In Ukraine, football helps us tackle Nazis

By Toby Axelrod, June 21, 2012
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Pavel Klymenko is a man of convictions. He used to express them on the streets of Kiev, in hand-to-hand combat with neo-Nazis. Today, he fights racism and antisemitism in another way: with words and watchfulness.

From 2004-2006, Mr Klymenko and other teenagers tried to take the streets back from neo-Nazi groups who walked around “wearing Nazi symbols and beating up people they did not like”, said Mr Klymenko, who today is co-founder and chair of Football Against Prejudices, a group which monitors stadiums for hate crimes.

Back then, “we were like the punk fans against the Nazi invaders”. With no weapons, he and his friends took on the neo-Nazis, who sometimes used paving stones and screwdrivers.

Eventually, the young anti-fascists took another tack. “We had fulfilled our self-described role,” since the neo-Nazis stopped dominating the streets.

“It was a containment strategy. And we realised that this is not the way you can fight problems in society at large.”

Now, Mr Klymenko — who describes himself as an atheist — is working to raise awareness of right-wing extremism among football fans. During the current European Championship games in Poland and Ukraine, local volunteers have been watching the stands and reporting anything untoward.

A football fan himself, Mr Klymenko notes that neo-Nazis find the sport attractive because “there is a crowd mentality. It is a very fruitful field for neo-Nazis because you can say that bad things are the fault of foreigners or Jews, and everyone will say, ‘Yay!’”

But football may be bringing positive change. Rafal Pankowski, co-ordinator of the ‘Respect Diversity — Football Unites’ project, which operates under the umbrella of the London-based Football Against Racism in Europe (Fare) said: “For people in Poland and Ukraine to walk around and see this big, multi-national crowd, it is a positive confrontation with multi-culturalism. And we do our bit to encourage this good atmosphere.”
Some 2,500 spots in Poland and Ukraine have been turned into “inclusive zones”, with posters condemning racism, said Mr Pankowski’s colleague, Jacek Purski. A hotline encourages witnesses to report incidents.

In addition, to combat antisemitism among fans, a travelling exhibition on the history of football in Poland includes a section on the involvement of Jewish athletes, club owners and fans in the early days of the game.
All these efforts appear to be helping, said Mr Pankowski. In the current international games, “people want to show they are normal Europeans and not eastern barbarians”, he said.

Last updated: 3:56pm, June 21 2012