The West on Ukraine: when ‘anti-racism’ becomes xenophobia

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Condemnation in the British media of racist incidents in Ukraine has moved on from concern into hysteria, says Anton Shekhovtsov. Not only unfair, it does little to encourage those trying to push a progressive agenda within the country.

In the run-up to the 2012 European Football Championship, it has become fashionable in certain corners of the Western media to comment on how certain fans may receive a less than rapturous reception in the stadiums of Ukraine.

Ukrainian racism in the British media

Chris Rodgers’ article in The Daily Mail is just one in a spate of reports decrying the prevalence of racism Ukrainian football. It portrays a grim picture of activists from the neo-Nazi organisation ‘The Patriot of Ukraine’ who ‘lie in wait for England fans’. His piece follows an earlier Sun investigation, where this same organization was accused of having ‘secretly trained football hooligans to wreak havoc during Ukraine’s Euro 2012 match against England’.

The message conveyed is a dismal one: if the colour of your skin is not white, you are not likely to survive in Ukraine, populated as it is by violent racists. There are simply no normal people in Ukraine.

In fact, there are many. This is one of the reasons why, for instance, in twenty years of independence, no extreme-right party has ever managed to enter the Ukraininian parliament (unlike many other European nations). Despite the fact that the BBC Panorama, The Sun and The Daily Mail reports all neglected to mention any positive developments in Ukrainian football whatsoever, there are indeed people in the country who take its problems with racism seriously. They deserve to be acknowledged.

The absence of any mention of the Ukrainian organization, ‘Football Against Prejudices’ in the British media is baffling. Likewise, its failure to mention Kyiv’s Arsenal fan-club, who have been promoting anti-racism ideas for years, sometimes even at the risk of their lives. This not only unfair - it is disgraceful.

Interestingly, whilst the Panorama, The Sun and The Daily Mail reports all discussed racist violence, not one of them mentioned any hate crime statistics in Ukraine. They are far from unusual: According to the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, which monitors anti-Semitism and xenophobia in Ukraine, there has not been one racially-aggravated fatal incident since 2010, when two neo-Nazis stabbed a woman of Roma origin to death. Obviously, there is no reason to mention the time that has passed since the last fatal racist incident as it cannot effectively scare the British audience or back up Sol Campbell’s ‘you-could-end-up-in-a-coffin’ rhetoric. Indeed, if one were to mention hate crime statistics in Ukraine, the audience might even start to compare them with those of their own countries.

Sky Sports News’ special report on racism and violence in Ukraine was more balanced. It featured insightful comments, such as that from self-confessed former ‘football hooligan’ Cass Pennant on the violent reputation of England fans outside the UK.

Europe’s universal scapegoat

There is no denying that Ukraine has a serious problem with racism. I myself have reported widely on the Ukrainian far-right movement and its rise for several years now. Ukrainian former Chelsea striker Andriy Shevchenko is wrong when he dismisses the issue with his claim that,  ‘We have no real problem here about racism‘. Racism was similarly (and irresponsibly) downplayed by Ukrainian former Arsenal player Oleg Luzhny who said that he had ‘never heard about racism‘ in Ukraine.

On the contrary – state authorities, third-sector professionals and society in general have much work to do in order to eradicate racism. However, they should be encouraged, rather than have their noses rubbed in the dirt.

Ukraine is gradually becoming Europe’s universal scapegoat. The country’s growing isolation within Europe, fuelled by reports of political repression and the imprisonment of opposition leaders, most notably Yuliya Tymoshenko, means that this ‘backward country’ is easily condemned by the ‘civilized world’. But it would be foolish to suggest that this arrogant, neo-colonialist approach will improve the workings of democracy in Ukraine. Incidentally, where is the condemnation of Tymoshenko’s party, ‘Fatherland’ and its cooperation with the far-right Svoboda (Freedom) party, who in 2010 staged a ‘March for Ukrainian Football’, featuring the slogan, ‘Ukrainian football is not an immigrant asylum’?

Crossing the line?

There is a fine line between criticism and demonisation, between commentary on the social and political shortcomings of one particular nation and outright racism. In respect to Ukraine, parts of the British media have crossed this line. Just criticism of racism in Ukrainian football and beyond has now descended  into a kind of ‘politically correct’ racism against Ukrainians. British reporters, in allegedly warning England fans of Asian and Afro-Caribbean origin about Ukrainian ‘barbarians’, end up sounding eerily similar to Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders, who boasts of defending liberal democracy from the threats of ‘illiberal Islam’.

Abusive statements like that of Campbell, who declared that the Ukrainian people ‘do not deserve these prestigious tournaments‘, go unchallenged and largely uncommented. Amidst all this anti-Ukrainian hysteria, it is, perhaps, time for the British reporters and commentators to reflect on the wisdom of their supposed ‘anti-racist’ stance.

About the author

Anton Shekhovtsov is PhD student at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies and European Fellow of the Radicalism and New Media Research Group. He is also editor of the "Explorations of the Far Right" book series at ibidem-Verlag.