KYIV BLOG: Reports of racism in Ukraine are somewhat exaggerated

By bne IntelliNews June 1, 2012

Graham Stack in Kyiv -

Times have changed: not long ago, English soccer fans were feared and loathed across Europe for their sickening rampages of wanton violence, culminating in the death of 39 Italian fans at Brussels' Heysel stadium in 1985, after which the English were wholly barred from Europe. Now, to believe the UK press, England's fans are a gentle flock - and greatly at risk from Ukrainian racist hooligans and rightwing extremists during the upcoming Euro 2012 football championships that will be co-hosted in Ukraine, where England will play group games.

As the recent BBC Panorama documentary "Stadiums of Hate" showed, there is definitely an extremist element among Ukrainian and also Polish fans - but this is true across Eastern Europe and has been for some time, but has not stopped English fans happily travelling to games in Moscow, Bucharest, Kyiv or Warsaw in the past, without much incident.

According to Germany's Andre Haertel, policy adviser on the CIS for the Council of Europe and frequent attender of soccer games in Ukraine, there exist in Ukraine, as in Germany, "radical subgroups" such as the Kiev Dynamo Ultras, "who are the source of all the talk". "I would refrain from making them an example for the average fans, who are very friendly, and I have never experienced any racism or related chants," says Haertel.

The difference to Western Europe may be not so much the extremist elements, but their far greater visibility in Eastern Europe stadia, where policing has not reached the Big-Brother level of all-pervasive surveillance like travel bans, which was installed in England during the pariah years 1985-1991 as a condition for being allowed back into Europe. "Verbal violence is high and police reaction absent or unprofessional," says neo-fascism expert Andreas Umland at Kyiv Mohyla Academy.

Coloured football fans in Ukrainian domestic games are almost non-existent, so it is difficult to assess how vulnerable they might be, but in general the bark of fan groups such as Dynamo Ultras - the flares and fascist salutes as caught by the BBC cameras - seems to be worse than their bite.

While this correspondent has witnessed a violent racial attack on an immigrant in Kyiv (though not connected to football), the statistics show that attacks are rare compared with the problem that exists in Russia. Racist aggression seems directed against immigrants rather than visitors, meaning that ironically English supporters of colour might be safer if they fly the flag.

This year a racist acting on his own stabbed and wounded two Nigerian students in Kharkiv, before being apprehended by police. But the reprehensible attacks seem to be an exception. Kharkiv, one of Ukraine's Euro 2012 venues, a former Soviet scientific center, is home to a large international student community from African and Asian countries numbering up to 13,000. Despite the town nestling up to the Russian border, people of colour are an everyday sight downtown. "I've been here 15 years," Godspower Anwa from Nigeria tells bne, "and have never had a word against me."

Apart from the racial issue, the other question is whether England fans as a whole might be targeted by Ukrainian extremists. But in Ukraine no particular animosity to English fans exists such as has surfaced in Celtic Fringe and West European countries, since in Ukraine it's Russians, Jews and immigrants who get the brunt of the nationalist hate.

And as ever, football is a game of two halves: Ukraine's heartland club Donetsk Shaktyor is owned by an ethnic Muslim Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine's richest man, and boasts eight Brazilians and a Nigerian in the squad.

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