Commentary: For whom is the bell tolling in Ukraine?
This article was written for the print edition of Romani vod'i magazine at the start of March.
The attention of the Czech and global media is now fixed on the Crimean peninsula. Russia has sent its army there at the instigation of the Crimean Parliament, which has refused to conform to the new Ukrainian government and has called on Moscow to stand up for the defense of the local population, which is predominantly Russian.
The other national minorities living in the west of the country are attracting no media coverage. They, too, are concerned about what will happen once the radical fighters armed with machine guns, metal bars, and pistols (looted from the police warehouses they have attacked) return home from the barricades in Kiev and start bringing controversial laws to life there.
Will these fighters have the feeling that, as national heroes and victorious revolutionaries (as they are now considered) they should enjoy greater rights than everyone else? Will these fighters lay down their arms, or will they continue their fight for a new Ukraine only for Ukrainians?
Will the nationalist Freedom Party and the ultra-right radicals from the Right Sector, who have gained control over powerful ministries, push through their programs targeting the enemies of Ukraine? How will these fighters behave towards people of other ethnic origins, political opinions, or religious convictions?
Just a couple of kilometers from the heavily guarded border between Slovakia and Ukraine (which is indirectly the border with the EU) there are Carpathian Romani people living in hundreds of settlements, small towns, and villages. In this troubled region their lives have never been a bed of roses, but they have survived and preserved their own unique culture and lifestyle.
Today most Ukrainian Romani people live in the westernmost regions of the country. With only a few exceptions they must grapple with unimaginable poverty and the total lack of interest on the part of the majority society in solving their particular problems.
The Soviet-era film "Gypsies Go to Heaven", which has a cult following, was filmed in these colorful Carpathian settlements, and Evžen Hütz, the singer of the American "gypsy punk" band Gogol Bordello, which draws on Romani musical roots, comes from there. However, the golden era of the Carpathian Roma is long over.
Currently people there are fighting to survive. They were the poorest of the poor even before the most recent economic crisis exploded.
Now that the country as a whole is grappling with poverty, the Roma have ended up in even greater isolation. The government has no interest in the poorest of Ukraine's regions, with its large Hungarian, Moldovan and Ruthenian minorities, and it has no money to support their basic needs.
There is no interest in the Roma there at all either. They have become a forgotten nation, one to whom it has been made clear that they are just a nuisance.
The Roma are concerned that under the nationalists things will be even worse. Prior to the Russian units invading the Crimea, the new Ukrainian government declared that the country was on the brink of bankruptcy.
International aid from the EU will cover the country's costs for only a few weeks, after which it will have to stand in line for loans from the IMF and the USA that will be conditioned by the further strangulation of Ukraine's already insufficient expenditures on health care, the schools, and social welfare. Mobilization of the army and the economic losses caused by the exacerbation of relations with Russia (gas price rises, the end of economic cooperation) will require other expenditures from the state budget that will be hard to estimate, as the coffers were stripped clean by Yanukovych's powerful clan (and the clans of his predecessors).
The country has found itself in a vicious circle. The deteriorating social situation creates the conditions for shoring up nationalist sentiment and the further growth of influence for the ultra-right radicals, who will make all the so-called enemies of Ukraine responsible for all of its problems.
In the view of the ultra-right, national minorities "prevent the fair representation of Ukrainians in the country where Ukrainians are the masters". When Gabriel Gatehouse, a BBC reporter, attempted to determine the opinions of the Right Sector quasi-military unit members patrolling the streets of Kiev, he heard shocking responses that began with the very familiar formula: "I'm not a Nazi, but...". "I like the idea of unified nation. I want there to be one nation, one people, one country. A pure nation. Not like under Hitler, but in our way, only a little bit like during his rule," said one.
"Ukraine must be only for Ukrainians," said another. "I am a nationalist because some ethnic groups dominate economics and politics, mainly the Jews, the Poles, and the Russians..." adds a third.
Most Ukrainians support the new government as representing the hope of a better, more dignified life. They sincerely believe that the recent subversion of autocratic power has opened up a better future for them.
The accession of the nationalists to power is, in the view of most people, their just reward for the meritorious service during the revolutionary fighting of Freedom and the Right Sector. Most people also consider criticism of the nationalists' xenophobic excesses and remarks to be propaganda spread by the patrons of Yanukovych and a provocation by the Russian secret services.
