Nationalist groups in Ukraine. Photo from open sources
Alleged xenophobia in Ukraine is a recurrent concern of the international community. Meanwhile, Ukrainian officials often dismiss the accusations as Kremlin propaganda. This interview by Ukrainian journalist Vitaliy Portnikov, which originally appeared in Russian on Radio Svoboda’s website and was translated by the Ukrainian Jewish encounter, with Vyacheslav Likhachev, an expert of the Congress of National Minorities of Ukraine and researcher of the Ukrainian far right, attempts to find out who is right.
Vitaly Portnikov: What’s happening with the rights of national minorities in Ukraine? What is the situation with anti-Semitism? This is the subject of today’s program, but first, let’s hear a report prepared by my colleague Volodymyr Ivakhnenko.
Volodymyr Ivakhnenko: A cause for concern about xenophobia and anti-Semitism was sparked by several incidents that took place last spring in various cities of Ukraine. In early May anti-Semitic slogans were uttered by nationalists during the “March of Ukrainian Order” in Odesa, the Lviv region, and later Kyiv. Members of radical nationalist groups smashed a Roma settlement and set fire to it. In mid-May a scandal broke out around Vasyl Marushchynets, the Ukrainian consul in Hamburg, who published anti-Semitic and xenophobic remarks on Facebook, and a month earlier, a [female] schoolteacher from Lviv wished Adolf Hitler a Happy Birthday on social media. The Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko condemned these “manifestations of intolerance, discrimination, and anti-Semitism in the country,” and demanded decisive actions from the forces of law and order. According to the results of a survey carried out by the Pew Research Center, the level of anti-Semitism in Ukraine turned out to be the lowest in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. For Ukraine, the index is at 5 percent, Poland—18 percent, and Greece—22 percent.
In late April fifty American senators accused Ukraine and Poland of state support for anti-Semitism. Ukrainian experts say that it is impossible to talk seriously about support for anti-Semitism on the state level in a country whose prime minister is Jewish and who apologized to the Knesset of Israel for Ukrainian participation in the Holocaust. Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs states that anti-Semitic provocations are frequently “inspired by the Kremlin regime, which, with the aid of the tools of hybrid aggression, seeks to destabilize the political situation.” In October the Ukrainian police announced that it had exposed a criminal group that for years had been carrying out attacks on religious pilgrimage sites, architectural monuments, and synagogues. According to data compiled by Ukrainian agencies of law and order, the criminals’ actions were coordinated from Russia.
The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance says that the main victims of discrimination are not Jews but Roma and members of the LGBT community. The rise of xenophobia in society is often exploited by right-wing political forces in order to gain votes. According to Volodymyr Viatrovych, the director of the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance, “in a country that is defending freedom in the war in the Donbas, xenophobic and anti-Semitic statements or manifestations are not only disgusting but dangerous as well, especially when they are made by participants in this war, because they tarnish other fighters for freedom and discredit the very idea of this struggle.”
Vitaly Portnikov: Our guest today is Vyacheslav Likhachev, the head of Ukraine’s National Minority Rights Monitoring Group. What is really happening? How can this process be characterized in general?
Vyacheslav Likhachev: Since the Maidan, Ukrainian society has been experiencing very turbulent and contradictory processes. Much that is good and not so good is happening here, so it’s difficult to generalize. I agree with those researchers (and this is borne out by sociological survey data) that especially since the Maidan, although this process did not begin in 2014, the formation of a consolidated, political, civic nation has been taking place intensively in Ukraine, in which national minorities are naturally involved. This process is expressed both through the active participation of national minorities in the country’s political and social life, but also in the way society is beginning to be more open to them. Ukrainian culture is becoming increasingly aware that it is a culture comprised of various components of the historical legacy of many ethnic minorities. This process is probably irreversible; this is the fundamental process that is taking place.
