By Paul Goble
Russians opposed to Kyiv’s plans to pursue a European rather than Eurasian vector in its foreign policy have raised the specter of all kinds of apocalyptic consequences for Ukraine if it does so. They have suggested that Ukraine will suffer economic collapse, that Russia will “revise” Ukrainian borders, and that the European Union will strip off Crimea and other regions from Kyiv’s control. But no more outrageous and flat out wrong prediction has been offered than the notion that if Ukraine integrates with Europe, that country will be overwhelmed by Arab and Islamic immigrants from the Middle East.
A clear example of this form of Russian disinformation is provided by Archpriest Yevgeny Maksimenko of the Dneprpetrovsk bishopric of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. In an article in a local newspaper that was picked up and disseminated by Russia’s Interfax news agency, Father Yevgeny says that Ukraine must not join Europe because to do so would mean that it would fill up with Europe’s “castoffs” and rapidly become “Islamicized” as have European cities (interfax-religion.ru/islam/?act=news&div=52726
In fact, just the reverse is certain to be the case. A vast majority of Ukraine’s perhaps two million Muslim nationality residents are Azerbaijanis or Central Asians who have moved to Ukraine for work. The indigenous Crimean Tatars number fewer than a third of a million, and other groups, including Lithuanian Tatars and ethnic Ukrainian converts to Islam, only in the hundreds. The Muslim workers from the Caucasus and Central Asia are there because of visa-free travel among member countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). If Ukraine were to join the Moscow-led Customs Union or the Eurasian Union, their numbers and share of the population of Ukraine would likely increase because of higher wages in Ukrainian industries.
But if Ukraine pursues a partnership with the European Union, exactly the opposite trends will be observed. Ukraine will undoubtedly introduce visa requirements for citizens of CIS states in order to move toward visa-free travel with EU countries. As a result, many of the Muslim guest workers in Ukraine are likely to return home, reducing the overall number of Muslims there. And, perhaps most important, because Ukraine will still have sufficient labor to man its factories and because wages in Ukraine are much lower than those in the EU, few people from Arab countries or other parts of the Muslim world will have any incentive to travel there.
The only positive thing about Russian suggestions to the contrary is that they do direct attention to Ukraine’s relatively small but vibrant Muslim community. There are several hundred mosques, several muftiates, and now even a Ukrainian-language translation of the Koran. And Kyiv has just announced that 160 Muslims from Ukraine will make the haj this year, about 1 percent of the number who will do so from the Russian Federation, which is casting itself as the defender of Ukraine from Islam (islamsng.com/ukr/news/7298; thekievtimes.ua/society/258605-yakubovich-perevel-koran-na-ukrainskij-yazyk.html; islamsng.com/ukr/news/7301; segodnya.ua/ukraine/160-musulman-pomolyatsya-za-Ukrainu-v-Mekke-464551.html