Romani activists discuss the Ukraine crisis
On Monday, March 10, Roma Radio Patrin and Terraforming broadcast live Skype interviews with Romani activists discussing their perspectives on the current crisis in Ukraine. The interviews marked the first time that Roma Radio Patrin has also broadcast a video feed of its online radio program.
Moderator Orhan Galjus spoke with Zola Kondur in Kiev, the Vice President of the “Chiricli” Romani Women’s Fund who is a parliamentary expert on gender issues and has worked for the Council of Europe and the European Roma Rights Centre and with Valery Novoselsky, Executive Editor of Roma Virtual Network, who was born in Ukraine.
Galjus first introduced Zola Kondur as someone who has been involved in activism since childhood. He mentioned recent reports of Romani people being attacked in Kiev and asked for her perspective on the incidents.
Ms Kondur noted that the reports seem to be confined to the area around the capital for now and said her organization has been trying to analyze why they are taking place in the Kiev region. She noted that many different groups in Ukraine are trying to exploit its current lack of stability and said her organization believes the reported attacks have been attempts at provoking interethnic conflict. She also said the Romani community in the west of Ukraine has reportedly formed its own street patrols to defend both non-Romani and Romani people from possible attacks and attempts at provocation.
Galjus noted a parallel between the current situation in Ukraine and the interethnic conflicts during the breakup of Yugoslavia, when Romani people found themselves caught between various warring sides. Ms Kondur agreed with that assessment, noting that Romani people have also been participating in the protests in Ukraine and have been very active in supporting Maidan and the “European direction of the country”, including the government’s official strategy on Roma adopted last fall, which she said was “part of the European development of Ukraine and the EU association that was proposed to Ukraine.”
Galjus next asked about the situation for Roma in Crimea. Ms Kondur said she is in daily touch with Romani mediators there and that the situation is very tense because there are many Russian troops on the ground. She stressed that the Romani people she has spoken with have told her they do not want to live in Crimea if it joins the Russian Federation, and said she is concerned that Romani people in Crimea will not have a chance to raise their voices against the upcoming referendum on that issue or to participate in it. She also fears that the results of the referendum may not be accurately counted because the Crimean Parliament has essentially already decided to join Russia, even though polls reportedly indicate that only about 40 % of the population there agrees with such a move.
“The question for us Roma organizations here,” Ms Kondur said, “is how we can help these families if they have to leave, and where they will go. We are trying to talk with international organizations, with embassies in Kiev, to see what we can do for them.” She said unofficial data estimate there are between 200 000 and 400 000 Roma in Ukraine as a whole, with an estimated 4 000 in Crimea.
“I am personally very worried,” Kondur said, “because it is very important that people be able to stay and live in their motherland, that they can speak their own language, that they can have the possibility to learn that language. I cannot say that it has been a problem in Ukraine so far to speak your own language, to develop your culture, to preserve it. What worries me at the moment is that if Romani people have to leave Crimea, how are they going to live? Where will their children go to study? What opportunities will they have? If they don’t have passports, how will they travel? Where will they go? We have no answers to these questions at the moment.
Some Roma still have their older Russian passports, but some have lost their documents, while others never had any to begin with. When they try to get a passport, they have to provide a permanent residence document to get it, with an address, and in Crimea and some other places, Romani people live in unofficial settlements where the houses are not officially registered. You cannot prove that you are living in an unregistered place. This is one of the reasons why many Roma cannot get passports, as well as a lack of birth certificates and many other documents. It’s a complex problem.”
Galjus asked whether Romani organizations in Ukraine are now in touch with the new government. Ms Kondur said she has met with representatives of the Ministry of Social Policy and plans to meet with the Culture Ministry, which is “responsible for national minority issues”, as well as with the Parliament’s Human Rights Committee. Romani organizations in Ukraine have also issued an appeal for peace. She ended the interview by thanking Roma Radio Patrin for helping to report on the situation, noting that “the Russian media are spreading absolutely wrong information about the situation in Ukraine and in Crimea”. She also thanked all of the Romani NGOs who have called her organization and written to others there to show their support.
Galjus then spoke with Roma Virtual Network editor Valery Novoselsky on a rather garbled Skype connection from Budapest. Novoselsky noted that the Romani minority in Ukraine is not as large, proportionally, as the Roma population in the Balkans was during the breakup of Yugoslavia. In his view, Ukraine is “on the brink of real democracy, not corrupted democracy, and Roma are very happy to support such initiatives.” He expressed the hope that nonviolent resolutions would prevail even though Russia is now flexing its muscles, in his view because Putin is afraid the movement of Maidan might spread to Moscow.
“In my personal opinion, as someone who grew up in Ukraine and now lives in Israel,” Novoselsky said, “there will be a clash, but not necessarily a war. Russia doesn’t really want to have a war.” He went on to note that military conscripts from Transcarpathia are reportedly already seeking asylum in Hungary to avoid fighting.
Based on communications with members of his family in Ukraine, Novoselsky said this coming Saturday 16 March will be a crucial moment, as no one knows whether they can expect to receive their state pensions given that Ukraine is broke. People are reportedly hoarding food in case of an invasion and also anticipate that the ATM machines may one day be empty.
The international Terraforming network, which co-produced the broadcast, consists of four independent NGOs based in Bosnia and Hercegovina, The Netherlands, Serbia and Sweden. Terraforming works to develop cultural exchange and social engagement by supporting local cultural initiatives to strengthen diversity, human rights and tolerance and to combat discrimination, racism and xenophobia.
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