Racism and xenophobia in Ukraine: new challenges in human rights protection

 Racism and xenophobic crimes were for a long time not typical for Ukrainian society. One of the first prominent cases involving xenophobia in Ukraine dates from July 2001 when a Rwandan refugee was beaten to death near his home in Vinnytsa, this eliciting an official statement of concern from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This case coincided with a general increase in crimes of racial or religious enmity which became a noticeable problem in post-industrial Europe due to unresolved issues involving migration and ethnic-cultural policy.

The level of isolationism and xenophobia In Ukraine rise from the middle of 2002, accompanied by an increase in the number of publications with xenophobic overtones. Sociological research also shows a reduction since independence of more than 3.5 times in the percentage of people who are open-minded and tolerant of ethnic diversity. Some studies suggest that in 2003 virtually half the population had isolationist views and the number of people with xenophobic attitudes had more than quadrupled[1]  At the same time the US State Department assessed the level of xenophobia in Ukraine as no higher than in other post-totalitarian countries. Although cases of xenophobia with respect to Russians, Jews, Crimean Tatars, Roma and immigrants from the Caucuses, Asia and Africa were reasonably common, US observers considered the situation in Ukraine to be less dangerous than in Russia, Romania, Poland, Hungary or Slovakia. This was possibly due to the fact that the majority of cases did not involve violation, being confined to verbal insults, anti-Semitic graffiti and fairly rarely, acts of vandalism at cemeteries.

A more dangerous escalation in xenophobic attitudes in Ukraine became noticeable after 2005 when groups of skinheads separated into a different movement from the general mass of football fans.

The first skinheads who appeared at the end of the 1960s in Britain were made up of working class youth, including some black youths, were joined under the banner "Fight for your class, not for your race!"  Skinheads soon adopted Nazi symbols and ideology and spread to Europe, America and Australia. In neighbouring Russia skinheads appeared at the end of the 1990s, swiftly organizing themselves with the financial support of far-right political forces into an organized neo-Nazi movement. In Ukraine the most active and aggressive are considered to be the far-right groups from the so-called "White Power – Skinhead Spectrum", the Ukrainian branch of the worldwide extremist network "Blood and Honour", and the militarized neo-Nazi sect "World Church of the Creator Ruthenia", WCOTC). They are united by an ideology of racism and nationalism based on establishing their superiority over other races and nationalities. The most numerous groups of skinheads were seen in Kyiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhya, Lviv, Sevastopol, Chernihiv and the Crimea.  Whereas in Russia there are tens of thousands within the skinhead movement, according to preliminary figures from the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA), in Ukraine there are presently no less than 500 skinheads aged from 14 to 27, in groups of between 20 and 50 people without clear structure or organization.

It was in 2005 that closed festivals of neo-Nazi groups from Ukraine and Russia became regular events in Lviv and Kharkiv. .They are organized unofficially by the Ukrainian National Labour Party with overtly racist songs. The organization "Patriot of Ukraine" which in 2007 held a series of torch marches in Kyiv and Kharkiv, using xenophobic and racist slogans, regularly organizes so-called military "training" for its activists at abandoned industrial sites, in forest camps and tourist bases.  There are no less than 30 permanent websites of a neo-Nazi or nationalist nature (Radical Ukrainian Nationalism, the real patriots’ site, Nachtigal, Blood & Honour Ukraine and others

In the media there is an increasingly fixed tendency to use such terms as "Caucasian Mafia", "crimes by gypsies", "Asian criminal gangs". Such terms are not only incorrect and unacceptable, but are used for speculative ends by radical neo-Nazi and nationalists.

At the same time MIA data indicates a clear trend towards an increase in the number of crimes against foreigners. During the last five years the number of unlawful acts from which foreign nationals have suffered has doubled, from 694 in 2002 to 1178 in 2007.  The large majority of crimes were committed against citizens of CIS countries (63.5%), with the number against nationals of other countries therefore 36.4%. The greatest friction is seen in the Crimea, Kyiv and the Odessa, Donetsk, Lviv and Kharkiv regions.

