Parliamentary Head’s Appearance at PACE: Anti-Semitism and Xenophobia in Ukraine
Maxim VASYN, executive director of the Institute of Religious Freedom (Kyiv), L.L.B.
Commentary on Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko’s appearance at the PACE conference, 16 April 2008.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko’s recent visit to Strasbourg for a Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly conference did not go unnoticed by either native or foreign journalists. Alongside typical questions pertaining to economics and possible forms of state organization, the Ukrainian parliamentary head was asked about a no less important issue: the presence of anti-Semitism and xenophobia in Ukraine.
This council-wide concern was voiced by Andreason Hrossom of Switzerland, the head of one of the political groups of PACE, who asked Ms. Timoshenko to comment on the confiscation and burning of Jewish prayer books from the Hlukiv custom office last year in April, as well as the transferal of a former synagogue (currently a movie theatre called Kinopanorama’) into the possession of a private individual – the mayor of Kyiv – contrary to Council of Europe parameters regarding the return of expropriated property to religious organizations . And the issue is not that anti-Semitism and the breach of the rights of religious communities occur even in developed democratic countries, because the need for immediate and efficient action by those states is equally important to prevent this phenomenon from becoming a systemic characteristic.
With regards to Ukraine, the Ukrainian head of parliament noted that the specified situations are isolated and rare and therefore cannot be used as a yardstick for either Ukrainian societal attitudes or state politics. On the other hand, it should also be noted that the issue in question has not yet been duly evaluated, and the guilty parties have not yet been dealt appropriate punishment. Yes, in the expropriation and burning of the Hlukiv custom office’s Jewish prayer books, which were addressed to Ukraine as a gift to its Jewish citizens, only the superior of the custom office got a mere disciplinary penalty. This administered penalty is surprising in view of the fact that a committee of the Hlukhiv custom office replaced the previously signed document delineating the return of prayer books to the Jewish community with a new one specifying utilization of religious books: "given the fact that the books are exclusively of the Jewish religion... they are to be utilized." Fines or other disciplinary penalties can hardly prevent the emergence of future acts of an anti-Semitic or religiously offensive nature.
With regards to the transferral of the once religious structure – the Jewish synagogue – into private control – today the movie theatre Kinopanorama – by the Kyiv City Council, this is hardly a new phenomenon for Ukraine, especially not for Kyiv. Due to loopholes in legislation, many once religious structures have been wrested from communities by various self-governing municipal branches and placed into private arms to be successively resold or rearranged into hotel complexes, entertainment establishments or casinos, as, for example, happened with a former religious building in downtown Kyiv. In spite of these incidents of privatization, today and in the past several years, local state administrations and the State Property Fund have catalogued a number of religious buildings and other church structures with the aim of returning them to religious organizations.
The issue at hand, transgressed before the very eyes of Ukrainian representatives, has prompted PACE to put pressure not only on the Ukrainian religious community, but also on higher international institutions to find a resolution. For this reason, the path from words to concrete actions for the Ukrainian government lies in the secure institution of laws for religious freedom and the displacement of the existing processes of property expropriation of the former properties of religious organizations.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Y. Tymoshenko is optimistic, at least according to her address from a recent meeting with members of the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations of 11 April 2008 . The parliamentary head was especially urged to address the necessity of working out appropriate legislative changes so that the previously stated and other problems hindering religious organizations could be resolved. On this topic, Yulia Tymoshenko believes that religious organizations have the right to their property, property that resides not only in state control, but also in communal holdings . She is hopeful that practical measures will be taken to resolve the problems impeding the proper functioning of religious organizations in the near future, so that Ukraine will soon be getting compliments from both European and international partners rather than criticism.
 Minutes of the 16 April 2008 PACE session:
 Government portal:
 Official State Committee of Ukraine on Matters of Nationalities and Religions website: