KIEV, Ukraine — The Roma who live in tarpaulin camps and abandoned buildings in and around Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, say they make their money harmlessly by picking wildflowers and selling the bouquets to lovers on the city’s streets.
But members of Ukrainian nationalist groups say that, instead, the Roma pick pockets, steal scrap metal and foul the city with their very presence, often dressed in rags and hand-me-downs while begging.
Tensions over the Roma are as old as Ukraine, and run as deep here as anywhere in Eastern Europe, but the ancient enmity has taken a twist recently.
Beginning in April, Ukrainian nationalist groups that were given free rein four years ago to fight the Russian military incursion have taken instead to attacking the softer targets of Roma camps, saying they are “cleaning” Ukraine’s cities.
After an attack in April on a camp in Lysa Hora park outside Kiev, when a nationalist group threw rocks, squirted pepper spray and burned down tents, it seemed like an outbreak of the old ethnic scourge, and the episode drew criticism from Western governments and rights groups.
The Ukrainian government seemed to see the assault differently, at least at first. Far from prosecuting the nationalist group, known as C14, which filmed the attack and posted photographs on the internet, the government gave it a state grant in the form of free rent for auditoriums to support “patriotic education.”
No arrests were made immediately after the April attack. Soon enough, five other major assaults ensued, along with dozens of smaller episodes. After one nationalist group, called Sober and Angry Youth, killed a Roma man, David Pap, last month in Lviv, the police intervened and detained suspects. Nothing was done against this group earlier, though it had posted a video online of its members chasing Roma through the city that it called “A Safari on the Gypsy.” In July, a court sentenced one participant in the April attack to two months of house arrest.
After one nationalist group, called Sober and Angry Youth, killed a Roma man, David Pap, last month in Lviv, the police detained suspects. Nothing had been done against the group earlier, though it had posted a video online of its members chasing Roma through the city that it titled “A Safari on the Gypsy.”
Officials say nine investigations into the attacks on the Roma are open, and they have spoken out against the violence, albeit belatedly.
“No group has the barbaric right to do what was done,” the interior minister, Arsen Avakov, said after the killing in Lviv. Mr. Avakov said the police would act “even if these people cover themselves with the status of veterans.”
The attacks pose a dilemma for the Western-backed government in Kiev, which analysts say is seeking populist appeal before presidential elections next spring. The government is beholden to nationalist paramilitaries for their role in the war in the east, even as some of those same groups espouse ugly ideologies.
“We were called fascists,” Yevhen Karas, the 30-year-old leader of C14, said in an interview, referring to the reaction to the attack in Lysa Hora park. But, he added, “I do not care what they call us.”
The C14 group also identifies itself as an educational group that organizes lectures and seminars for journalists, young people and others on a number of topics, including law and security. About 10,000 people have attended their seminars, the group said.
C14 said in a statement that its members “safely burned” the camp of makeshift tents, saying they were “cleaning” Kiev.
Mr. Karas said C14’s members did not use excessive force while confronting Roma camps, and he asserted that the episodes were not xenophobic attacks.
Mr. Karas said the group’s mission was to weed out Russian influence in Kiev and to keep order in the city. He said the actions were prompted by the Roma “felling trees, stealing, and clogging” the streets.
The Roma people say the interventions are a dangerous menace. “They started throwing stones and anything else they could find,” Aranka, a Roma who offered only her first name, said in a telephone interview from western Ukraine, where she fled after the attack by C14 in April.
Olga Zhmurko, the Roma program director of the International Renaissance Foundation, a nongovernmental group that promotes democracy, said, “Far-right groups promote themselves as Robin Hoods who help communities manage the discomfort caused by Roma,” but in fact do little other than sow chaos.
Ukraine has a dark history regarding treatment of the Roma. During World War II, at least 22,000 of about 300,000 Roma killed by the Nazis in Europe were from what is now Ukraine, according to Mikhail Tyaglyy, a historian who has studied the genocide.
After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, the Roma were early targets during the Russian intervention in the east, with abuses starting on the pro-Russia side. Paramilitaries backed by Moscow rounded them up, saying they were dealing drugs.
Reacting to the more recent attacks, the rights groups Amnesty International, Front Line Defenders, Human Rights Watch and Freedom House published a joint letter in June condemning the government’s passivity. The United Nations has demanded that Ukraine’s government, which espouses European values and receives Western financial aid, bring “perpetrators to account.”
That is no easy task in a country where members of nationalist paramilitaries are also considered by many to be war heroes.
“We do not like the ugly side of our reflection, we prefer to turn away from unpleasant facts,” Mustafa Nayyem, a member of the Ukrainian Parliament who has been critical of President Petro O. Poroshenko, and an ethnic Afghan, said in a blog post about the racial attacks.
In any case, few Roma now remain in the Ukrainian capital, where they were once a common sight. Most left after the attacks began.
One, who offered only her first name, Anna, said that she and her children sold wildflower bouquets. She said she had migrated to the city, like many Roma, from the Carpathian foothills because “there is no work” in rural Ukraine. The attacks, she said, have frightened Roma: “It’s very difficult when a person doesn’t understand another person.”
Mr. Karas, the head of C14, noted that his group’s members confronted all “criminals,” not just those from ethnic minorities. He said the group also sought out and publicly shamed people they deem Russian sympathizers.
“When people look for justice,” he said. “They come to us.”