Updated: Friday, 11 April 2014 04:08 | By Agence France-Presse

Ukrainians in Russia torn between two sides

Ukrainians in Russia have found themselves thrust into the heart of the standoff between Moscow and Kiev, confronting both their own divided loyalties and fears of rising Russian hostility toward them.


Ukrainians in Russia torn between two sides

Ukrainian nationalist activists shout slogans as they hold national flags during a demonstration rally in front of pro-Russian activists at the regional administration building in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv on April 7, 2014 - by Sergey Bobok

"The situation is tragic. My life has been split in two, I cannot choose between my two eyes," Nina Kibrik, who was born in Moscow to Ukrainian parents, told AFP.

The tension between pro-Europeans and pro-Russians in Ukraine worsened with the overthrow in February of pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych following deadly protests and with the Kremlin's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region in March.

"People are divided... There is a civil war in their minds. All we can do is pray" for peace, said Kibrik.

Kibrik helps organise an annual festival of Slavic culture in the eastern Ukrainian city of Putyvl but she is now wondering whether she will be able to continue doing so.

As for Crimea's annexation by Russia, it was "an action prepared in advance by the Russian government," said Leontiy, an 82-year-old Moscow resident who refused to give his last name.

"I am very concerned about what the government is doing, as are my Russian friends. But there is nothing we can do," said the old man born in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking East.

The two-million-strong Ukrainian diaspora is Russia's second-biggest ethnic minority after the Tatars. Russia hosts another three million migrant workers from Ukraine.

Russian attitudes towards neighbouring and former Soviet Ukraine have deteriorated since pro-Western officials took power in Kiev following the overthrow of Yanukovych at the end of February.

The number of Russians with negative attitudes towards the country has increased from 26 percent in January to 37 percent in March, according to a recent poll by the independent pollster, Levada Centre.

- Anti-Ukrainian propaganda -

"There is a feeling of great anxiety" among Ukrainians, said Igor Rozdobudko who is in charge of the Ukrainian diaspora’s independent website, Kobza. "Anti-Ukrainian sentiments are lately being injected into Russian society," he said.

"Unfortunately, this anti-Ukrainian propaganda is becoming increasingly entrenched in the Russian population. Being a Ukrainian patriot now means being Russia's enemy," Rozdobudko added.

But Alexey Grigorovich, deputy head of the pro-Kremlin Council of Ukrainians, disagreed.

"There is no risk of tensions between Russians and Ukrainians, or between Russians and (Ukrainian) migrants -- if they do not manifest extremism," he said.

"The vast majority of Russians are well disposed towards Ukrainians," he said.

"We do not expect any incidents" related to anti-Ukrainian sentiments, said Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the Sova centre which tracks nationalist and xenophobic attitudes. 

"How could aggressive nationalists single out Ukrainians, distinguish between them and Russians?" he wondered.

An independent analyst, Dmitry Oreshkin, said he doesn’t expect for now any discriminatory measures against Ukrainians in Russia, unlike what happened toward Georgians here during the 2008 Russia-Georgia war.

"During the war, they were perceived as enemies because all Georgians supported (pro-Western then-president Mikheil) Saakashvili."

"But Ukraine is a divided country and our government wants to play this up. This is why I do not foresee any inevitable consequences against Ukrainians," Oreshkin said.

In any event, the unfolding crisis has visibly boosted ethnic self-consciousness among members of Russia's Ukrainian diaspora, said a young Ukrainian man working in an international company in Moscow who asked to withhold his name.

"I myself have never felt being more Ukrainian than I do now - even though ethnically I am partly Russian myself," he said.

"My impression is that some Russians do not take these events seriously - or at least many don't understand how important and even frightening this situation is for Ukrainians."

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