Dreams of Europe: refugees and xenophobia in Russia and Ukraine

Europe’s refugee crisis has affected Russia and Ukraine in different ways — solidifying local hatreds, local hierarchies and varying views of European identity. RU

Ilya Budraitskis Denys Gorbach
10 February 2017


People walk through the centre of Lesbos, Greece. (c) Owen Humphreys PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved.

The refugee crisis has profoundly influenced the politics of the European Union at both the supranational level and the level of individual member states. Its repercussions have been strongly felt in the border countries of the south-east, such as Hungary or Greece, and in the west European “core”. 

For eastern Europe, the “crisis” is less relevant in terms of practical policy implications, but is important in the symbolic domain. It has provided right-wing populist forces with a convenient rallying point against “loafers” and “failed multiculturalist policies”. Across these countries, right-wing movements have gained considerable ground by promoting their anti-migrant agendas. The range of outcomes varies from the partial closure of national borders to the election of nationalist governments or voting to leave the EU. 

But what about the European far East, the former Soviet states? The refugee crisis has not affected these states formally or directly, but it has still come to shape their politics in important, albeit indirect ways. The most visible impact has been the outburst of long-distance racism in countries like Ukraine and Russia. For different reasons, people from diverse political camps have united in the defence of “Europe” against “aliens”.

Perhaps paradoxically, these speakers don't count themselves among the latter. Instead, they assert their right to speak in the name of a political entity to which they do not belong (Europe), encouraging it to be more exclusive towards outsiders. 

Beyond the wall 

The mass influx of workforce from the Middle East, south and south-east Asia, Africa and the Caribbean into Europe has been directly connected to European post-war economic boom. Thus, not only is this process intimately tied to the dynamics of the global capitalist economy, but it is also associated with a certain historical period — incidentally, the same period when Soviet citizens’ access to information on real social developments in western Europe was restricted. 

Under Brezhnev, the Soviet cultural industry introduced some canonic images of “Europe” into the popular imagination — only they were largely built on the works of authors like Alexander Dumas, Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle or Jerome K. Jerome. “Soviet Europe” was very different from actual post-war European societies. One of the important things overlooked by Soviet people was the (literally) changing face of west European societies due to demographic processes untouched even by official agitprop.

Indeed, the very concept of mass labour migration from abroad was foreign to the Soviet population, with the state’s closed borders and constant deficit of labour. Here, the structural niche of underpaid immigrant labour was occupied by a rural and “ethnic” (Central Asian and Caucasian) workforce in in the more economically developed Soviet European core. These internal migrants faced stereotypes and discrimination, but even so, the scale was relatively modest due to tight administrative controls imposed on the movement of people. 

At the same time, the 1970s witnessed the “right turn” of the Soviet intelligentsia. Frustrated with the inability to convert their cultural capital into material wealth, most dissidents in the Brezhnev era grew interested in reviving ethnic (Russian or “local”) culture, religion, “meritocratic” social inequality and economic liberalism. With these views becoming dominant in Soviet society, it is small wonder that later, upon discovering the ethnic diversity of “the west”, former Soviet citizens readily accepted conservative clichés about workshy foreigners destroying the harmonious, white and prosperous “Europe” that had existed only in their imagination. 

Ukraine: Nationalism in hearts and minds 

In post-war Soviet Ukraine, ethnic stereotypes were historically directed against rural migrants (who happened to be Ukrainian-speaking) to the Russophone cities.

Apart from that, there were and still are “traditional” minorities discriminated against in Ukraine, such as Roma, but no significant immigration from abroad. In Ukraine, however, Roma are not nearly as numerous as in Hungary, Romania, Slovakia or Czech Republic, and therefore did not come to fulfil the role of the main subaltern object. Likewise, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the flow of students to Ukraine from Asia and Africa subsided, though they still come to the big cities. It is mostly these students, as well as “traditional” non-white inhabitants of Ukraine — from Roma to people with Caucasian background — who were destined to feel the wrath of xenophobic movements in the new Ukraine.

