Ukraine and the Roma: At What Point Does Persecution Veer into “Ethnic Cleansing”?

Though Ukraine is certainly a mixed picture as far as anti-Semitism is concerned, the country has made a certain amount of progress in recent years.  When it comes to reckoning with historical atrocities, for example, Kyiv has held ground-breaking events commemorating the likes of the Babyn Yar massacre.  By and large, Ukraine’s Jewish community is well integrated into the country and some Jews such as wealthy industrial magnate Viktor Pinchuk have become prominent public citizens.  And remarkably, the current front-runner in Ukraine’s upcoming presidential election is rumored to be Jewish.  Even more surprisingly, perhaps, Volodymyr Zelensky’s ethnicity has not become a major theme, let alone controversy over the course of the campaign.

But even as Jews have made some tentative social and political gains, the 260,000 Roma or Gypsies who call Ukraine home have been exposed to systemic discrimination, prejudice and even grave physical danger.  Indeed, a number of brutal recent attacks have served to highlight the precarious state of this persecuted minority.  L’viv, a cosmopolitan city in western Ukraine, is home to the country’s nationalist political right and the town has witnessed a number of ugly racist incidents.  Take, for example, the notorious case of David Popp, a young Roma man who was stabbed and killed last summer by a suspected nationalist gang in a shantytown near L’viv.  On the night of the attack, masked assailants carrying knives surrounded Roma shelters in their improvised shantytown and began assaulting people in their sleep.  During the attack, ruffians yelled out “Gypsies, get out!”  Far from an isolated incident, the murder capped four other attacks on Roma camps in western Ukraine over the previous two months.

Downtown L’viv

Voyage to L’viv

Just who is responsible for such attacks?  Authorities arrested several young teenage men in the Popp attack and later apprehended a presumed 20-year old ringleader.  The youths are said to be linked to a mysterious new ultra-nationalist group called Sober and Angry Youth.  Alyona Andronatiy, the former director of L’viv’s Hillel, currently works as a freelance educator in the Jewish community.  Late last year, I caught up with her at a local café in L’viv and asked about local anti-Roma feeling.  Andronatiy suspected that the same teenagers who had murdered Popp were also linked to anti-Semitic sentiment.  “I think it’s basically one group,” she told me.  “I believe they have one adult leader or leaders who inculcate this hate amongst the youth.  Later, teenagers go out and commit crimes.”

Perhaps, the attackers picked up on anti-Roma sentiment emanating from local politicians.  Just one year earlier, in fact, a right-wing member of the L’viv City Council got up before his peers and urged more rigorous action against the Roma.  In particular, the deputy suggested that raids be conducted on a Roma settlement in L’viv and that people there should be resettled in Uzhgorod, a city lying to the south within the province of Transcarpathia.  Very ominously, just one day later the settlement was attacked and burnt down, which in turn forced Roma residents including children to move to Transcarpathia.  Human rights advocates have gone so far to say that such incidents suggest an underlying “character of ethnic cleansing.”

Denis Pilash is an Uzhgorod native son and a veteran of Ukraine’s Maidan political protest.  Shortly after Popp’s death, he told me, leftists held an anti-racist march in L’viv to protest the murder.  Unfortunately, he added, right wing activists attacked and badly stabbed several leftists following the march, thus proving that “if you’re engaged with these struggles, your life is endangered on a day-to-day basis.”  Chiming in for good measure, Andronatiy described the chilling political atmosphere in her home town.  Some time ago, she remarked, one of her colleagues who works in the human rights field called a press conference designed to bring attention to the plight of the Roma in L’viv.  But prior to the event, right wing elements threatened to attack her friend’s organization.  “I was invited to attend the conference with my little daughter,” Andronatiy said, “and I usually go with her to events around town, but my friend told me to stay home.  It was only some months later that my friend revealed she had been afraid for my safety and that’s why she told me to stay away.”

Descent into “Ethnic Cleansing”?

            If it were just a matter of one attack against the Roma settlement of L’viv, then labeling such incidents “ethnic cleansing” might be a stretch.  Unfortunately, however, the eviction in western Ukraine fits into an all too familiar pattern which has been unfolding nation-wide.  Indeed, as the Roma migrate from mountainous Transcarpathia to Kyiv, Odessa and L’viv in search of employment and a better quality of life, they have been exposed to retaliation from the political right.

In the capital, for example, far-right National Brigades destroyed a Roma camp, forcing local residents to flee in panic.  If that was not enough, another nationalist group called C14 also burnt down a Roma camp on the outskirts of Kyiv.  Members of the group later posted photos on Facebook while commenting that C14 used “legal means” to drive the Roma out.  And two days after the C14 attack, yet another nationalist outfit called “Nemesis” set fire to several Roma houses in the Rusanovsky Gardens of Kyiv.

For those Roma who might have hoped the Maidan revolution would usher in a greater era of ethnic tolerance, such attacks have come as a rude reawakening.  Five years after protests which toppled the unpopular Viktor Yanukovych regime, Roma realize that national pride has been turned against them in the form of discrimination, harassment and even targeting at the hands of the police.  Indeed, experts warn the police are seemingly reluctant to investigate the attacks and are turning a blind eye.

Even worse, the Poroshenko government has actually provided support to the likes of C14 in the form of grants, which fuels far-right aggression.  Some have even claimed the police and C14 are collaborating and working in tandem.  Shooting back at critics, authorities have argued that Russia has sought to destabilize Ukraine.  It is the Kremlin, officials declare, which is the real culprit behind the attacks.  However, Kyiv has failed to present any evidence to support such claims.

