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Assembly of Nationalities and other Election Manoeuvres

Halya Coynash
With presidential elections on the horizon and ongoing attempts by the Party of the Regions to play the “anti-fascist” card, attention to the launching of a new “Assembly of National Minorities” seems warranted..

The launching of an “Assembly of Nationalities” at the end of a week which saw new politically motivated charges against Tymoshenko’s lawyer and rapid erosion of Ukraine’s EU Association prospects may not seem top news.  With presidential elections on the horizon and ongoing attempts by the Party of the Regions to play the “anti-fascist” card, ignoring it could be unwise.

It would be hard to find another Ukrainian NGO which has launched its inception at the 5-star Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kyiv. Or that can summon up – if the hype is to be believed - participation by officials from the President’s Administration, different ministries, MPs, US congressmen, UN representatives and the international media.

The undoubtedly steep fee for the event according to the Assembly’s president, Rovshan Tagiev, is his own personal contribution to the cause. Tagiev told Radio Svoboda that the Assembly presently unites 50 organizations including the United Congress of Azerbaijanis of Ukraine, the Congress of Hungarians and Jewish Forum of Ukraine.

The stated aims of the assembly – to foster the development and strengthen friendship and solidarity between different nationalities, to defend their rights and interests – could not seem nobler.  Their claim to be an association of “all ethnic groups” is somewhat stretched, admittedly.  There are 135 ethnic minorities in Ukraine, and a fair number of well-established organizations representing them

Two of these organizations - the Congress of National Communities of Ukraine and Vaad (the Association of Jewish Organizations and Associations of Ukraine) – have issued a joint statement regarding the creation of this assembly.   They see it as directly linked with preparations for the 2015 presidential elections and suggest that the present regime is trying to manipulate ethnic minorities.

They point out that Ukraine has recently seen systematic attempts by those in power to exaggerate the level of xenophobia and anti-Semitism in Ukraine and add that such deliberate hysteria actually fuels the problem.  They are blunt in calling the behaviour political manipulation aimed at drawing ethnic minorities and the international community onto their side. Since the rightwing VO Svoboda party has formed a loose coalition with the other two opposition parties, the aim is clearly to drive a wedge between minorities and “the considerable percentage of Ukrainian society which supports the opposition”.

The authors of the statement ask why, if those shouting about rampant anti-Semitism, xenophobia and the restoration of “fascism” really see the situation as so apocalyptic, they do nothing about it. Virtually no measures are taken in Ukraine to pursue those guilty of inciting ethnic enmity, to resolve the problems, for example,  of the Crimean Tatars and other formerly deported peoples, to fight discrimination or to properly regulate migration policy.

They note that in 2004, as well as the rigging of the election results, there were also similar attempts by those in power to manipulate ethnic minorities at a so-called “Assembly of the Peoples of Ukraine”.  The creation now of an “Assembly of Nationalities” is therefore "of serious concern to those making real efforts to achieve inter-ethnic cooperation, human rights work, tolerance and the preservation of national minorities’ authentic culture”

The grounds for concern are real.  The situation, for example, in the Crimea has worsened since Viktor Yanukovych became president, and it could hardly be said that his predecessors made any significant efforts to solve the problems. It is two years this month since Yanukovych appointed Anatoly Mohylyov Prime Minister of the Crimea.  The appointment was extraordinary given Mohylyov’s rabid hate speech directed against Crimean Tatars and role in the gratuitously violent confrontation with Crimean Tatars in 2007.   Since then there have been concerted efforts to undermine the position of the Mejlis, the main representative body of the Crimean Tatar people. People from marginal Crimean Tatar groups have been brought in, with selection seemingly based on likely loyalty to the present administration. The lies once told by Stalin to justify the deportation of the entire Crimean Tatar people from their native home, and later repeated by Mohylyov, have recently been appearing, most notoriously in a book published with local authority funding.

The EU and OSCE have recognized the problems faced by the Crimean Tatar people, offered assistance – and been rebuffed.  Štefan Füle, EU Commissioner on Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy even gave an address at a conference on the rights of the Crimean Tatars in September this year.  He was told by Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara that the Crimean Tatars do not face any form of discrimination but enjoy all the same rights as other citizens of Ukraine. No problem – no need to do anything.

The concerns are real and greater than in 2004 for another reason: the unprecedented electoral successes of the VO Svoboda party first at local level in 2009, then in the 2012 parliamentary elections when it gained over 10% of the votes.  The parties now in power have used these wins and the fears they aroused with quite cynical disregard for the damage caused Ukraine’s reputation. VO Svoboda success was largely due to disillusionment with the existing parties in parliament, not an indication of a major shift towards extreme nationalism.  While a lot of party activists have views which seem unpleasantly homophobic, xenophobic and intolerant, Party of the Regions attempts to present the VO Svoboda as neo-Nazi and rabidly anti-Semitic and themselves as somehow saving Ukraine from the fascist hordes are manipulative and off-track. 

The Hyatt Hotel venue and hype around an effectively marginal “Assembly” is almost certainly yet another cynical attempt to gain political dividends now and to create a loyal group which can be relied on to make the right noises during the presidential election campaign.  Willingness to make these noises, including quite unsubstantiated claims about resurgences of “fascism” or anti-Semitism, need not be doubted. Similar use of marginal national minority groups was made last year for a scandalous response to OSCE criticism of the ruling party’s controversial language law.  Their claims to represent Ukraine’s national minorities were publically refuted then and will be so again, whatever puppet outfits are created.  There are real problems needing to be addressed and the money and efforts expended on dubious pre-election preparation should be better deployed. 

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