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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Just tolerant enough

Yosyf ZISELS: Approaching Europe and reconciliation on historical grounds will make Ukraine more tolerant
25 November, 2010 - 00:00

A sensible and tolerant attitude to other cultures, world outlooks, values, religions, races and languages is a must for a modern citizen. In Ukraine, the treatment of representatives of other ethnic groups is improving with every passing year. The data provided by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, measuring tolerance of other ethnicities over the past two years, has greatly improved, and the level of xenophobia has even dropped.

Thus, Ukrainians have demonstra­ted the highest level of tolerance towards Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians (96 percent of the population do not mind them living in this country), Russian-speaking Ukrainians (94 percent), Belarusians (76 percent), and Jews (63 percent).

The attitude towards people of ­co­lor is somewhat worse. Only 22 percent of Ukrainians agree that they can live here. Sociologists also define six other ethnic groups suffering from a lower level of tolerance: Germans, Gypsies, Romanians, Canadians, Americans, and the French. Yet at present the si­tuation is not so good as to rest on one’s laurels. The Congress of National Communities of Ukraine, which protects the interests and rights of minorities, assesses the tolerance level as passable. What are the reasons for this, and how can Ukraine become more tolerant? The Day tried to find the answers to these questions in an interview with Yosyf ZISELS, human rights advocate from the Ukrainian Helsinki Group and executive vice-president of the Congress of National Communities of Ukraine.

Mr. Zisels, do you agree with the recent sociological data on the improvement of tolerance towards other ethnic groups in Ukraine?

“The findings of the sociologists should be taken with a pinch of salt. They only can calculate the regular mathematical model of people’s decision. Sociological polls measure something other than xenophobia and tolerance. Instead, they show social distance between different ethnic groups on a Bogardus scale. By the way, this scale was created in America in order to mea­sure how fast immigrants from Italy, Russia, and other countries integrate in American society.

“When such survey is held in Ukraine, the picture is quite different. We get a social distance between the majority and 24 other ethnic groups, which is interpreted by some as the reduction or increase of xenophobia. In my view, this is incorrect.

“One should not interprete the Bogardus scale so straightforwardly in those dynamic conditions, which can be observed in Ukraine over the past 20 years. Society is changing, and this scale was created in the stable American society, so it is merely incorrect to extrapolate their patterns onto our reality.

“In this country, national organizations are developing, and since Ukraine became independent, a rapid surge in national movements inside the country has begun. Under such conditions, the interpretation has to be very cautious. As far as the increase in national conscience goes, the distance grows to a degree, because it used to be leveled by the Soviet reality and propaganda. We also monitor and analyze the level of xenophobia, and we cannot say that the level of xenophobia has been growing. By the way, there has been a slump in the level of anti-semitism, since MAUP (the Interregional Academy of Personnel Management) left the stage and stopped publishing its anti-Semitic articles. Now the level of anti-Semitism in Ukraine is comparable with that in Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic.

“As for the level of xenophobia altogether, in 2007 we drew the authorities’ attention to the fact that it had started to grow. The niche of the “strangers” in the Ukrainian society had been occupied by illegal migrants and refugees. Most hate crimes were committed against them. It was a very worrying symptom. Now, the children of refugees take part in our ­to­lerance educational programs, in order to instill an idea in our teens that there is room for everyone in our society. Thus over the past two years the situation has become more stable, and the level of xenophobia may even have slightly decreased.”

One of your reports suggested that the reconciliation between peoples and nations starts with an assessment of each nation’s historical characters. Are there any concrete examples?

“This was what happened in Germany and Japan after World War II. The defeat forced society to reconsider its historical features. Those who had been perceived as heroes were now viewed more critically — and eventually seen as criminals. These are very painful processes, because one will torment oneself with antagonisms. Society behaves in exactly the same way. Nevertheless, such reflection is necessary. A distance is necessary, in order to take a look at oneself, one’s nation, and what it has done in history, not only the good things, but the bad ones as well. I am sure that when we are able to see ourselves like this, we will come closer to tolerance and reconciliation.”

How do various actions held by the Congress promote it?

“One was recently held in Kyiv, ‘Light the lantern of tolerance.’ But a single action cannot really affect the ­le­vel of tolerance in society. Measures on a larger scale are necessary. Our goal was to draw attention to this problem once again, and make people who were passing with children, with lighted lamps in their hands, take one little step towards tolerance. It was more of a token action.

“We have a lot of projects and programs which work on a daily basis. There are summer camps, clubs, and confe­rences where we look for ways of instilling tolerance. Unfortunately, the state pays little attention. Yet this does not discourage us, because civic society must be in the lead.”

Coming back to the historical aspect: soon we will be commemorating the victims of the Holodomor. There has been a long debate between Ukraine and Israel as to the acknowledgement of the Holodomor as genocide. This, too, is a matter of tolerance in a way. When do you think these negotiations will arrive at a conclusion?

“So far there has been little progress, if any. I think that now Ukraine is exerting less pressure on Israel in this regard. Both Ukrainians and Israelis are very sensitive about this topic. I retierate — it is the Israelis, not the Jews in Ukraine. Jews in Israel are very jealous of others using the word genocide. They consider it a unique phenomenon, and the name can only be used to refer to what happened with Jews in Europe during the World War II.

“Ukrainians have their own tragedy, and it is understandable. I don’t think we have to compete here. Our mission is not to compare the two tragedies, but to make people feel not only their tragedy, but the others nations’ as well. For example, our program of lessons about the Holocaust serves to build a juxtaposition of the Holocaust and the tragedy of those nations on whose territory we are at that moment. Only then you can find a common language and sympathy, and sympathy is also an important step towards respect and tolerance.”

The work of the Congress is often oriented at the young audience, as with the same summer camps or tolerance quizzes, because it is easier to work with and reform them.

“I would rather say, refine them. We are working mostly for the future. An adult is hard to reform, if he or she already has some negative stereotypes and perceptions about another religion or nation.

“Working with children is not much easier, but the prospects are more rewarding. These stereotypes have not yet been fully formed, and the negative perceptions can be somewhat weakened while the positive ones are instilled.”

One more thing, to conclude. What is your verdict: How tolerant is Ukraine to all national minorities, and who suffers the most from our intolerance?

“There are national minorities which are very close to the Ukrainian community: Russians, Belarusians, now Poles have moved very close, and Jews, too. There are others, who keep a larger social distance, like the Crimean Tatars (although they, too, have come closer to Ukrainians over the past 15 or 16 years), Romas, and the representatives of the nationalities which can be seldom found in Ukraine (the French or the Americans). Refugees and illegal migrants from African and South Asian countries tend to keep a very large social distance.

“Ukrainians have become more tolerant towards those minorities that happen to have a long history of living in Ukraine. They have become “friends” already. Yet their place is immediately taken up by others, towards whom Ukrainans might be less tolerant. One must look at the dynamics and it is not that simple.

“So what comes next? It depends on the way and identity model chosen by Ukraine. If it continues to approach Europe, it will also become more tolerant; if it moves towards Eurasia, it won’t become more tolerant any time soon.”

By Inna LYKHOVYD, The Day