Such claims especially gained weight after the occupation of Crimea by pro-Russian militias and Russian soldiers. Moreover, the leading personalities from the nationalist movements, after gaining influential positions in the leadership of the Army and Police, have markedly toned down their vocabulary and are doing their best to present themselves to both the domestic and the international publics as democratic, liberal, moderate politicians.
Dmytro Yarosh, the head of the Right Sector and the Maidan association's candidate for Ukrainian President, is infamous for his anti-Semitic statements and the cruelty he committed alongside Chechen terrorists fighting "Satanic Moscow", but he has recently met with the ambassador of the state of Israel. He assured the ambassador that his movement is now concentrating on upholding the laws, on the fight against corruption, and on pushing through tolerant policies on matters of nationality and religion that will lead to the creation of equal opportunities for all nationalities in Ukraine.
Allegedly, Yarosh will be harshly suppressing any manifestations of xenophobia in future. Time will show to what degree these declarations that the nationalists have turned into tolerant democrats are just populist smokescreens for their actual deeds and how sincere they are about this miraculous transformation from spreading nationalist hatred to advocating love and truth.
By far the most hopeful news for the future of Ukraine (more than the ideological somersaults of the Right Sector leaders) are reports from Lviv, one of the main bastions of Ukrainian cultural consciousness, of a wave of solidarity with the Russian-speaking minority there and protests against the adoption of a discriminatory language law. The Old Lion Publishing House, which issues original Ukrainian literature, has announced that in response to the adoption of a law banning Russian and other "non-Ukrainian languages" it would be issuing its first Russian-language book in the 11 years of its existence.
Editor Mariana Savka declared that the company had decided to do so to show its disagreement with the "hasty, short-sighted steps of the new power." As she put it: "We have never published books in Russian, but we honor the right of all people to express themselves and share their ideas in their mother tongue. I am a Ukrainian, I speak and write in Ukrainian, but I am disgusted from the heart by this gambling with the language laws. I don't understand politicians who think this way. What are they after, who are they provoking?"
On that same day the Association of the Lviv Intelligentsia published an open letter to the Ukrainian Parliament with "a call for an immediate end to this gambling with languages." The authors wrote that "it is absurd to force a Galician lifestyle on Ukrainians in Crimea or the Don", emphasizing that citizens of various nationalities fought together on the Maidan who were united by their hatred of tyranny and their love for Ukraine.
"We must honor the cultural and linguistic needs of the east and south of our country so that those living there do not feel like foreigners in Ukraine," reads the letter, which was also signed by the son of one of the leaders of Bandera's Army of the National Uprising, Roman Shukhevych. The initiative was joined by Ukrainian television station Telekanal No. 5, which "as a gesture of solidarity" is broadcasting news in Russian at 22:00 daily.
One day later, thousands of people participated in "Russian Language Day" in Lviv. Those participating pledged to speak Russian the whole day "at home, on the tram, in work, and in cafés, clubs and theaters to protest those Ukrainian MPs who are abusing their offices to provoke disunity in Ukraine."
It took less than a week for the concerns of the residents of Lviv to be realized in connection with the uprising of Russians in Crimea and the Russian Army's engagement there. As if that weren't enough, the Russian occupation of Crimea has placed another forgotten nation in the position of a minority for whom the bell is now tolling - the Tatars, who were deported from Crimea by Stalin and who have been returning there ever since the fall of the USSR.
Up until now the Tatars have been discriminated against by Kiev, but now they fear that under Russian administration the situation on the peninsula will further deteriorate. The sad joke they tell each other today is that they feel more Ukrainian now than ever before.
Those Ukrainians who had the courage to revolt against the corrupt oligarch Yanukovych and who are also sharply opposed to the xenophobic steps taken by the new powers need our solidarity and support. After all, they are not just fighting for the future of their country, but for all of Central and Eastern Europe.
To criticize them, moralize about them, and deny them their right to change just because ultra-right radicals are involved in the new power structures would mean to take the bait of Russian propaganda. We must support those forces in Ukraine that reject ultra-nationalism and xenophobia and are striving for a trouble-free coexistence between various nationalities, political opinions, and religions.
Countries like the Czech Republic and Slovakia, where racist street fighters regularly march through the towns and where neo-Nazis have won election as Regional Governors, are in desperate need of good relations and mutual solidarity with the healthy core of this new Ukrainian society. Otherwise, before the reasonable and tolerant Czechs, Slovaks and Ukrainians can unite, the Right Sector will unite with Slovak Solidarity and with the perpetually more aggressive Nazis from the Workers' Social Justice Party (DSSS) in the Czech Republic.
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