April 15, 2014
UNPO Conference on Minority Rights in Ukraine:
Political Crisis Gives New Meaning to
Minority Protection and Concept of Self-Determination
Brussels, 10 April 2014 - With the aim of addressing the sensitive, yet critical issue of minority protection in Ukraine in the burning context of the Crimean crisis, the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO), in collaboration with Members of the European Parliament Mrs. Inese Vaidere and Mr. László Tőkés, convened a conference entitled ‘Minority Rights in Ukraine: What is at Stake?’. The conference took place at the European Parliament in Brussels on April 9th 2014 and gathered a diverse audience of diplomats, experts, human rights defenders and high-ranking European politicians.
Following the opening remarks by László Tőkés MEP and Maud Vanwalleghem, UNPO Program Manager, the floor was given to MEP Dr. Vytautas Landsbergis. Dr. Landsbergis discussed the critical situation Ukraine’s minorities, particularly the Crimean Tatars, are now facing as a result of the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia. He expressed his deep concerns over the come-back of ‘medieval practices’, referring to the ongoing territorial disputes and conquest aspirations stimulated by Russia. UNPO treasurer Mr. Jeroen Zandberg also focused his speech on the situation of the Crimean Tatars, highlighting numerous human rights violations committed against them since the outbreak of the current crisis. Unjustified passport controls, the marking of doors, cases of land expropriation for ‘social purposes’, harassment of reporters, as well as mysterious disappearances are among the examples illustrating the unfear treatment of the Crimean Tatars. Dr. László Brenzovics, President of the Hungarian Cultural Association in Transcarpathia, insisted on the multi-ethnic aspect of Ukraine, which can be seen as either a strength or a weakness for the country. In this context, he recalled the necessity to take into account all minorities and cultural groups that compose the Ukrainian population: Hungarians, Romanians, Bulgarians, Russians, Poles and Tatars all count on the international community to protect their rights and unique cultures amidst escalating tensions.
What action could be undertaken to address these sensitive issues? The second panel attempted to explore different alternatives with Dr. Nadiya Tsok, Deputy Head of the Mission of Ukraine to the European Union as the first speaker. During her intervention, Dr. Tsok stressed on the importance of strong EU-Ukraine relations when it comes to tackling the Crimean crisis, and highlighted that the European Union has a significant role to play in making Russia change its course of action. She concluded by underlining the necessity to unify Ukraine around the concept of a democratic nation, all the while taking into account its multi-ethnic character, and ensuring fair treatment of each cultural group regardless of their origin. The next panelist, Mr. Niccolò A. Figà-Talamanca, Secretary General of No Peace Without Justice, stated that Ukraine should be proud to be a multi-ethnic country, and thus rid Russia of its current pretext, i.e. protection of Ukraine’s Russian minority, for invasive action. The last panellist, Dr. Olena Prystayko, Head of the Ukrainian Think Tanks Liaison Office in Brussels, pointed out three main weaknesses proper to Ukraine: energy dependence on Russia, high levels of corruption at all political stages, and the Russian minority used as a pretext for intervention. She highly encouraged the EU to tackle these weaknesses, as it would most likely have a positive impact on Ukraine, as well as contribute to resolving the ongoing crisis.
An important conclusion to be drawn from this conference is that the political crisis in Ukraine has seriously challenged previous negotiations about accommodating minority rights and the very concept of self-determination. Furthermore, a consensus emerged throughout the conference on the necessity and urgency to take swift action in order to guarantee minority protection and cultural preservation in Ukraine. As the country is moving forward towards finalizing its association agreement with the EU, all stakeholders must step up their efforts to find concrete solutions to the escalating tensions in Ukraine. UNPO believes that this conference was a positive step in giving more attention to the dire situation facing Ukraine’s different minorities, but further action is urgently needed.