At the same time, especially taking into account the specific features that have been triggered by Russian aggression, the Ukrainian people are quite actively experiencing a quest for their own identity. This is expressed by the need for some historical examples of the struggle for independence, which are not always unequivocally perceived by our neighbors. This search is expressed in the strengthening of the role of the Ukrainian language in education, which has sparked protests in Hungary and a number of other countries: the new law on education is switching all schools to the Ukrainian language. There is a kind of set of multidirectional processes, which can be generally called the formation of the Ukrainian nation. But present here is both a civic, political-cultural component and a more Ukrainian, ethnocentric history.
Vitaly Portnikov: European countries, where political nations were formed quite a long time ago, also have their problems with national minorities. No one is managing to avoid this, even in this type of situation.
Vyacheslav Likhachev: Of course.
Vitaly Portnikov: You mention Russian aggression. In this situation, ethnic Russians who are living in Ukraine should have been the ones to have serious problems. However, this is the very national group whose problems are not even addressed by Russian propaganda. If something is indeed talked about, it is the attempts to deprive the Russian-speaking population of the possibility to obtain an education in their native language; the fact that there are fewer Russian-language channels and publications. But the problem of being Russian by nationality (and millions of such people live here) is not thrust to the foreground at all, neither by the supporters of the formation of the Ukrainian nation, nor by their opponents. Why is this happening?
Vyacheslav Likhachev: I think this is connected with the specific features of Russian ethnic culture, of Russians as an ethnic minority not only in Ukraine but in other post-Soviet countries. These are people who did not inherit, through a natural process, a culture that was already formed. They find themselves, rather, in an inertial environment of Russian-language Soviet culture. To a certain extent, they are cut off from contemporary Russian culture; in any case, they do not live within the social processes in which the Russian Federation lives. For the most part, they find their identity, which is enrooted not in Russian ethnic culture but in Russian-speaking Soviet culture. And the bearers of this Russian-speaking Soviet identify are undoubtedly not just Russians by their ethnic background.
Vitaly Portnikov: According to the idea that such Ukrainocentricity becomes dominant in society, right-wing movements should wield great authority. They should have laid claim to power, but during parliamentary and presidential elections the representatives of such political forces obtain, as a rule, literally only a tiny percentage of the vote.
Vyacheslav Likhachev: There was nothing unusual about the fact that Svoboda had an extremely poor showing in the 2014 elections. What was strange was its success in 2012. If you look at Ukraine’s post-Soviet political history, ethnic nationalists had never had a successful showing in the elections. In 2006 Svoboda garnered 0.36 percent of the vote. This distinguishes Ukraine somewhat from the usual post-Soviet, post-communist context of Eastern European countries. In the situation in which you have the collapse of the customary model of identity and complex socioeconomic transition that is perceived extremely painfully by the majority of social strata, the appeal to ethnic-nationalistic ideology was intrinsic to quite diverse countries in Eastern Europe, starting in the 1990s. At their peak, parties like Svoboda, the Greater Romania Party, and the League of Polish Families, not to mention Russia, with its Fatherland Party and Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, won up to 20 percent of the vote. There was nothing like this in Ukraine. Ukrainian nationalists, after their appearance on the political map of independent Ukraine, were unable to carry out their main programmatic mission: “Gain Ukrainian independence or die in the struggle for it.” After Ukraine gained independence—and not, incidentally, as a result of the nationalists’ efforts—they were absolutely unable to find a place for themselves and propose some kind of interesting agenda for society.
In the unique situation of 2012, when, after Yanukovych came to power, quite a sharp and polarized confrontation arose between the government and society in general, people saw Svoboda as a radical counterweight to the Party of Regions. They voted for it not because 10 percent of the population suddenly began to support its nationalistic—and, at the time, its openly xenophobic slogans—but because they saw a real opposition to Yanukovych. After this abnormal situation of the conflict between society and government was removed from the agenda, the ultranationalists reverted to their more or less normal percentage of support.
Vitaly Portnikov: But, on the other hand, it is possible that people voted for Svoboda precisely because the Party of Regions had such a distinctly expressed Soviet program of values, is it not?