These movements have attempted to borrow the agenda of their more successful European colleagues. Andriy Parubiy, current speaker of the Ukrainian parliament and erstwhile member of the leadership of Social-Nationalist Party of Ukraine (later rebranded into Svoboda party), has maintained regular contacts with Jean-Mari Le Pen since 1998, regularly visiting him in France and arranging visits of Front National activists to Ukraine. The two lessons Ukrainian nationalists learned from their French comrades were, first, the need to emphasise socio-economic inequality and, second, to develop a principled stance against migration. 


Andriy Parubiy and Jean-Marie Le Pen, 1999. Source

. But in the post-independence era, where there was little migration to speak of, Svoboda's ubiquitous graffiti “Stop migration” looked outlandish to most passers-by. In other words, Ukrainian nationalists found it difficult to conceal racism under the guise of “legitimate demands of white working class”, as is usually done in western Europe.

When four Nazis set off bombs at Kyiv’s Troieshchyna market in 2004, several citizens of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Vietnam were injured by the blast, but the only victim who died was actually a Ukrainian cleaner. That is, even in Ukraine’s worst-paid jobs, there was no concentration of “ethnic” workers. No wonder that the most successful neo-Nazi organisation in Ukraine today, the Social Nationalist Assembly, was active first and foremost in Kharkiv, the one Ukrainian city with relatively large immigrant population. 

It is typical that the Social Nationalist Assembly closely collaborated with Prosvita – an organisation of older harmless patriotic intelligentsia whose main concerns lie in reviving Ukrainian language and folk customs. Ukraine’s “national democrats” (a weird term per se), who were responsible for humanitarian policies of the state and for cultural production, completely lacked the political sensitivity that would prevent them from doing and saying things otherwise unacceptable by the standards of Europe’s liberal mainstream.

Thus, during the 1990s and 2000s, Ukraine’s school syllabi disseminated exclusive nativist visions of history, literature and even geography. Ukraine’s leaders of opinion and respected patriots have actively promoted the need to “save the gene pool of the nation”, to protect the interests of the “autochthonous population” and ensure the priority of the “titular nation”, or even to provide ethnic Ukrainians with sufficient “life space” (Lebensraum). These people were hardly Nazis themselves, but they saw nothing wrong in such language and ideas and normalised them in the society. 

Thanks to this “anti-imperialist” legacy, Ukraine’s genuine Nazis have been able to pose as “mere patriots who love their country”, and liberal leaders of opinion have turned a blind eye to their xenophobic antics. A side product of this process is the cult of Stepan Bandera and wartime nationalist organisations like UPA, OUN and even the 14th SS-Volunteer Division Galizien. During the last decade, the red and black OUN flag and Bandera’s portrait have evolved from attributes of a fringe political subculture to widely accepted innocent symbols of patriotism. 

In short, Ukraine entered the migration crisis with a hegemonic political bloc between liberals and nationalists, a widespread set of abstract nationalist beliefs posing as a common sense and little actual migrants or minorities which could serve as objects for the mass practical application of these beliefs. 

Russia: Xenophobia applied 

The situation with migrants has been very different in post-Soviet Russia. On the one hand, historically, Russian liberals have always maintained political distance from nationalists. On the other hand, xenophobia is more deeply rooted in Russian society. 

According to data gathered by the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, there were 19 victims of racist and xenophobic attacks on territories controlled by the Ukrainian government in 2015. Of these 19 victims, one was murdered. Meanwhile, in Russia over the same period, at least 11 people were killed and 82 wounded or beaten up by racists and Neo-Nazis. Russia’s Sova Human Rights Center, which produced these numbers, does not include the North Caucasus or Crimea, as well as mass brawls, in its reports. 

