Increasing Russophobia and political games with the refugees in Belgium

Marina Kontara

There was no doubt that the Belgian government and state would align with their EU and NATO allies in the context of the war in Ukraine. Apart from totally supporting the western alliance’s policy, there has also been a campaign by the authorities to promote support for Ukrainian refugees. The Belgian royal family even announced that it will provide three royal family properties to host Ukrainian refugees! Several municipalities in Belgium have launched a call to their residents, suggesting possible ways of supporting refugees or the suffering people in Ukraine: this can range from food and clothing collection to hosting refugees. At a live show co-organised and broadcasted by three Flemish TV channels last week, the impressive amount of 17.7 million € was collected by the public and will be offered to NGOs which are working with refugees and war victims in Ukraine. 

This attitude of the authorities marks a striking difference in comparison to the way the refugees of the 2015/6 wave were dealt with. Back then, citizens and rank-and-file organisations had taken initiatives of material support to the hundreds of refugees who arrived in Belgium, but there was practically no help or initiative on behalf of the authorities. On the contrary, one solidarity centre set up in a spontaneous way in Brussels, was brutally evacuated by the police some weeks later. And the mainstream media had a totally different approach towards them.

Increasing Russophobia

At the same time, a worrying wave of Russophobia is also being witnessed. Elena Bourenina is a 37-year-old classical song teacher. She is Belgian but of Russian origin. She has been living in Wallonia since she was 10, when her mother migrated from Russia. She recently gave an interview to an RTL broadcast, denouncing several kinds of attacks against Russian people living in her area, or even people carrying Russian-like names or speaking Russian. 

“More and more people around me are afraid to speak Russian in the street!” 

she exclaims. As she says, Russian is an official language in four countries (and a recognised minority language in nine others), so someone can speak Russian or carry a Russian family name, while being Moldovan, Kazakh – or even Ukrainian. In her interview, she talked about several kinds of attacks: aggressive messages on Instagram, verbal attacks in the street, smashed cars or house façades – only because of someone’s Russian name at the doorbell or on their Instagram account. 

Elena Bourenina also expressed concerns about the cancel-culture growing strong against Russian art. In her words:

“Why are the people turning against the Russian people who have not asked for anything of this? The Russians are now in the front line against the war. In Belgium, Russians and Ukrainians, we are still friends. We support each other. We have friends who are going through tragedies at the moment with their family stuck in Ukraine.” 

Propaganda at the primary school?

I had a discussion with a mother living in Wallonia (the French-speaking part of Belgium) who had her 7-year-old child suffering from nightmares for several days, after the teacher showed footage from bombings in Ukraine in his class, a class of 2nd grade primary school kids! A few days later, the children started excluding one pupil whose mother is Russian, and refused to play with this kid! 

Quite apart from the problematic (to put it mildly) pedagogical methods of this teacher, a school, like the arts, is a place where the prevailing principles should be solidarity, fraternity, tolerance, inclusiveness and acceptance. It is enraging that racism or racist attitudes are tolerated – even more so, promoted – in primary schools. 

Discriminatory migration policies

There has been a lot of talk about how several European countries are loosening their migration and asylum policies for Ukrainian refugees. According to the instructions circulated at the social services in Flanders, Ukrainian citizens arriving or already living legally in Belgium, are granted exceptional permits and/or visa extensions, while the procedures are considerably simplified for them. On top of that, Ukrainian nationals already living in Belgium, will not be persecuted or expelled even if their permit has expired for as long as 3 months. These exemptions do not apply to other refugees, even if they originate from a war zone.

It is of course correct that Ukrainian people fleeing from this horrible war, having probably lost everything, are treated in a humane way, supported financially and granted benefits. All war refugees and migrants should actually be treated in this way. Ukrainian refugees are not “more” or “better” refugees than Syrians or Afghanis, and the fact that the latter are not treated in the same way is a testament of the hypocrisy of the Western governments. 

In this case, this discrimination is not due to colour or religion. Russians are as much “white” and “Christian” as Ukrainians, yet they see their cars smashed and receive threatening messages, while this seems to be tolerated and even provoked by the authorities. The reason for this discrimination is that the EU and NATO countries consider Ukraine as their geopolitical ally, a useful tool to corner Russia and Putin on the geopolitical chessboard. Once again, people are used as an asset for political games. We have actually seen this before: in 2016/17, Turkey had pushed refugees to cross the Greek border, spreading rumours about them being allowed to continue their trip and reach European countries. A few weeks later, they were blocked at the Greek-North Macedonian border and then bottlenecked at the border of Serbia with Hungary. A similar scenario was repeated a few months ago at the border of Belarus with Poland. 

The fact that Ukrainians are being treated humanely now, does by no means guarantee that they will have a better life as refugees in Belgium or any other country in the future. Soon, when their role in the geopolitical game is exhausted, they will also be as poor and exploited as other migrants before them, regardless of their origin. Soon their white skin and Christian faith will be forgotten, and they will need to struggle for decent work, a salary and life. 

Political games and the far-right

Infamous Vlaams Belang chairman Tom Van Grieken told the Flemish radio that Ukrainian refugees are certainly welcomed, provided that the rest of asylum requests are suspended, because there is not enough space and money for all. The far-right party has also declared its intention to introduce a motion against three federal ministers for violating the Dublin convention provisions in their handling of the Ukrainian refugees. The responsible Minister of course replied that there is no legal way of suspending asylum requests, while the situation around Ukrainian refugees is exceptional. 

Vlaams Belang has also made public their intention to back a request from Poland, Hungary and Slovakia, to receive extraordinary EU funds, in order for them to respond to the refugee crisis. Vlaams Belang’s stance is as hypocritical as any government’s or institutional political force’s: they never took this position in relation to the Syrian or other refugees also fleeing from war. On the contrary, their argument has always been that there is not enough space for them in Europe and that they should go back to where they came from. 

The thing is though, that once again, refugees are instrumentalised in the framework of political games and rivalries. We should not forget that Vladimir Putin has expressed his sympathy for Vlaams Belang’s leading member Filip Dewinter, while his friendly relationships with other far-right European leaders is also widely known. One thing is for sure: neither the far-right nor the government’s ministers are empathising with the refugees’ tragedy, in the same way as they do not care for the sufferings of the Belgian or other European people.

The European and NATO governments carry severe responsibilities for all the wars and crises happening in the Middle East, Asia or Africa. They also have their share of responsibility for the war in Ukraine. We are witnessing huge budget flows for military support to Ukraine and for tackling the refugee crisis that has been triggered by the war, while quite recently we were told that there was not enough money for supporting the public health sector or the refugees from other countries. At the same time, Russians and Russian-speaking people are turned into scapegoats, despite the fact that they are the first victims of Putin’s authoritarian regime and that they are often standing up to it. 

The people’s interests lay with unity, inclusion and solidarity. Division and discrimination are only serving the ruling class’ interests. We stand with the Ukrainian, refugees, with the oppressed Russian people and with all the victims fleeing wars and poverty, no matter what their origin. We stand for a united anti-war movement, based on an internationalist and working-class perspective, against imperialist aggression.

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