Ukrainian police connive with far-right hate

Ukraine’s resurgent far right commit hate crimes with ‘full impunity’, say human rights activists. Now two Roma have been killed. Madeline Roache reports

Drunk on power, seven masked men rampaged their way through a Roma camp in Lviv, a city in Western Ukraine, with knives and metal rods, tearing through the walls of the makeshift homes.

The residents grabbed their children and ran, leaving behind their home and belongings, fearing for their lives. But not everyone managed to escape. David Popp, 23, was fatally stabbed in the head and chest by the ultra-nationalists. Several residents were wounded, including a 30 year old mother who was stabbed shielding her 10 year old son. The reason for the 23 June attack: blind hatred.

The alleged L’viv attackers, all under the age of 20, are said to be associated with Sober and Angry Youth, an ultra-nationalist group.

Just a few days later, on 1 July, a Roma woman was found with her throat slit in the city of Berehov, 800 kilometres west of Kiev.

Life for Roma people in Ukraine has become increasingly unsafe. Six far right attacks on Roma settlements have been reported in the past two months. In April, members of the C14, a far-right nationalist group, burnt down a Roma camp in the suburbs of the capital city Kiev. A prominent C14 activist, Serhiy Mazur, posted photos of the camp of around 15 makeshift homes engulfed in flames and wrote on Facebook that the group used ‘legal means’ to drive the Roma out.

Zola Kondur from the Chirikli Roma Foundation, an NGO which supports the Roma community in Ukraine, told New Internationalist that Roma have been migrating for seven years from Transcarpathia – the mountainous far western corner of the country – to Kiev, Odessa and Lviv in search of employment and a better quality of life.

‘Over the last three years, the Roma have experienced similar attacks from far-right groups… C14 is attacking the most vulnerable groups and it’s bringing them popularity,’ she added.

Police have arrested seven suspects in the Lviv attack and opened a criminal case into the murder, which carries a sentence of up to 15 years.

But the rest of the cases remain unsolved.

A Roma camp is attacked by far-right activists. Photo: Serhiy Mazur

‘In five out of the six cases, we have not seen a proper investigation. Law enforcement call most of these cases “hooliganism”, not “hate crimes”, said Kondur. ‘We’re very much concerned by this situation.’

On 14 June, Washington D.C-based think tank, Freedom House along with other international organizations expressed their concern in a letter to the Ukrainian government over the rise in violent incidents initiated by radical groups, and the lack of police action.

‘Time and time again the national police and other government bodies have failed to both prevent these attacks and threats… violent radical organizations acts with virtual impunity,’ said Marc Berhendt, a Freedom House Director.

Not only is the government apparently turning a blind eye to the violence, it is also providing financial support to groups that many rights activists consider neo-Nazi. The government has given C14 a Youth and Sports Ministry grant of $16,800 for their ‘national-patriotic education projects’, according to a 13 June report by Hromadske Radio.

The Maidan’s legacy

During the 2014 Maidan protests the police fired at protesters, killing around 100 people. The new post-Maidan government overhauled the old patrol force – one of the most corrupt in the post-Soviet bloc– with the aim of eradicating a police culture which normalized bribe-taking and extortion. But reports of the law enforcement’s inaction toward crimes by Ukraine’s far right political groups has led many to question the success of the reforms.

Denys Kobzin, Director of the Kharkhiv Institute of Social Research, fears the new police reform is decorative – a facade of reform that merely masks the habits of the old. When confronted by journalists about the attack, Andriy Kryshchenko, the Head of the Kiev Police, continued to repeat earlier police claims that they had not received any complaints of violence toward the Roma.

He insisted in an interview with the 112 TV channel that only trash at the camp had been burned. But Coynash wrote shortly afterwards that the police ‘must have been aware of what was happening’.

Vyacheslav Likhachev, the head of the National Minority Rights Monitoring Group, which records hate crimes in Ukraine, told New Internationalist it was the first time police have investigated C14’s violence. ‘Media pressure and strong, clear demands from civil society groups have played a big part,’ said Likhachev.

Likhachev considers C14 a far-right extremist group, but believes some of its members are neo-Nazi.

Halya Coynash, a member of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection group (KHPG) told New Internationalist that C14’s patriotic rhetoric is deployed to help avoid police and the public at large from viewing the group’s actions critically. ‘I think C14’s real agenda is unpopular, but the patriotic rhetoric, the kind of hands-on ‘justice’ and other populist features have proven devastatingly effective, especially as the country is at war.’

The Roma community are just one target. According to Amnesty, there have been at least 30 attacks by members of far-right groups, that have targetted womens’ rights defenders, LGBTIQ and left-wing activists, as well as Roma families.

Even more egregious examples of police support for the far right have been seen. On 19 January this year, when C14 disrupted a remembrance gathering for two murdered journalists, police detained peaceful demonstrators instead.

An odious nationalist cadre

C14 was established in October 2010 by 29-year-old Evgen Karas, who until 2014 was a deputy assistant for the nationalist parliament party Svoboda.

Karas, who considers 70 per cent of Ukraine’s police force to be corrupt and non-functional, said C14 plays a crucial role in protecting Ukrainian culture, language and keeping society safe.

He believes violence is often the only way. ‘The most violent actions come from people who want to defend their rights.’ But he highlights that the group can be fined 500HR (£14, $19) by the police if caught beating someone up, so it ‘has to be worth it.’

Activists worry that C14’s actions are setting a dangerous precedent for other far right groups. Just two days following its attack on the Roma camp, members of the nationalist organization ‘Nemezida’ (‘Nemesis’) set fire to several houses of the Roma in the Rusanovsky Gardens in Kiev. Members of the far-right group broadcasted a video of the raid on the messaging app Telegram and wrote, ‘we were forced to treat one of them with pepper spray.’

Likhachev points out that C14 is not only a threat to ethnic minorities and LGBT people, but also the government. ‘It corrodes state institutions like the police, since it claims to work in place of the police.’

The Poroshenko administration’s tacit approval of paramilitarism fuels far-right aggression and many Ukrainians continue to feel understandably threatened. If Ukraine’s government is to stop undercutting its own legitimacy it needs to put a stop to this far-right violence.