Voyage to Uzhgorod

As the attacks proliferate, Roma may ask themselves where they might realistically build a better life for themselves.  Popp, for instance, hailed from Uzhgorod and periodically traveled back and forth between L’viv and Transcarpathia in search of work.  It’s not as if economic conditions are so promising in Uzhgorod in the first place, as I discovered during my own trip to the city late last year.  Compared to L’viv, with its quaint western-style coffee and chocolate shops catering to tourism, Uzhgorod looked somewhat run down and ramshackle.  What’s more, even though Uzhgorod prides itself on its history of multi-ethnic tolerance and many Roma reside there, the town and surrounding area haven’t been immune from their own spate of hate-filled crimes.

Recently, for example, policemen terrorized a Roma settlement on the outskirts of Uzhgorod.  Arriving early in the morning, authorities broke into homes, beat people and sprayed tear gas in the eyes of children who were just waking up.  Allegedly, officials were searching for a Roma man who had stolen some hay from a neighboring village.  Elsewhere in Transcarpathia, unidentified assailants slit the throat of a Roma woman in the town of Berehove.  Severely wounded, the woman made her way to a neigbor’s house where she died.

“We didn’t use to have any far right in Uzhgorod,” activist Pilash told me, “but now we have a small group called the Carpathian Sich.  For two years they have been violently attacking feminist marches, LGBT people, Roma people and some Hungarian monuments.  They feel a sense of impunity since they are not prosecuted.  They are a bunch of neo-Nazis who could easily be arrested and sent to jail, but obviously someone wants to use them or to bring about political destabilization.”

Evgenia Navrotska, a historian who teaches at the Romani Studies Department at Uzhgorod National University, echoed Pilash’s perspective.  Speaking to me at a local coffee shop, she explained that even within their home region of Transcarpathia, Roma are treated like outcasts.  The historian, who is also the co-author of a book on Roma cooking, worried about the emergence of rightist forces in Uzhgorod such as Praviy Sektor (Right Sektor).  “They are armed,” she said, “and we are not, so we are afraid and scared.”  Navrotksa added that anti-Roma sentiment gets turbo-charged through the local school system, which lacks even the most basic tolerance education programs.  As a result, racist views are ingrained in children at an early age, while teachers may get away with making anti-Semitic or anti-Roma remarks.

“Secrets of Roma Cooking”

Segregationist U.S. South or Present Day Transcarpathia?

Other reports emanating from Transcarpathia have almost a surreal air, as if the region has been somehow transported back to the most racist and segregationist era of the U.S. South.  Take, for example, one recent incident in which Roma fans turned out for a local concert near Uzhgorod to hear a popular singer, Mary Nótár.  When the fans arrived, however, they observed that bouncers only admitted ethnic Ukrainians while refusing entrance to Roma people (somewhat ironically, Nótár is Roma herself).  Such segregationist views are growing: in one neighboring town, for instance, residents have even reportedly sought to prevent Roma people from riding on public transport while meanwhile admitting white people.

Miroslav Horvát is a Roma activist and journalist, who has most recently been working on Uzhgorod’s city executive committee.  There, he helps to provide social services to Roma ranging from child assistance to retirement payments to help acquiring identification cards to employment.  Speaking with Horvát at his government office, he told me about the jarring case of a local swimming pool and aqua-park where Roma are not allowed.  Horvát said customers were simply told, “your skin color is not white enough” and not admitted.  The park is owned by infamous former Uzhgorod mayor Sergey Ratushnyak, who has previously been embroiled in anti-Semitic controversy.  Ratushnyak, who also refuses to admit darker-skinned foreign exchange students hailing from India and Nigeria, explained that he was concerned about local public health in the face of “syphilitic and tuberculosis Gypsyhood of the area and of the whole world.”  Unfortunately, Horvát told me, such cases are far from isolated as Roma have also been prevented from patronizing certain local cafes and bars.

Interview with Local Roma Activist

Speaking personally, Horvát revealed that when he first expressed interest in pursuing his academic studies, professors and others were befuddled and would ask, “Why do Roma need to study? What do you hope to achieve?”  Hardly deterred by such condescension, Horvát excelled by notching two academic degrees.  Currently, he is pursuing a third doctorate degree, even though he is the only Roma student in his graduate program.

Because of systemic discrimination, such opportunities are rare.  Indeed, Horvát acknowledged that in some cases, children have been denied entry into schools due to their Roma identity.  As a result, discrimination becomes so entrenched that when Roma finally search for employment, they face similar prejudice.  From one generation to the next, many are relegated to lower-level jobs such as sanitation, and many Roma are subjected to severe living conditions in squatted communities.

Despite these obstacles, Horvát sees bright spots.  Increasingly, more Roma children are graduating from school and headed on to university.  Eventually, he hopes that Roma will become more integrated into Ukrainian society by securing employment within law enforcement or working as doctors and lawyers.  Meanwhile, municipal authorities have managed to improve living conditions in certain cases by paving roads, installing street lights and providing potable water to local residents.

My contact added that by and large, Roma get along normally with any number of other ethnic minorities in Uzhgorod be they Hungarians, Rusyns, Russians or Jews.  “Uzghorod is a multicultural city, and for a long time Roma have co-existed with others as neighbors,” Horvát remarked.  “It’s a pity,” he declared, “that a few far-right organizations have emerged and are saying things like ‘Ukraine for Ukrainians’ and so forth.  Previously, these same types of people spoke out against Hungarians, and today they speak out against Roma.”  Over time, he hopes that such backward elements will be drowned out by the general public, which “understands that our life is hard, and society shouldn’t repress Roma but rather support us and try to bury discrimination once and for all.”

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