Ethnic Conflict and Minority Refugee Flight from Post-Soviet Ukraine
At a recent Kennan Institute talk, Jeffrey Burds, an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Northeastern University in Boston, argued that there are parallels between the Ukrainian nationalist movement that arose in the 1940s and the nationalist sentiment that exists in post-Soviet Ukraine. He believes that Western specialists have been too ready to depict Ukraine as a model of inter-ethnic harmony despite solid evidence of widespread ethnic conflict in post-Soviet Ukraine. Drawing on demographic data and on the witness affidavits from refugees who left Ukraine and requested asylum in the United States, Canada, and Australia, Burds argued that the first decade of Ukrainian independence corresponded with widespread and serious harassment of Ukraine's religious and ethnic minorities. Economic crisis in post-Soviet Ukraine bred scapegoating and marginalization towards Ukraine's minorities.
Census data indicate that Ukraine's population declined by nearly seven percent or 3.4 million in the first decade of independence, with dramatic declines observed among ethnic Russians (more than 3 million, or 26.6 percent) and Jews (383,000, or nearly 79 percent of the 1989 level). Drawing from official data of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, Burds noted that there were more emigrants from Ukraine in the first decade following the dissolution of the Soviet Union than from any other former Soviet republic; Ukraine accounted for nearly a third of all post-Soviet emigrants to the United States from the former Soviet Union. What Burds found most alarming is that few Ukrainian refugees relied on family ties to emigrate to America; more than 80 percent of Ukrainian emigrants entered the United States seeking asylum from ethnic or religious persecution in Ukraine. Between 1992 and 2001, 518,607 former Soviet citizens emigrated to the United States. Of these, 162,272 (31.3 percent) were from Ukraine; 120,869 emigrants left Ukraine as bona fide victims of persecution, according to Burds.
To demonstrate the ethnic and religious factors leading to minority emigration, Burds presented evidence from the testimonies of Russian and Jewish Ukrainian citizens who applied for political asylum in the United States, Europe, Australia, and Canada. Burds pointed in particular to three landmark cases in the 1990s where federal courts identified the preeminent role of persecution of ethnic minorities in Ukraine as grounds for asylum in the West: Shchetinina v. INS (1997), Korablina v. INS (1998), and Kraitman v. Canada (1994). The asylum-seekers described losing their jobs because of their ethnicity and being attacked and beaten by gangs of men shouting nationalist slogans, while police ignored their requests for assistance. Burds noted that U.S. and Canadian courts have ruled that the systematic nature of these acts and the state's refusal or inability to address them qualifies them as persecution rather than random and isolated criminal acts. In this way, he argued, Canadian and American courts have often rejected State Department country reports as unreliable reflections of the real situation in post-Soviet Ukraine.
In questions and answer following his talk, Burds agreed that Ukraine's legislation promotes ethnic tolerance, but he argued that this legislation has largely been ignored: Ukraine's central state apparatus seems unable or unwilling to provide protections. Burds noted that only one person has ever been tried for violating the law against inciting ethnic hatred. Burds maintained that Western scholars and leaders need to pay more attention to the issue of ethnic and religious conflict in Ukraine and to encourage the Ukrainian government to take a strong stand against aggressive nationalism.