Vyacheslav Likhachev: There is no doubt that people regarded Svoboda as the opposition not only because those were its slogans, but because the government was also associated with the pro-Russian cultural program within the domestic political arena and with the Russian geopolitical orientation in the external political arena, [a party] that openly positioned itself as an anti-Russian, ultranationalist force; in this sense, it was a counterweight. And this is also interesting because at the time of the 2012 elections Svoboda, which came out with Eurosceptic slogans, counted among its voters the largest percentage of people who supported European integration. So, people voted for Svoboda not only because it is a radical nationalist and xenophobic party but precisely because, to some extent, it ran counter to the geopolitical and cultural-political choice of the Yanukovych regime.
Vitaly Portnikov: Sometimes I think that Moscow would very much like it if Ukrainian voters did vote for the nationalists, for ultra-radical organizations, in order to show people: “See, this is their system of values, that’s exactly what we’re fighting against!” This was the case when the Right Sector became the main political force in Russian propaganda—but not in the Ukrainian political arena. This was an absolutely bizarre skew.
Vyacheslav Likhachev: Yes, in 2014 this was very significant and funny. In the spring of 2014 Right Sector was the second most mentioned political force in the Russian mass media after the ruling party United Russia. This reveals the utter inadequacy of the attention that Russia was devoting to this political force. Of course, it would be completely wonderful for the Russian propaganda picture if Ukrainian voters supported the radical nationalists. But it can be stated with absolute exactitude that for the Yanukovych regime, Svoboda was quite a handy sparring partner, and to a certain extent this was artificially inflated on channels that were fully controlled by the Presidential Administration at the time and the ruling party.
Vitaly Portnikov: What is really happening with anti-Semitism? Ukraine is constantly appearing in news and monitoring reports; here, we mentioned the letter written by a group of American congressmen, which caused a great outcry in Kyiv. Reading the text of this letter, I noticed that, in terms of manifestations of anti-Semitism, the congressmen perceive several acts of a historically nominative character. For example, streets are named for the leaders of the Ukrainian nationalists Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych, but the local authorities themselves, who adopt these decisions, do not act this way for that reason. They generally think about Bandera and Shukhevych, not as enemies of Jews or Poles, but as people who fought against Russia. This, for me, is the main momentum. But in the United States or the European countries, this is interpreted differently.
Vyacheslav Likhachev: Even historians who deal specifically with this question cannot arrive at a consensus, for example, with regard to Shukhevych’s attitude to the Jews; whether he personally was a carrier of anti-Semitic views. At any rate, in this concrete letter of the congressmen and for part of the Western public, such an attitude to the leaders of nationalist movements in the mid-twentieth century is an illustration of Ukrainian anti-Semitism. There are a number of cases of real acts of vandalism, as examples of anti-Semitism in the letter written by the congressmen. As a person who monitors hate crimes, I can say here that the dynamics in the sphere of anti-Semitic crimes in the last 15 years do exist, of course. A certain level of vandalism is recorded in Ukraine, like in any other European country. But in 2017 not a single case of anti-Semitic violence was recorded in Ukraine.
The other substantiation of anti-Semitism is the politics of memory, the activities of the Institute of National Remembrance, the renaming of streets, and that which the letter calls the heroization of Nazi collaborators. This is perceived in the West extremely painfully and without comprehension. Even if we don’t take into account how carefully Ukrainian society operates in its historical politics of memory, it is eminently clear that this simply has no connection to anti-Semitism. The third substantiation that is put forward in this letter is the activities of contemporary ultranationalist organizations. I can offer real examples of the fact that some far-right groups are truly involved in some anti-Semitic incidents, but the letter illustrates, for example, a torchlight procession marking the anniversary of the founding of the UPA, which is mistakenly dated November of last year, and this should already be an example of anti-Semitism (and someone there also used the Nazi salute). If we return from this position of the outside observer to realities, then according to the results of sociological research and monitoring of anti-Semitic crimes, it may be claimed with every certainty that no flareups are taking place; and if we look at the dynamics, then the most problematic periods from the standpoint of the number of anti-Semitic incidents in Ukraine, were more than ten years ago, in 2007 and 2008.
Vitaly Portnikov: Тhen why do such ideas arise?