The reason for this difference between Russia and Ukraine is a much larger concentration of labour migrants in Russia’s big cities. Mostly they arrive from Central Asian countries, but also from the South Caucasus, Ukraine, Moldova and Vietnam. Apart from the actual immigrants, there are large “non-Slavic” ethnic minorities, especially from the North Caucasus. Being Russian citizens, they are often perceived as foreigners, and a telling example is the 2006 ethnic pogrom in Kondopoga, Karelia. A spontaneous escalation of a conflict between “locals” and Chechens, two days after the riot began, the leadership of the far-right Movement Against Illegal Immigration arrived to formulate demands against the “immigrants”.

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August 2006: the murder of two Russian men in a restaurant in Kondopoga by a group of Chechen men sets off days of rioting. Source: Youtube.

Indeed, grassroots xenophobic attitudes against migrants have been persistently high in Russia over the past decade. The potential of these feelings for political mobilisation is important and evident to all political camps — pro-government forces, radical nationalists and liberals.

During the 2000s, anti-migrant xenophobia was the main resource of Russia’s nationalist opposition. Here, the dominant strategy lay in supporting or directly organising “people's gatherings” and local pogroms wherever an ethnic conflict flared up — from the 2006 riot in Kondopoga to the 2013 Birulevo incident in Moscow. Each time, Russian nationalists posed as the voice of the public, the mouthpiece of the legitimate concerns of the ethnic majority, angry at the government and big business, whose selfish interests prompt them to encourage the influx of migrants. 

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October 2013: riots break out in the suburb of Biryulyovo, Moscow, after the murder of a young man allegedly by a Central Asian migrant. Source: YouTube.

This is precisely the strategy that Azov and other Ukrainian far right groups have tried to realise in Ukraine during two significant incidents in 2016 — the anti-refugee mobilisation in Yahotyn (March) and pogrom in Loshchynivka (August).

In the Yahotyn incident, which involved a protest against the construction of a refugee accommodation centre outside Kyiv, the far right were present virtually from the very beginning of the demonstration, actively supplying people with organisational and media resources. In Loshchynivka, which involved an attack on Roma homes in a village outside Odesa, the violence broke out without any “help” from nationalist organisations. Upon learning of the unfolding conflict, Azov quickly dispatched “help”, organising “patrols” in the village, but they arrived post festum.

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March 2016: members of Azov's civilian wing protest against the housing of Syrian refugees in Yagotyn, Kyiv region. Source: vk.com/batalion.azov.

For its part, the Russian government has mostly acted according to the classical algorithm of Soviet bureaucracy. Every “destabilising” incident, such as Biriulevo or Kondopoga, was a nuisance to it. Officials try to put down the conflict as soon as possible, unleashing repressions against the far-right activists involved and pacifying the population with selective deportations and xenophobic rhetoric. 

In 2013, migration became the key topic of the Moscow mayoral elections. In an unusual conjuncture, all the candidates actively employed anti-immigrant rhetoric — Sergei Sobyanin, the incumbent mayor, who enjoyed support from the government; darling of the liberal opposition Alexey Navalny; and Communist Party candidate Ivan Melnikov. This rhetorical contest was ultimately won by Sobyanin as he was the only one able to put his words into action. On the eve of the elections, Sobyanin authorised the roundups of illegal migrants en masse, and ordered the construction of a “concentration camp” for people about to be deported on the outskirts of Moscow.

Russian liberals, traditionally paying lip service to cosmopolitan values, have long realised the political potential of xenophobia. One section of the liberal camp, such as Alexey Navalny and his Party of Progress or Vladimir Milov's Democratic Choice, are trying to use this potential by “rationalising” anti-immigrant sentiments and making them look more respectable. Instead of directly inciting racial hatred against people “who look different”, they speak about the “really existing problems” of cultural incompatibility, rising crime and cheap precarious labour. The most widespread recipe suggested by this “rational” xenophobia is introducing visa barriers for citizens of Central Asian countries.

Generally, anti-migrant xenophobia remains at a high level in Russian society, but does not rise to the surface without the government's approval. These sentiments are controlled by the state, and their expansions and contractions are subject to efficient regulation by the media. This is where the European refugee crisis has played into the hands of the Kremlin (although obviously one should not buy the conspiracy theories according to which the whole crisis is actually part of Putin’s plot to destabilise Europe!). 

