As for racial attacks in mostly white Ukraine, the numbers are hopeful: From 2006-2008, 184 attacks and 12 racially-motivated murders took place. In 2009, no racial murders were recorded and only 40 such incidents of violence were reported.
But lurking below the surface are less hopeful realities of racial intolerance.
"People attacked on racial grounds do not report the incidents to the police,” said Alexander Feldman, president of the Association of National and Cultural Unions of Ukraine. Even when they do, Feldman said, police often “fail to classify such attacks as racially motivated and often write them off as domestic offence or hooliganism.”
And so foreigners and migrants – especially non-white ones – are on alert. And that means thousands of people who don’t feel as safe in Ukraine as they should.
In January, some 2,407 migrants came to Ukraine, according to the State Statistics Committee. There are also some 44,082 foreign students in Ukraine today. Foreign students of African or Asian origin are the most common targets of xenophobic attacks and abuse in Ukraine.
George Itoro Ebong, a 29-year-old Nigerian student and volunteer of Amnesty International, said he now feels safe in his Kyiv dormitory or university lecture halls.
Ukrainians and foreign residents during press conference in Kyiv in this file 2008 photo. In the whole of 2007 there were 60 racist attacks, including six murders. The majority of victims were of Asian or African origin. (Olexiy Boyko)
But it wasn’t always pleasant. In 2007, while Ebong was waiting for a bus at Vokzalna metro station, several young men shouted racial slurs at him and assaulted him with a bottle.
“No Ukrainian who saw what happened was trying to help me, except of one man who just wondered what I did to them,” Ebong said. “Ukrainians rarely help foreigners in trouble, maybe because they are too scared. We understand we are not safe here.”
And herein lies the continuing problem.
A recent poll conducted by Kuras Institute of Political and Ethnic Studies proved that the attitude of average Ukrainians towards non-Slavic people has not changed much. “Some 70 percent of Ukrainians estimate nation’s attitude towards other ethnical minorities as ‘conflict’ and ‘tense,’” said Olena Kryvytska of the Kuras Institute.
Russia’s situation is perceived to be worse. In the Ukrainian neighbor with nearly three times more people, the 2009 figures for racially motivated crimes are: 368 assaults and 74 homicides.
“In Ukraine and Russia as countries with similar unfavorable economical, social security systems, high unemployment, xenophobia and racial hate problems are common and widely spread,” said Savik Shuster, the TV journalist who has taken part in “SOS! Racism!” public demonstrations.
Ebong says Ukraine’s police bother him the most. “I remember showing some Nigerian coins to a policeman in a friendly talk. Then his [colleage] came up and asked if they could take this money to buy bananas. Another police officer told my friend who asked for help: ‘Look, Ukrainians don’t like you, go back to your country,” Ebong said.
Ukraine’s government is gradually awakening to the problem – increasing fines for hate crimes and length of prison terms for racially-motivated attacks last year. However, since few incidents are reported, even fewer incidents of racially motivated violence get prosecuted.
Public education campaigns are also under way.
Since 2002, the Association of National and Cultural Unions of Ukraine and since 2006 the International Center for Tolerance (www.avec.org.ua) led lessons in racial tolerance in schools. There are also several other efforts going on in government and among non-governmental organizations.
Kyiv Post staff writer Iryna Prymachyk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org