Illia Ponomarenko. Photo: Volodymyr Petrov

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Over 20 Finnish organizations have voiced strong criticism of the World Village Festival, set to take place on May 25-26, due to the inclusion of a controversial far-right speaker. The groups demand that the festival cancel the appearance of Illia Ponomarenko, a Ukrainian journalist whose past associations have sparked significant concern.

Illia Ponomarenko, sponsored by the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is known for his reporting on Russia's war against Ukraine.

However, his links to the Azov regiment—a group widely criticized for its neo-Nazi ties—have drawn sharp rebuke. Ponomarenko has publicly praised Azov, referring to its members as his "brothers-in-arms" and has written articles that some perceive as whitewashing the group's far-right connections.

Majed Abusalama, Vice-Chair of Sumud – The Palestinian Network in Finland, voiced his dismay: "The World Village Festival claims to be an anti-racist event with a theme of courage. How can it feature a speaker who promotes far-right ideologies?"

Publications like Haaretz and The New York Times have documented Azov's neo-Nazi affiliations, highlighting antisemitic and extremist rhetoric within the group. Human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have reported on Azov's violent actions against LGBTQ+ individuals and Roma communities.

The controversy extends beyond Finland. Time magazine has reported on Azov's significant role in international far-right networks, noting its influence through online propaganda and training of foreign fighters. These activities have reportedly persisted during the period Ponomarenko has been associated with and praised the group.

Fingo, the umbrella organization for Finnish development NGOs and organizer of the World Village Festival, has defended Ponomarenko's inclusion, stating that he denies the allegations against him. Critics argue that evidence of his far-right affiliations is evident from his social media and published articles.

Despite the festival’s declared values of human solidarity and anti-racism, the organizations opposing Ponomarenko's participation stress that hosting him contradicts these principles. They commend the festival for supporting the rights of Ukrainians suffering from the war but firmly oppose giving a platform to far-right ideologies.

Majed Abusalama expressed further disappointment, emphasizing the festival’s lack of focus on the ongoing genocide in Palestine. He insisted that Fingo has a moral duty to actively oppose racism and far-right extremism, underscoring the need for rigorous vetting of speakers to protect marginalized communities.

"Fingo should do its homework before allowing antisemites and far-right extremists into a civic space," Abusalama asserted. "There should be no room for racism or racists at any festival."

The controversy surrounding Ponomarenko’s participation has ignited a broader conversation about the responsibility of public events to uphold their stated values and the necessity of thorough scrutiny in speaker selection. As the World Village Festival approaches, the debate highlights the ongoing struggle against racism and extremism within public forums.

HT

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