Earlier this week, Ukraine witnessed the latest murderous assault on the country’s Roma community. As the Kyiv Post reported, the attack was against a 30-year-old Roma woman in the mountainous Zakarpattia region, close to the Hungarian border. The young woman was stabbed in the neck by an unknown assailant near the railway station in the town of Berehove. She then stumbled into the home of a local resident before succumbing to her wounds. The gruesome murder follows that of another such attack on June 23rd, when a 24-year-old Roma man was murdered and four others were injured by a marauding gang in Western Ukraine. As the Kyiv Post reported “since the murders are just a week apart, the commitment of the authorities to tackle violence against Roma people has once more been called into question.”
Since the Ukrainian state had an almost nonexistent army at the beginning of the conflict with Russia in 2014, it came to rely on volunteer battalions to keep the state from collapsing under the onslaught of Russian-led-and-equipped separatist forces. Some, but certainly not all, of those volunteer battalions and groupings contained ideologically motivated and militant right-wing forces. Though Ukraine had brought most of the volunteer battalions into structures administered by the interior ministry by the end of 2016, their patriotic cachet allowed for a degree of leniency toward nonstate militias that would not be tolerated in other countries or under peaceful circumstances.
It now seems that Ukraine does not have as much control over nonstate paramilitary formations as is commonly posited.
As the Kyiv Post also wrote, the response of Ukrainian officialdom, including highly placed figures in the intelligence community and interior ministry, have placed the blame for the string of killings on “Russian provocateurs.”
The C14 neo-Nazi group in particular has been ferocious in its assaults on the Roma and on Ukraine’s LGBT community. In a recent disastrous and surreal demonstration of using popular internet voting as the mechanism to elect representatives for responsible civic monitoring posts, a C14 leader was elected to the civic council of Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU), a body that oversees the anti-corruption efforts in the country.
C14, which has taken part over the spring in brutal anti-Roma raids with hammers, has recently been a recipient of Ministry of Youth and Sport grants totaling at least $14,000. According to the Kharkiv Human Rights Commission, the “successful projects included ‘National-patriotic education as guarantor of Ukraine’s information security’, a nationwide distance learning center for such national-patriotic education, and the use of historical simulations as a means of popularizing Ukraine’s historical heritage.”
Several commentators and human-rights organizations have posited that the granting of the state support to neo-Nazi groups seemed to show complicity with Ukrainian police forces, who have been blamed for standing by while vigilante militants have carried out attacks on Roma camps. In at least one of the phone videos of the attacks on Roma encampments outside of the city of Kyiv, Ukrainian police officers in uniform are seen to appear in the midst of the raid, and chat amiably with the vigilante militiamen in the midst of an assault on the camp.
The Ukrainian state has been credibly accused of being slow to investigate the hate crimes by human-rights activists in Ukraine and by international human-rights organizations, as well as by Freedom House.
Not only is all of this a national disgrace, it is also very much a stain for a struggling liberal democracy which is often vastly more tolerant of minorities, socially inclusive, and multicultural than most wealthy Western European states. These events are especially painful to those of us who have spent the last four years methodically battling Russian government propaganda about the Kiev “Nazi Junta.” As the conflict with Russia grinds on into its fifth year, and with many Ukrainians becoming increasingly more frustrated, elements of the ultra-right wing in Ukraine has become a much more serious problem. What is surprising—and demonstrative of Ukrainian core characteristics of tolerance and decency and resilience and psychic health—is how relatively little xenophobic chauvinism and violence there has been until recently.
Ukraine was recently found to be one of the least anti-Semitic country in Eastern Europe according to a widely quoted Pew poll.
It is important to remember that the domain of Jewish-Ukrainian relations has remained an absolutely core arena for the hybrid warfare that has been waged by Russia against Ukrainian statehood over the last four years. The Ukrainian government has gone to great lengths to disprove claims of anti-Semitism. It is an undeniable fact that Russian activities and intelligence agents in Ukraine have on numerous occasions run operations to discredit the Ukrainians by making them appear to be anti-Semitic and racist. Some of these operations have been rather sophisticated, and I have reported on them over the last few years. Similar tactics have also recently been enacted by the Russians to sabotage relations with Ukraine’s other minorities. One recent example was that of the Ukrainian Security Services having identified Russians as being responsible for a high-profile recent arson assault with a Molotov cocktail against a Hungarian cultural center in the Southern Ukrainian town of Uzhgorod (it is located in the Transcarpathia region, home to many ethnic Hungarians). In March, the Ukrainian Security Services publicly touted the arrests of an “organized grouping” which had conspired to commit attacks against Polish and Jewish memorials “on commission.” The Ukrainian accusations that Russian special operations against ethnic minorities take place regularly to destroy Ukraine’s image and sow ethnic strife are true.
On the other hand, the critics who accuse the Ukrainian government and patriotically oriented members of Ukrainian civil society of deflecting any criticism on “Russian provocation” and of “playing into the hands of Russian rhetoric” are undeniably correct. The Ukrainian government and Ukrainian civil society do have an unfortunate tendency to write off legitimate criticism as being ideologically motivated (a problem being that it is not always easy to distinguish the difference). Both phenomena are doubtless authentic. What proportion of recent attacks against Jewish cemeteries and Holocaust memorials and Hungarian cultural centers and Polish statues and Roma tent camps have been carried out by Russian-backed terrorist groups as opposed to being perpetrated by indigenous ultranationalists remains an opaque and critically important question. It is a question that Ukrainian society and the current government in particular need to answer quickly and resolutely. This Ukrainian government must also act decisively and resolutely to dispel the threat to Ukraine’s Roma, who need to be protected and offered the same sorts of assurances that the Ukrainian authorities have made to their Jewish compatriots.
Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Russian American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.