when the candidates Julia Tymoshenko and Arseniy Yatsenyuk were accused of being Jewish, and there were calls for not supporting them cause of this reason, especially in Western Ukraine. Despite the scandal Ukrainian government didn’t comment such a situation, which led to international criticism from Jewish organizations etc.
The flag of Crimean Tatars
One of the most painful sides in the case of discrimination in Ukraine is the situation with Crimean Tatars. They have historically lived in the Crimean peninsula, but in 1944 they have been facing the forced deportation to Central Asia and received the permission to return to their native lands only after the fall of the Soviet Union.  But when they came back they found their homes occupied by Russians (as Crimea is inhabited by people of mostly Russian origin), and till now the Tatars are discriminated due to lack of lands, and the problem remain very tense. Conflicts between Tatars and Slavic people in Crimea in recent years have led to fights, vandalizing the houses and households and even murders. The authorities of Autonomic Republic of Crimea are pro-Russian, and Ukrainian government is slow and inactive in acknowledging those tensions. Crimean Tatars assert that the discrimination and local propaganda campaigns are conducted mainly by Russian officials in Crimea, people of Russian origin and by some extremist groups, such as Russian Cosacks for example, and it promotes hostility against Tatars among other inhabitants of Crimea and create problems for them in employment, especially in administrative organizations. Of course, Tatars belong to other ethnicity, speak another language and are predominantly Muslim, so their return to Crimea after falling of USSR has shifted the ethnic composition of the region, and a lot of tensions and attacks against them were conducted, although Tatars are the citizens of Ukraine and this is their historical land, so they have all the right to live here, but Ukrainian government is unfortunately not active in resolving those problems.

So these are only a some of the tense questions connected to the issue of nationalism, xenophobia and national hostility occurring in Ukraine, and they all have to be resolved, if Ukraine claims to be modern open and democratic country and is willing to join the European community in the future. Being a Ukrainian citizen who wishes only the best for this country, it is really unpleasant and painful to recognize the existence of such problems within the society, but without acknowledging them it will be impossible to solve them.
A report released recently by Amnesty International warned of alarming rise of racist attacks in Ukraine. Of course the government inaction in these issues is to blame too. The government aggravates the problems denying that racism is growing in Ukraine and claiming those incidents are only isolated cases. There are no laws and punishment for such the crimes, there is also lack of judicial base and special laws for regulation the immigration and the rights of immigrants and foreigners in Ukraine, which has to be developed.

A big problem is also the existence of different ultra-right groups, such as some nationalistic parties predominantly in Western Ukraine or more alarming extremist groups such as skinheads, who are inspired in Ukraine by the same groups in Russia, where this problem is much more deep and serious. At the same time, the Neo-Nazi is a strong movement in Russia and they even have their own ideology and continue to develop it. The problem of racism is worse in Russia, where the national minorities, especially of Caucasian, Middle Eastern, Asian and African origin, are assaulted and harassed almost on a daily basis, and hostility against them is stronger among the average people too. The movement of skinheads is also more popular in Russia and it unfortunately came to Ukraine from there. Russian skinheads help Ukrainian groups, sharing the tips and videos on how to catch, attack and torture their victims. But according to the reports of local NGOs, Ministry of Interior and ECRI the progress was made in Ukraine in this field, and the problem of such extremist groups became less in Ukraine, and they don’t find support among the people.

Generally the government’s response to the problems of racism and hate crimes is usually insufficient and inconsistent. Former Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko and some other high officials have been making the statements against racism and xenophobia, but those statements were unfortunately undermined by the declarations of some key law enforcement officials who used to simply deny this problem and tell it doesn’t exist in Ukrainian society. Usually only some individual incidents are recognized by officials, but the main problem is denied and not resolved by the authorities. However, some important and positive steps were made by government with creating in 2007 specialized units in key government agencies, and there were also several guilty verdicts in the cases of racial motivated crimes, but usually such the violent attacks and harassment are classified as the acts of hooliganism. In November 2009 the new law was adopted by Ukrainian parliament which raised the maximum sentences for crimes committed on the grounds of racist, national, gender or religious hostility. So some positive developments are to be noticed and they have to be recognized too.

The problem of racism and national intolerance in Ukraine could remain almost unnoticed, with not enough attention given to it, but the wave of negative and even abusive information about Ukraine swept in Europe just a few weeks before the beginning of the football tournament Euro 2012, and the fears of visiting Ukraine and Poland (which co-hosts the tournament with Ukraine) cause of threats of racism was spread in the Western media, provoking the international condemnation of this problem. In fact Ukraine was accused of racism and national hostility. On the eve of Euro 2012 those accusations became really alarming, as a lot of foreign fans and visitors were going to come to Ukraine during the tournament.

