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To Counter Putin's "Nazi" Spiel, Ukraine Must Include the Roma in Its Postwar Plans

April 2024 -5 minutes read

Ukraine and its allies should ensure that the valuable contributions of Roma communities are recognised and acknowledged in post-war Ukraine by being treated better than in pre-war Ukraine, Zeljko Jovanovic writes.


This might not seem the right time to talk about the Roma in Ukraine. 

The country’s leadership is struggling to maintain support from key allies. The US still hasn't delivered on its promise of support. And the Israel-Palestine war has captured the global public attention. 

Yet, here is why this is exactly the right moment to focus on the situation of the Roma in Ukraine—and why they are significant for Ukraine’s future.

When we talk of the Roma in Ukraine, we are actually talking about what is at the core of the moral justifications of this war against Russia. 

On the one side, Vladimir Putin claims that one of his goals is to “de-nazify” Ukraine. On the other side, Ukraine and its allies claim the war is about defending shared European values, such as freedom, equality, rule of law and justice. 

To distinguish empty rhetoric from true commitment to these values in a society, one can look at how its most vulnerable citizens are being treated. 

As in other European countries, the Roma in Ukraine are the most vulnerable groups and have suffered from economic dispossession, discrimination and violence. But the war has brought people closer.

Our survey to understand the impact of the war on Roma shows that every fourth Roma citizen contributes to the defence of Ukraine. 

Perhaps an even more significant fact is that every third among them is a volunteer. They are in the trenches fighting for the values the Ukrainian leadership and its allies stand for.

With their contribution and sacrifice, the Roma in Ukraine have already redefined what being a hero means. 

Viktor Ilchak, a soldier who has been awarded the bravery medal, is just one of the Roma who fight for their country even when they know the country has been unfair to them, their families, and communities—before the war and today.

Disadvantages and discrimination made worse by war

Of course, the Roma are adversely impacted because many do not carry a formal form of identification. We found that the registration system for internally displaced persons (IDPs) is neither effective in all regions nor accessible to all citizens. 

It largely depends on access to the internet and to legal documentation, neither of which are widespread among Roma IDPs, who also experience strong prejudice that prevents them from receiving assistance.

Moreover, the war exacerbates the existing legacy of disadvantages and discrimination of the Roma before the war.


As the broader economic downturn intensifies competition for jobs, the Roma are disadvantaged due to prejudice and, in many cases, the lack of knowledge of the Ukrainian language, which seems to affect the community more than other Russian–speaking citizens.


In the Kyiv and Lviv regions, the survey identified extremely high rates of school absenteeism among Roma. Key barriers are cost, distance and transport. 

Many Roma live in informal properties and do not have the relevant legal documentation to confirm ownership. 

Of the survey respondents, nearly two-thirds held no official documentation of housing ownership and could not access current systems for compensation. 

Small–scale trade, low–skilled jobs and the collection of recyclable waste—the main income sources for the Roma before the war—have been disrupted or entirely lost due to the war. 

As the broader economic downturn intensifies competition for jobs, the Roma are disadvantaged due to prejudice and, in many cases, the lack of knowledge of the Ukrainian language, which seems to affect the community more than other Russian–speaking citizens.

There are useful lessons elsewhere

Therefore, if the shared values Ukraine and its allies defend are to be a reality in post-war Ukraine, the reconstruction plans should not mean going back to the situation in which the Roma have lived, ignoring and forgetting their heroism and sacrifice. 

If political attention is only given to ethnic Ukrainians and Russians—as it has been in the past—these shared values will be nothing but lip service.

In a historical parallel, Kosovo offers a useful lesson. Before that war, the Roma population in Kosovo was estimated at between 100,000 and 150,000; following the conflict, less than 20,000 remain. 


The vicious and violent uprooting of Roma by a war they had no role in causing has largely been invisible and ignored.


The vicious and violent uprooting of Roma by a war they had no role in causing has largely been invisible and ignored. 

The situation of the Roma from Kosovo continues to be overlooked, and the key players relevant to the future of Kosovo deal exclusively with the interests of the ethnic Albanians and Serbs.

Therefore, in order to counter Putin’s narrative about “denazification” as a reason for the war, a clear plan, political commitment and delivery on improving the situation of Roma might be one of the strongest rebuttals. 

Ukraine and its allies should ensure that the valuable contributions of Roma communities are recognised and acknowledged in post-war Ukraine by being treated better than in pre-war Ukraine.

Ukraine can live up to its values

Ultimately, there is also a clear economic rationale besides the moral imperative. Ukraine has had a declining population for decades and is currently experiencing drastic demographic shifts as a result of the war. 

The pre-war population of 43 million has been reduced to an estimated 28-34 million; the society is ageing, and the workforce is shrinking. 

At the same time, the Roma are the youngest ethnic group. Many speak multiple languages and have proven to be adaptable, entrepreneurial and resilient. 

With proper investment in education, training, employment and entrepreneurship, the Roma will be well-equipped to make a meaningful contribution to Ukraine's economic recovery, as well as a society that lives up to the values its leadership and allies proclaim.


This article was originally published by Euronews on April 11, 2024.

Author(s)

Zeljko Jovanovic

President

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