However these figures do not, unfortunately, reflect the percentage of crimes committed exclusive on racial or religious grounds. Although the rate of solving crimes against foreign nationals is 84% as opposed to 59.1% on average in the country, from 2005-2007 only 7 criminal investigations under Article 161 of the Criminal Code (infringements of equal rights on the basis of racial or ethnic origin or religion) were initiated.  This figure clearly does not reflect the real picture since according to independent experts, the number of crimes based on racism and xenophobia is not less than 190 per year. These are usually acts of violence committed by organized groups of young people belonging to skinhead or neo-fascist groups and aimed firstly against foreign students, asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants, business people, diplomats members of the families of UN personnel who are often from Africa, Asia, or the Middle East, people from the Caucuses or from members of noticeable minority groups in countries of the West.[2]

It is therefore extremely pertinent to ask how many racially-motivated crimes are committed, and what the real scale is of this new criminal threat.

The answer to these questions lies first and foremost in reducing the high natural latency of the crimes since most foreigners who have suffered attacks by skinheads do not turn to the police. It is not known what the real number of crimes committed against illegal migrants is.  Approaches in western democracies – immigration amnesties, community policing, restorative justice make it possible to resolve the problem however for various reasons these are for the moment unacceptable for Ukraine’s system of work with immigrants.

It is considered vital to improve domestic legislation in order to introduce a broader range of grounds for bringing criminal or administrative charges against people inciting national, racial or religious enmity. Experience in European countries give grounds for thinking that an extended system of legal regulations decreases the risk of an increase in such crimes however fundamental work is needed by the Ukrainian legislators to adapt this experience.[3]

The need for governments to draw up preventive measures to counter modern forms of racism was affirmed by Decision No. 4/03 of the Maastricht Meeting of Ministers of Foreign Affairs of 55 countries in December 2003 which speaks of the need for OSCE countries to promote tolerance and fight discrimination, including all forms of aggressive nationalism, racism, chauvinism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and extremism.]. However in Ukraine as most specialists confirm too little is being done in this direction.

It is fairly symptomatic that up till 2007 no law enforcement body, with the exception of the MIA, believed it necessary to acknowledge the existence of extreme right-wing gangs in Ukraine. In May last year, the MIA was not only the first to speak of the threat of the spread of racism and xenophobia, but first to draw up the first plan of measures to counter this phenomenon. The MIA also turned for support and cooperation with nongovernmental organizations and public authorities, and initiated the creation of an inter-departmental working group to counter xenophobia and racism.

The MIA also proposed such joint measures as: providing legal aid to victims of xenophobia and racism; carrying out expert analyses of legislation in this area and drawing up proposals for improving the normative legal base in order to counter racially-motivated crimes; improving mechanisms for reacting to the use by the media of xenophobic stamps and expressions; drawing up the appropriate study programmes.

The results of work in this area confirm that racism and xenophobia, while they have not begun a social phenomenon, do have a clear criminogenic potential due to such factors as continuing political instability, a low level of income among the population, and illegal migration. At the same time, bearing in mind the complex nature of this new criminal threat, it must be noted that bodies of the MIA can fulfil the function of countering racism in a fairly restricted form as follows from the possibilities of a militarized and enforcing body of state management. In view of this there is an urgent need for coordinated preventive action by all State authorities and civic society.

Oleh Martynenko,

Doctor of Law,

Head of the Department for Monitoring Human Rights in the Police,

assistant to the Minister of Internal Affairs.

[1]  N. Panina : Insurmountable distance. Krytykra, №7-8, 2003. – pp.17-20.

[2]  European Commission against Racism and Intolerance. Third Report on Ukraine. Strasbourg. CRI(2008)4, 2008.

[3]   Fight against Hate crimes in the OSCE region. ODIHR OSCE, 2006.

Document of the Ministerial Council, Maastricht 2003: Decision No.4/03 on Tolerance and Non-discrimination, MC.DEC/4/03, 2 December 2003.

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