Michel Platini, UEFA President
The issue was the shocking report by Panorama BBC (May28, 2012) showed the graphic pictures of the Indian fans were attacked and violently beaten during the game in Kharkiv, while police just stood by without interfering and doing anything to prevent or stop this violence. Other shots were showing some extremist youth in the stadium in Western Ukraine, waving the Nazi flags and chanting some Nazi slogans during the play. Then the wave of negative reports and investigations, conducted by Western, mostly British media turned to the real explosion and led to official calls of boycotting the tournament in Ukraine. The officials and representatives of the governments of some European countries (Great Britain, France, Sweden etc.) decided to boycott the games held in Ukraine and don’t attend even the games of their national teams. Such a reaction is really very unfair and abusive to Ukraine, and Ukrainian Ambassador Volodymyr Khandogiy expressed his regret of this decision, accused BBC of bias over Euro 2012 racist claims and stressed that sport and politics should not be mixed.
Almost the same was the message of UEFA President Michel Platini, who mentioned that Ukraine does have the problem of racism, but this problem shouldn’t be exaggerated in Ukraine, as it’s not only Ukrainian and Polish problem, but the problem of the whole Europe as well. The problem of racism is not the problem of football but the problem of society, and it cannot be the reason for boycotting the tournament. At the same time, there were a lot of steps made in this field to improve the situation, for example the referees have got the rights to stop the matches in case they will notice any signs of racial abuses and unacceptable behavior on the pitch and in the stands, the authorities have compiled the black lists of football hooligans and people accused of racial abuses before, so they won’t have the chance to attend the matches, the punishments for conducting the racial based crimes were made more serious etc. But unfortunately all those developments were left unnoticed by the Western media, and the journalist preferred to spread only the negative information regarding this issue, and unfortunately those reports often do not even contain the appropriate information, such as some results of sociological surveys and statistic numbers.

After all those reports spread in media the fear of visiting Ukraine because of its rising problem with racism and xenophobia became stronger, and even a few English well known football players made their statements about dangerous visiting Ukraine. For example, Mark Chamberlain (father of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, player of UK national team) said he will not visit UK team’s games in Ukraine because he was scared by statements of some British MPs and media reports about racism in Ukraine. Theo Walcott (also the player of UK national team) said he suggested his family members to avoid visiting Ukraine because they were afraid of possible harassment and abuses on racial grounds. Sol Campbell (retired UK’s football player) directly called for fans to not visit Ukraine cause of unresolved problem of racism. He made those conclusions after BBC program and told that it would be better for the fans, especially for those with dark skin, to stay at home and watch the games on TV, in case they don’t want to face the violence in Ukraine and end up in a coffin. He even stressed Ukrainians do not deserve to host such a tournament, which was really more than offensive and unfair to Ukraine.

a situation is very alarming and unpleasant for Ukraine and it seems the racism accusations are used against Ukraine to abuse and discredit the country, adding it to the condemnations of political repressions and imprisonment of opposition leaders in the country. But the problem of racism and xenophobia in Ukraine is exaggerated, and those allegations do not reflect the real situation in Ukraine. The most abusive and inappropriate thing is that all those reports showed Ukraine as a hate state, where you are actually not safe if your skin is not white and you look different, where you can be beaten to death anytime, all Ukrainians were showed as active racists, and it seems there are no normal and adequate people in this country, which is simply untrue. Those incidents mentioned in the media reports are condemned, but they do not represent the model of racism and racist behavior in Ukraine.
Former Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko
Ukraine has the problem of racism, but in fact this is not only Ukrainian problem, as the increase of racism and nationalism is noticed all over the Europe, but in the case of European countries political correctness still works. The racism ideas occur in Ukrainian society, but they are represented by the minority of people and don’t find popularity in the society. There are ultra-right movements here, but they aren’t numerous and they are usually condemned by the society. The conservative parties in Ukraine do not usually cooperate with nationalist parties, and the ultra-right parties don’t find strong support too (which is different in European countries). During twenty years of independence the elections clearly showed that such movements are marginalized in the society, as the extremist ultra-right parties have never won enough vote to even enter the parliament, so it is a clear indicator that those radical and extremist ideas aren’t popular in Ukraine. The problem of racism in Ukraine is not bigger than in some another European countries and some neighboring countries too (in Russia for example there is enormous problem of racism comparing to Ukraine).
The problem is that the government used to continuously deny the problem of racism and tried to represent the hate crimes as individual incidents, but such a strategy doesn’t bring any positive results. It is also very strange that Ukrainian authorities and Ukrainian media as well did not react on those statements made by Western countries and left without any comments or official statements. Another problem is that Ukrainian media unfortunately failed on the task of creating more reliable image of Ukraine in the Western media, showing the real situation and the real state of affairs.

Such accusations are unfair and even offensive for Ukraine, because in fact the level of racism in Ukraine is lower than in some another European countries, and the fan culture on the stadiums is often better than in another countries too. Some Ukrainian football and basketball teams have dark-skinned players, for example one of the strongest Ukrainian football team “Shakhtar” located in Donetsk has a lot of players of foreign origin and players with dark skin, and those players are extremely popular and the real heroes and they do not face abuses on the racial ground while playing, and no one tried to offend them.

The problem is that BBC and another Western media showed Ukraine as a very racist country and portrayed every Ukrainian as a racist, but there is no such a model for racism and ethnic based violence in Ukraine. Of course, Ukraine has a lot of problems, and the problem of intolerance and ethnic discrimination too unfortunately, but it’s not more dangerous than any another European or non-European country hosting different sport tournaments.

Ukrainian state authorities, officials and society in general have to do a lot to resolve this problem and eradicate racism, xenophobia and all the forms of intolerance, but they should be better encouraged for that rather than being condemned by the whole world. Ukrainian society has to start working to solve these issues, and Euro 2012 is a good opportunity to become more open, to learn others traditions and cultures and to show the guests the real Ukrainian culture, which is open, wide and friendly, the real Ukrainian hospitality. The problem cannot be resolved only by the actions of authorities, the people themselves have to change their minds about it and to learn to be more open-minded and tolerant and to show the European and world’s community that Ukraine is really the place worth visiting without any fears.