Q&A: Ukraine’s Roma Community
By Thomas Siurkus
In late August, the small Ukrainian village of Loshchynivka, near the Romanian border, was the site of a riot that targeted property belonging to the local Roma community. It was the latest chapter of discrimination of this marginalized ethnic group in Eastern Europe. Since the beginning of the civil war in the Ukraine in 2014, the situation of the Roma community worsened, with media outlets reporting riots in the eastern parts of the country. Andrej Kotljarchuk, an associate professor at Södertörn University in Sweden whose research focuses on ethnic minorities and mass violence, talked to Moment about Loshchynivka and the state of the Roma community in Ukraine.
What happened in Loshchynivka?
A young girl was murdered in the village of Loshchynivka on August 27. A 21-year-old Roma man was suspected and got arrested. When the locals found out about the arrest, they gathered in the streets and began rioting on the property of the Roma people in town. The non-Roma locals accused the Roma community of illegal drug trade and other criminal charges. This led to a riot that national and international media started to call a pogrom. I wouldn’t go so far as that, because the base of a pogrom is that it was authorized by authorities. This was not the case in the recent mob attack. And the Roma people had already left the village in fear of the locals. So it was violence against property, not people. No Roma were murdered, as was the case in many pogroms earlier on.
Can you tell us what’s significant about Loshchynivka?
Loshchynivka is a large village of 1,300 people situated in the southern part of the Odessa region, the former province of Bessarabia. It is quite diverse. According to the 2001 all-Ukrainian census (with native language dictating how people are counted), 62 percent of the inhabitants are Bulgarians, 26 percent are Russian, 6 percent are Ukrainian and 0.5 percent are Roma. Fifty Roma lived in the village. Most of them settled down three years ago; only a few families lived there for longer.
What’s so interesting about this village is that it is a site of genocide. In 1940, on grounds of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact and the Second World War, the Bessarabia region that was a part of Romania became a part of the Soviet Union. In 1941, it was occupied by Romania and Nazi Germany. In 1942, the prime minister of Romania, Ion Antonescu, deported about 25,000 Roma to Transnistria (in the northern part of the Odessa region); 11,000 of them died of famine. The few families living now in Loshchynivka are actually second- or third-generation genocide survivors.
What were the reactions to the mob attack?
The reaction of the village administration was to punish the village’s Roma, who were were evicted from the village. It should be mentioned that this is against the law, because the measure punished a group of people that are legal citizens of the Ukraine, and this is unacceptable.
What is also interesting is the reaction of Mikheil Saakashvili, former president of Georgia and current governor of the Odessa region. He visited the village on August 29 to attend the funeral of the murdered girl. I was watching his statement on TV and he did not mention the ethnicity of the suspected murder at all—which was good. But he also said that he fully shares “the indignation of all the inhabitants of Loshchynivka regarding the asocial elements in the village,” which I view as very problematic.
After the riots, members of the Civil Corps Azov came to Loshchynivka to stay in order “to defend locals against Romas.” The Civil Corps Azov is a youth organization of the Azov battalion of the National Guard of Ukraine, many members of which have a far-right background. The United States House of Representatives passed an amendment last year to block any training of the Azov battalion by American forces, citing its neo-Nazi background.
What is the state of the Roma community in Ukraine today?
Today we have about 48,000 Roma living in the Ukraine. That is a very tiny minority for a country with about 42 million inhabitants. Ukraine is still a developing country. The country has a lot of problems with poverty and the Roma minority is disproportionately affected by it. The Roma are a marginalized social group. They are living under bad conditions in rural areas and suburbs of cities.
But I see development toward inclusion into the society. Ukraine, for example, became a member of the EU program “Roma Decade,” where the country followed many Western nations in abandoning the official use of the word “Gypsies” in favor of the name “Roma.” Today, Ukraine is the only country in post-Soviet space that has replaced the official nomenclature, using “Roma” in official documentation and media.
Ukraine is also really engaged in dealing with its past. In the last couple of years, 20 Roma genocide memorials were built in the Ukraine—more than anywhere else in Eastern Europe. Recently the All-Ukrainian Association of Teachers of History also published a textbook for secondary schools that includes a chapter about the Nazi genocide of Ukrainian Roma and the Holocaust. The Ukrainian Center for Holocaust Studies organized a number of seminars and trainings for Ukrainian schoolteachers and Roma activists on the Nazi genocide and minority rights.
How can their circumstances be improved?
That is a tough question. The Roma are a small minority in Ukraine. They don’t have official representation or a Roma state. They are kind of impotent. If, for example, Jewish or Polish World War II memorials in Ukraine get vandalized—this unfortunately happens—there is an immediate reaction from the embassy or the home country. But the Roma do not have these institutions, and this is a problem.
I support the proposal of the Ukrainian Coalition of Romani NGOs to President Poroshenko to appoint an ombudsman for Roma minority issues, because it could give the Roma community a stage to address their issues. But who are the Roma? It is really hard to represent all Roma in Ukraine, because they are not a homogeneous group like, for example, the Jews in Ukraine. They are coming from different cultural backgrounds; they are Protestants, Catholics, Muslims and Christian Orthodox. You have Roma speaking different dialects of Romani at home and Hungarian, Ukrainian, Russian and Rumanian in public, depending on the ethnic majority in the region. Everything is much more complicated in this case. But I do really believe in the process of democratization and that this creates opportunities for the Roma minority in the future.