Attacks on Roma Force Ukraine to Confront an Old Ethnic Enmity


Roma preparing flowers to sell in Kiev, Ukraine, last month. Roma camps in the country have recently been the target of attacks from nationalist groups.CreditBrendan Hoffman for The New York Times

By Iuliia Mendel

  • July 21, 2018

KIEV, Ukraine — The Roma who live in tarpaulin camps and abandoned buildings in and around Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, say they make their money harmlessly by picking wildflowers and selling the bouquets to lovers on the city’s streets.

But members of Ukrainian nationalist groups say that, instead, the Roma pick pockets, steal scrap metal and foul the city with their presence, often dressed in rags or hand-me-downs while begging.

Tensions over the Roma are as old as Ukraine, and run as deep here as anywhere in Eastern Europe, but the ancient enmity has taken a twist recently.

Beginning in April, Ukrainian nationalist groups that were given free rein four years ago to fight the Russian military incursion have taken instead to attacking the softer targets of Roma camps, saying they are “cleaning” Ukraine’s cities.

After an attack in April on a camp in Lysa Hora park outside Kiev, when a nationalist group threw rocks, squirted pepper spray and burned down tents, it seemed like an outbreak of the old ethnic scourge, and the episode drew criticism from Western governments and rights groups.

The Ukrainian government seemed to see the assault differently, at least at first. Far from prosecuting the nationalist group, known as C14, which filmed the attack and posted photographs on the internet, the government gave it a state grant in the form of free rent for auditoriums to support “patriotic education.”

Yevhen Karas, the leader of a nationalist group called C14, in Kiev in June. “We were called fascists,” he said, referring to the reaction to his group’s attack on a Roma camp in April. But, he added, “I do not care what they call us.”CreditGenya Savilov/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

No arrests were made immediately after the April attack. Soon enough, five other major assaults ensued, along with dozens of smaller episodes. After one nationalist group, called Sober and Angry Youth, killed a Roma man, David Pap, last month in Lviv, the police detained suspects. Nothing had been done against this group earlier, though it had posted a video online of its members chasing Roma through the city in “A Safari on the Gypsy.”

In July, a court sentenced one participant in the April attack to two months of house arrest.

“No group has the barbaric right to do what was done,” the interior minister, Arsen Avakov, said after the killing in Lviv. Mr. Avakov said the police would act “even if these people cover themselves with the status of veterans.”

The attacks pose a dilemma for the Western-backed government in Kiev, which analysts say is seeking populist appeal before presidential elections next spring. The government is beholden to nationalist paramilitaries for their role in the war in the east, even as some of those same groups espouse ugly ideologies.

“We were called fascists,” Yevhen Karas, the 30-year-old leader of C14, said in an interview, referring to the reaction to the attack in Lysa Hora park. But, he added, “I do not care what they call us.”

The C14 group also identifies itself as an educational group that organizes lectures and seminars for journalists, young people and others on a number of topics, including law and security. About 10,000 people have attended their seminars, the group said.

C14 said in a statement that its members “safely burned” the camp of makeshift tents, saying they were “cleaning” Kiev.


Members of C14 burned a Russian flag in Kiev in February. Many members of nationalist paramilitaries in Ukraine are considered war heroes for confronting to the Russian incursion in the east.CreditStepan Franko/European Pressphoto Agency

Mr. Karas said C14’s members did not use excessive force while confronting Roma camps, and he asserted that the episodes were not xenophobic attacks.

Mr. Karas said the group’s mission was to weed out Russian influence in Kiev and to keep order in the city. He said the actions were prompted by the Roma “felling trees, stealing, and clogging” the streets.