Enter the EU crisis

The crisis unfolding in Europe has helped Russia’s state-controlled media to silence xenophobic discussions relating to the situation in the country through spatial “transference” — racial hatred towards migrants in Russia is transferred onto the European crisis. Pro-Kremlin media are full of sensational, often fictional stories about refugees raping German women or French “libtards” capitulating to radical Islam, while actual migration in Russia has been relatively absent from mainstream discourse over the last two years. 

Keeping Russian society complacent and non-politicised is a greater priority to the Kremlin than the situational benefits of manipulating household xenophobic sentiments. But this situation can be easily changed whenever Russian elites feel the need to rekindle racial hatred inside the country. Until this happens, the European refugee crisis provides a convenient tool of keeping it on a low heat. 

The refugee wave from eastern Ukraine, starting from summer 2014, is important example of the Russian state’s “effective management” of xenophobic sentiments from above. Despite the total number of refugees (unofficially more than a million after the most intensive battles in 2014 and early 2015), only a few people actually received refugee status. After the Minsk Agreements in February 2015, the Russian authorities refused to grant refugee status to the majority of Ukrainian applicants, citing “normalisation” in their home territories. The very topic of Ukrainian refugees has disappeared from the mainstream media in order not to provoke conflicts, while on the domestic level there have been tensions between locals and Ukrainian immigrants. 


Leaving Donetsk, July 2014. (c) Dmitry Lovetsky / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

In Ukraine, the refugee crisis has become another episode in the unfolding national drama of chasing after the ghostly figure of “Europe”. Sensational media coverage predictably ignites hatred towards imaginary “Syrian Islamist terrorists ready to rape and plunder” even when there are no “Muslims” in Ukraine to speak of at all, thereby strengthening the far right. A year ago, these kind of tales provoked a riot in the town of Yagotyn, while at the beginning of January 2017, similar conditions resulted in a wave of xenophobic pogroms in Poland. Meanwhile, the crisis has dealt another blow to the political bloc of Ukrainian liberals and nationalists. 

At the end of November 2016, Ukraine's deputy minister of justice Sergiy Pietukhov published a blog post in which he suggested that Ukraine join the Dublin Agreement and voluntarily commit itself to a refugee settling quota. This move, according to Pietukhov, would convince the EU to lift visa barriers for Ukraine. This is not an isolated argument: previously it has been voiced by various liberal leaders of opinion, who have suggested that Ukraine can prove its commitment to “European values” by taking refugees. Ten years ago, voicing such an idea on an influential public platform would have been unthinkable. In 2008, most of Ukraine’s “liberal” media criticised the government for signing a readmission treaty with the EU, lamenting that Ukraine would soon be flooded with “criminals carrying exotic diseases”. 

Of course, in 2016, this kind of proposal also met with an uproar. Oleh Liashko, leader of the populist Radical Party, immediately condemned “our idiots” who want refugees to “commit daily terror acts and rape our women”. Naturally, proposals such as Pietukhov’s to radicalise the government’s “Europeanisation” agenda strengthen the case of Eurosceptic national populists like Liashko, Svoboda, Right Sector or Azov. Ukraine’s justice ministry officially distanced itself from the official's private position, but Svoboda still picketed the ministry’s building.

In the days after, aside from the usual nationalist suspects, the anti-migrant hysteria was hyped up by the oligarch Vadym Rabinovych, who leads a political party called For Life. Rabinovich’s proverbially Jewish last name did not prevent him from voicing xenophobic populism: he registered a draft law forbidding the prime minister to accept any migrants without parliament's approval (the bill brings to mind the recent referendum in Hungary). 

While liberals appeal to “European” values of tolerance and equality, their opponents conjure up the image of White Christian Europe succumbing to the barbarian hordes from the outside and degenerate traitors from the inside. What is common here is the figure of Europe as the Big Other: Ukrainians should either join liberal Europe or protect conservative Europe, but in every case the primary motivation is to prove our worth as true Europeans. 

