The life of minorities in Ukraine, one year after protests began
One year ago, Mustafa Nayyem, a Ukrainian journalist born in Afghanistan, began Euromaidan from his post on Facebook: "Let us be serious. Who is ready to come to The Independence Square today before midnight? Likes are not considered, only the comment, 'I am ready'.”
This year, Nayyem changed his journalistic career to become a member of the Ukrainian parliament. However, not only has his life changed this year, but all Ukraine has become different.
Euromaidan, the protest movement centered on Maidan (as Kyiv's Independence Square is known) led to a change of government in Ukraine in February. Tens of thousands participated in the protests, and around 100 people died. Since then, Russia has annexed Crimea from Ukraine, and more than 4,300 have died in fighting between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists, supported by Russia, in the country's east.
The protests began the evening of Nov. 21, 2013, as people gathered at Maidan objecting to the government's announcement that it would not sign a major economic partnership agreement with the European Union, in favor of a $15 billion bailout agreement with Russia.
Serhiy Nigoyan, a Ukrainian of Armenian descent, was the first victim of the protests: he died Jan. 22 on Hrushevskoho Street in Kyiv, just after the first stage of escalation.
"He was Ukrainian. My wife and I are left without anything. We had just one son. My wife still cries every day. One year after, nobody has told us who is actually are responsible for his death. We think we will never discover it. We just desire that he and other young people will stay in the memory of the people. After all, they are heroes,” Garik Nigoyan, Serhiy's father, told CNA.
Serhiy's death showed that Euromaidan was not only a protest of 'Ukrainian nationalists' – in addition to the Armenian-Ukrainian, Michael Zhyznevskyy, a Belarusian activist, died at Maidan Jan. 22.
Religious minorities were also joined together at the Maidan protests. While Jews and Muslims each constitute less than one percent of Ukraine's population, both religious groups were alongside the country's majority Christians at Maidan.
"I know that at Maidan it was the case that in a medical tent, a Muslim girl, who was an ethnic Russian, prayed close by a Jewish doctor. I don’t know if it would be possible otherwise, but for them it was absolutely natural,” the Jewish-born Ukrainian artist Oleksandr Roitburd told CNA.
“There were people from the right and the left, conservatives and liberals, anti-Semites and Jews, but they did not come to Maidan to fight against each other, but to protest against the government.”
"I don’t think that after Maidan there is less corruption – it is a process,” Roitburd said. “Even economic life is more difficult than before. Yet this is no longer perceived us as a humiliation, but we keep thinking hopefully. People began to appreciate the personal space of freedom.”
Russians, too, have found a place in Ukraine since the protests began a year ago.
Andrew Teslenko, who lived most of his life in Barnaul, Russia, 2,600 miles east of Kyiv, received refugee status in Ukraine this week, together with his wife.
“In Russia the police opened the criminal case against me, because of my support for Maidan – I had made just a few posts on Vkontacte,” a Russian social network. “This spring they accused me in 'inciting inter-ethnic conflict' and 'calling for extremism.' The maximum term of imprisonment is five years. They searched our flat, and removed all our computers. That night, my wife and I decided: we can’t stay there anymore, and needed to run.”
While their refugee status gives them the opportunity to legally work in Ukraine, it does not make it any easier for the Teslenkos to integrate into their new home. Nevertheless, Andrew says, “it is easier to breathe here.”
“Of course, I realize that Ukraine, as a country which was at war for a long while, cannot become successful in a short time. My wife and I want to help develop this country in the field of migration and integration of foreigners, as we ourselves passed this way.”
Christians, too, are forming new ties in Ukraine since Euromaidan.
On Nov. 13, representatives of five different Orthodox Churches in the country signed the “Rivne Memorandum,” which Archbishop Thomas Gullickson, apostolic nuncio to Ukraine, said in his Nov. 16 blogpost, “denounces inter-religious violence, calls for an end to Russian aggression in Ukraine, and formulates the wish that there should be one Orthodox Church for Ukraine.”
Two bishops of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church which is backed by the Moscow patriarchate were among the signatories, but they later withdrew from the memo, saying they had signed “under duress.”
In Crimea, by contrast, minorities have not always fared well under the changes of the past year.
Following the change of government in Ukraine, the country's southern peninsula was annexed by Moscow on March 18.
Crimean Tatars, the indigenous population of the peninsula who are nearly all Muslim and who constitute 15 percent of the total population, are facing particular persecution.
On Nov. 12, arson was attempted on the mosque in the village of Sonyachna Doluna. On Oct. 6 an activist, Eden Asanov, was found dead in Yevpatoria; she had been disappeared Sept. 29.
The Crimean Tatars say that the disappearing of young activists in Crimea is common, but no one takes responsibility for these actions.
On Sept. 16, the Majilis, the Crimean Tatars' representative office was searched for 16 hours, and the group's leader, Mustafa Dzhemilyev, was exiled from Crimea for five years by the Russian administration.
Refat Chubarow, the head of the Majlis and who is also exiled from Crimea, told CNA: "One day this conflict should finish. I believe it will. Than we need to help Russia somehow to be our good neighbor."
Alim Aliyev, co-founder of the volunteer organization Crimea SOS, added that “in Crimea there is a real danger to the life of each person who has a 'different' opinion. Anyone who thinks the annexation of Crimea is Russia's aggression, not a natural process, is considered an extremist. After the kidnapping, killing, and intimidation of activists, the Russian government wants Crimean Tatars to become humble citizens of the Russian Federation, or that we should leave Crimea ourselves, because of the circumstances they created. This is our land – it was too hard to return there, to leave it so easily.”
Of the 300,000 Tatars who call Crimea home, since Moscow annexed the peninsula on March 18, 8,000 have already emigrated.
"The Crimean Tatars traditionally are the most pro-Ukrainian population, because we have assimilated the most with Ukraine. With Ukrainians we are connected by common senses of life - we know what it means to defend the right to freedom; Russian don’t have this experience," a 26-year old Crimean Tatar told CNA.
"The Crimean Tatars still clearly remember Stalin's deportation, which for us is very painful. We don’t want back in the Soviet Union."