Op-Ed: FSU governments must act against rising ultranationalism


WASHINGTON (JTA) — Friends of Russia and Ukraine are worried. The Russian government’s recurring rhetoric about foreign meddling and fundamental differences between Russian and Western values is spurring nationalism. With Ukraine divided along linguistic and religious lines, many Ukrainians disillusioned by pervasive corruption and government ineptness are turning to nationalist ideology.

The Ukrainian right-wing Svoboda party has found fertile ground campaigning on a platform that combines xenophobic, anti-Russian and anti-Semitic elements. On many occasions, Svoboda has called Jews and Russians enemies of the Ukrainian nation, opposed the annual pilgrimage of Breslov Chasidim to the grave of Rabbi Nachman in Uman and sought commemoration of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army that fought alongside the Nazis.

When Igor Miroshnichensko, a member of the Ukrainian Legislature, publicly used the word “zhyd,” a derogatory term for a Jew, he sparked a wave of right-wing nationalism and anti-Semitism in the Ukrainian social media.

Beset by increasing authoritarianism, widespread corruption, nepotism and disrespect for the rule of law, many Ukrainians find in such ideology an appealing alternative to the government’s status quo. In Ukraine’s last parliamentary elections, Svoboda received more than 10 percent of the vote, up from less than 1 percent four years ago.

In Russia, President Vladimir Putin’s administration has turned to nationalism and anti-Americanism to curtail domestic opposition. On Dec. 28, Putin approved a controversial law banning adoptions of Russian children by Americans. Severe laws criminalizing libel have been reinstated. Restrictive laws aimed at international NGOs label them agents of foreign governments. Last September, the U.S. Agency for International Development was forced out of the country.

We find the recent developments alarming. Already the growing authoritarianism has sparked a new wave of potential emigration among the intelligentsia and business community. If this wave continues, it would be a sad loss to both countries, as these are the populations that also represent the countries’ greatest resource for economic growth, social stability and a democratic future.

Faced with economic uncertainties, the search for national identity and fragile civil institutions, the popular anti-Semitism that is always latent in these societies is now more visible and suddenly a possible threat to its Jewish populations.

To counter this, the governments of Russia and Ukraine need to address real issues such as corruption, the weak rule of law and economic instability.  Better mechanisms to confront extremists’ political messages need to be developed, and the governments’ condemnation of anti-Semitic sentiments and incitement to ethnic or racial hatred needs to be consistent and timely. Russia and Ukraine must embrace a nationalistic ideal that encourages inclusiveness and mutual respect, foster education about xenophobia and anti-Semitism, and improve mechanisms of enforcing hate crime legislation.

Inventing internal and external enemies for the sake of national unity has a notorious history and no place in a democratic society. Xenophobia, radical nationalism and anti-Semitism have never been the road to a stable, peaceful and legitimate society. They are the errors of the past.

Mark Levin is the executive director and Anna Chukhno is a program assistant at the NCSJ: National Conference Supporting Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia.)

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