On May 5 a court in Kyiv sentenced four individuals of about 20 years of age to 13 years in prison each for beating a Korean national to death in 2007. According to 1+1 TV, this was one of the very few sentences that have been delivered in the country to punish xenophobia. The four refused to plead guilty, even going so far as to make racist remarks in the courtroom. They plan to appeal.
Until very recently Ukraine was reluctant to admit the seriousness of its problem with racism and xenophobia. The police manipulated crime statistics, insisting that most of the reported cases of beatings and murders of foreigners were either acts of hooliganism or robberies; and they claimed that foreigners attacked locals in Ukraine more frequently than Ukrainians attacked foreigners. President Viktor Yushchenko, who is often accused by his political opponents of imposing a policy of “monoculturalism” and “monolinguism,” has also denied on several occasions that racism existed in Ukraine.
Deputy Interior Minister Volodymyr Yevdokymov said on February 28 that “racist or xenophobic motives are virtually absent among all the thousands of crimes committed against foreign guests.” Also in February Justice Minister Mykola Onishchuk called “the allegations” that racism exists in Ukraine “irrelevant and untimely.”
This persistence in denying the existence of the problem has done little to discourage racist attacks. The office of Ukrainian ombudsman Nina Karpachova registered some 100 cases of hostility based on xenophobia in 2006 and 2007, and 20 of those resulted in the deaths of people of various ethnic origins, the Ukrainian Center for Political Research reported in Ukrainska Pravda. From January through March alone, 35 incidents of violence committed against foreigners were registered, according to Karpachova. NTN TV reported more chilling figures, saying that in this period some 100 attacks on foreigners were registered, in which 13 people were killed.
It is very hard to identify how many of those killings were racially motivated. Human rights activists say that there must have been more such cases than were officially registered. The Council of Europe’s Commission against Racism and Intolerance noted in its report on Ukraine released in February that Article 161 in Ukraine’s Criminal Code, which provides for punishment for deliberate actions aimed at inciting ethnic, racial, or religious animosity, refers only to Ukrainian citizens and completely ignores stateless persons and foreigners. What is more, “the article has seldom been implemented by the courts, as conviction based on this provision requires proof of deliberate action on the part of the perpetrator, which is difficult.”
The problem of racism is especially acute in Kyiv where there are many foreign students and refugees as well as many skinhead groups. On February 19 foreign students staged a sit-in protest against racial abuse on the campus of the National Technical University, complaining of frequent attacks and robberies on and off campus. On March 23 a group of students tried to stop a torchlight march that was held on the campus by far-right groups using such slogans as “Migrants go home,” but riot police protected the xenophobes, pushing the students aside, according to Karpachova’s office.
In March, a citizen of Sierra Leone was stabbed to death in broad daylight in a Kyiv suburb, and a group of teenagers stabbed a Nigerian on the bus, reportedly saying, “What are you doing here?” Interior Minister Yury Lutsenko blamed the attacks on underage skinheads. His ministry has identified over 500 members of a skinhead movement in Kyiv.
As the international community has begun to tell Ukrainian officials about the problem, they have reluctantly started to recognize its seriousness. US Ambassador William Taylor, when signing documents granting technical aid to the Ukrainian police on March 14, said clearly that he regarded the efficiency of the Interior Ministry’s work in investigating crimes against foreigners to be low. The European Union representatives shared their concern about racism and xenophobia in Ukraine at a meeting with Onishchuk and Lutsenko in Kyiv on March 21.
Deputy Interior Minister Mykhaylo Verbensky admitted at a meeting with human rights activists on April 2 that the police were unable to solve the problem on their own. He asked other ministries and NGOs for help in fighting racial hatred and xenophobia. The Foreign Ministry on April 4 suggested shutting down racist websites. It said that the number of attacks on Ukrainians abroad increased in response to violence against foreigners in Ukraine. On April 11 Yushchenko instructed Lutsenko and Prosecutor-General Oleksandr Medvedko to take urgent steps to fight xenophobia. In his official letters to the two officials, he pointed to the increasing number of racist attacks and to the international concern that they raised (www.coe.int, February 12; Channel 5, March 12; Ukrainska Pravda, UNIAN, March 26; Segodnya, March 31; Inter TV, April 2; NTN TV, April 4; 1+1 TV, February 19, May 5).