Dialectics of IDPs

While the issues of refugees arriving in the EU hold little practical relevance for Ukraine, the country is in the middle of its own refugee crisis. The official number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) fleeing the war in the east is more than 1.7 million. This number does not include those who chose to flee abroad (mostly to Russia); the aggregate figure is most likely higher than the number of IDPs and refugees from the Bosnian war (two million). 

This should be put into the economic context (a drastic fall in living standards) and the political: the pre-Maidan modus vivendi was based on balancing between two competing national populisms, and used to ensure “pluralism by default”. Today, this compromise has been shattered by the political victory of the pro-Ukrainian brand of nationalism over its Russophone rival. In practice, this means that people facing deterioration of their social status are finally able to put all the blame on an even less privileged group, and justify their hostility using the dominant discourse. 

The beauty of using Ukraine’s IDPs as a collective scapegoat is that their “guilt” is more “evident” than in the case of the Roma or Jews. Nationalist politicians and intellectuals routinely lay the blame for the war on the population of the Donbas who “invited Putin's troops”. Under this presumption of guilt, individual IDPs constantly have to prove their political loyalty to Ukraine. Even a “loyal” displaced man can be regularly accused of cowardice: he has to join the army and fight for his home, instead of hiding behind the backs of soldiers from other regions, who are definitely not to blame. It is hard to say whether this discourse was borrowed from nationalists in the EU, arguing in the same way about Syrian refugees, or whether Europeans learnt this argumentation from Ukraine. 

This ideological justification (“they hate our country”) crowns a host of accusations typical of discriminated minorities. According to polls conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, IDPs are believed to be especially prone to crime (a thesis later developed in a newspaper article by the acting head of Ukraine’s police Vadym Troyan); they are less trustworthy; they are rich and arrogant, driving up local prices, and at the same time they are so poor that they steal jobs and undercut wages; they receive undeserved welfare from the state; they even speak differently! Easterners are indiscriminately associated with the “Donetsk mafia”, having to bear the the burden of collective guilt for its wrongdoings, and simultaneously slandered as an ill-mannered underclass.

While in the regions adjacent to the war zone, these attitudes are less pronounced, they are strongest in Kyiv and the western regions. A recent workers’ protest at a power plant in Burshtyn in western Ukraine,which belongs to the Eastern oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, was instrumentalised by a right-wing NGO. It targeted workers from Akhmetov’s plants in the east, who were allegedly coming to take away locals’ jobs. 

At the same time, IDPs are celebrated as a more deserving case against actual refugees from other countries — as it was in Yagotyn. “Our own people in need” serves as a rhetorical counterweight to calls for universal solidarity, but is forgotten immediately afterwards. Much like other examples in the region of cherished “ethnic kin” (Hungary’s relationship to Hungarians living beyond its borders, for example), this is the fate in store for Ukrainian IDPs — an object of brotherly love when contrasted to “Syrian terrorists” and a hated Cinderella in normal circumstances. 

Both Russia and Ukraine have been influenced by the EU refugee crisis indirectly. In Russia, xenophobia has long ago become an efficient tool of manipulating the public in the hands of the government. News from the EU allowed the Kremlin to “transfer” Russia’s xenophobic prejudices onto European soil. This transference dampened public outbursts of xenophobia directed against “local” minorities for the time being and, of course, ensured Russia’s image as a bastion of “order”. In Ukraine, the crisis has helped to deepen the cleavage between the still marginal pro-European liberals (who publicly call for the “European values” of solidarity and compassion) and populist nationalist forces capitalising on the news of the “decline of the west”.

The crisis in the EU developed simultaneously with another — the war in Ukraine, with the ensuing IDPs and refugees from the war-torn Donbas. It is these people who can occupy the structural niche of a discriminated minority in Ukraine, and join the ranks of existing subalterns in Russia. Ultimately, public hate-mongering against “Syrian terrorists” in distant Euroland is preparing the ground for a more tangible discrimination, against neighbours and fellow citizens.

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