Vyacheslav Likhachev: First of all, what we have here is the international community’s keen attention to everything that is taking place in Ukraine. Ukraine, as a society that is changing in a dramatic fashion and trying to meet some high standards of respecting human rights, finds itself under the magnifying glass of the international community. In this sense, there are specific stereotypes that are connected with the complex history of Ukrainian–Jewish relations, starting from Bohdan Khmelnytsky, continuing with Petliura, all the way to the complex, sudden reversals of the period of the Second World War, which formed a certain stereotyped picture that in a simplified way portrays Ukrainians as a nation of anti-Semites, that anti-Semitism is rooted in Ukrainian culture and history, and that any references to historical personages from a problematic period are proof that Ukraine has not learned any lessons and continues to be an anti-Semitic country.
To a certain extent this is connected with the rather simplified black-and-white picture of the history of the early and mid-twentieth century, which was formed not only in relation to Ukraine but also in relation to all the Eastern European and post-Soviet countries between normal Europe and the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, which are perceived in the West without delving into the details of the concrete historical choices of one set of people or another. For Western society, it is utterly obvious that during the Second World War the choice of Nazi Germany as an ally is an absolute evil, and when Shukhevych entered Lviv wearing a German uniform and being the commander of a German reconnaissance battalion, he is, accordingly, a Nazi collaborator, and any mention of his name in a positive context must be placed under taboo. No one questions why the figure of Shukhevych is important for Ukraine right now, why he made such a concrete choice, what happened to him later, and what he is associated with for contemporary Ukrainians. For the Western observer, it is enough that he was an officer of the German army, to react to the perpetuation of his name with outright indignation.
There is another factor. This is, of course, Russian propaganda. I don’t know if this particular letter by the Congressmen was initiated by some lobbying structures that deal with promoting a pro-Russian and, specifically, an anti-Ukrainian agenda in Western politics. But I know for sure that in 2013, for example, when a similar letter was signed in connection with Svoboda’s anti-Semitism, it was initiated by Israeli political technologists working for the Kremlin. But, generally speaking, it is of no importance whether a concrete letter was initiated within the framework of an actual propaganda campaign because the framework system that is broadcast to the West is such that an image of anti-Semitic Ukraine is formed in the West and accusing Ukraine of anti-Semitism is perceived naturally.
Vitaly Portnikov: What can Ukrainians do? Perhaps the Ukrainian state is working inadequately with all these things? And where people are concerned, perhaps these are some kind of natural things that they don’t notice. In Kyiv, people go past the Sholem Aleichem monument or the commemorative plaque to Golda Meir without even noticing them; they are simply elements of the urban landscape.
Vyacheslav Likhachev: Any anti-Semitism triggers such a hullabaloo that everything else is overshadowed. I often speak with Western journalists. I tell them: I would really like it if foreign journalists who write on Jewish topics pertaining to Ukraine were interested not in anti-Semitism but in contemporary Jewish cultural and scholarly life in Ukraine, in the life of Ukrainian Jewry today, in the rich cultural and historical heritage of Ukrainian Jewry, the legacy of Jewish writers. In the context of the centuries-long coexistence of the Jewish community, anti-Semitism is a marginal topic today, but it has a tinge of public excitement; it troubles people and attracts their attention.
Of course, Ukraine as a state is doing very little in this regard, and not everything works out well. The main problem is not that the Ukrainian state is positioning itself insufficiently actively in the international arena. For this, it has inadequate resources, an understanding of problems, or experience. But all this is being developed, we are learning. The basic problem is that, in the case of [street] renamings or the law on education, the Ukrainian state is deciding its own domestic political tasks, without thinking about how this will look to the outside observer. And I think that this is an extremely important factor. If Ukraine wants to integrate into the European cultural and information space, it should understand what it is integrating with and how it looks. Financial and even military support from the US and the international community is important for Ukraine. We often hear it said that Ukraine should not allow anyone to dictate which heroes we should be honoring. Of course, this is a good position, but who needs Ukraine to look good in the world’s eyes: the U.S., Poland, or Ukraine? Ukraine needs it, which is why it is necessary like it or not to think about how it looks in the international arena and to take this into consideration.
Vitaly Portnikov has been a Radio Liberty correspondent since 1991. He is the editor and host of the program “Roads to Freedom.”
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