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Ukraine: Ethnic Relations Good, But Some Fear Russian Manipulation

Russian or Ukrainian -- some say it makes little difference (file photo) Some Ukrainians fear that the current political crisis could drive a wedge between their country's ethnic Russian and Ukrainian communities. For now, Ukrainians interviewed on the streets of Kyiv say both groups are getting on fine. But analysts warn that Ukraine's push for greater independence and democracy could encourage Moscow to use Ukrainian Russians as a tool to poison relations between the communities and help keep Kyiv in Moscow's grip.

Kyiv, 2 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Ukrainians say relations with their Russian-speaking countrymen are as good as ever.

Volodymyr, an ethnic Ukrainian, told RFE/RL in Kyiv that his country's present political crisis has not harmed relations with ethnic Russians, who account for nearly a fifth of Ukraine's 50 million people.

"I do not think it has [harmed relations]," Volodymyr said. "Let's say that for now, relations between Russia and Ukraine are growing much worse on the level of state authorities, but not between ordinary people."

Oleh, also a Ukrainian, said ethnicity was not a major factor in last month's disputed presidential elections, which sparked massive protests by the pro-Western supporters of opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko.

And he said it is false to say ethnic Russians exclusively supported pro-Moscow Prime Minister Victor Yanukovych, the election's official winner.

"Among the Russians I know, all of them voted for Yushchenko," Oleg said. "I also know Ukrainians who voted for Yanukovych, although I don't know any Russians who voted for him."

Volodymyr added that Russians and Ukrainians are brothers -- and always will be.

"We have many Russian friends. We get together and talk. If they ask, we answer in Russian," Volodymyr said. "Why? For me it makes no difference. It is easy for me to communicate both in Ukrainian and in Russian. We discuss all problems in Russian. We communicate with them and feel no difference: Is he a Russian or a Ukrainian? We are brothers. We are Slavs."

Many people in Kyiv speak Russian and it is often difficult to guess, without asking, to which community a person belongs. Some say they use Ukrainian only at home but resort to Russian at work simply because everybody understands it.

Slava, an ethnic Russian, said he was born in Kyiv and understands some Ukrainian, but never speaks it. He said he fully supports the Ukrainian state, but would not be happy if it ever imposed Ukrainian on Russian speakers.

Still, despite the apparent harmony, analysts say relations between Ukrainians and ethnic Russians could become strained depending on the outcome of the political crisis.
"We communicate with them and feel no difference: Is he a Russian or a Ukrainian? We are brothers. We are Slavs." -- Volodymyr

Igor Losev, a professor of history and philosophy at the prestigious Kyiv-Mohilev Academy, said relations will largely depend on the policy of the Kremlin and developments in Ukraine. He said that Moscow already has the tools, such as Russian Movement of Ukraine, a political party, to affect attitudes among Ukrainian Russians.

"This Russian Movement seems to be a marginal organization, and gets less than once percent in elections," Losev said. "However, they can afford to publish dozens of newspapers -- perfectly printed, expensive newspapers that are distributed free of charge."

At its heart, Losev said the main difference between Russia and Ukraine is a historical and cultural one. Large parts of Ukraine once belonged to Poland, Austro-Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. While all of those countries have democratic histories, Losev said that "Russia was never a democracy and has little to do with Western values."

Losev said the biggest problem in relations between Kyiv and Moscow is whether Ukraine will choose the Western way of development and allow the will of the people to win out in the current political standoff.

But he said he believes this scenario would be impossible for Russia to accept.

Yesterday, Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested that Russia was far from pleased with the developments in Ukraine. After meeting in Moscow with outgoing Ukraine President Leonid Kuchma, Putin dismissed a demand by Yushchenko for a repeat of his disputed presidential runoff with Yanukovych.

Putin also strongly criticized European efforts to mediate in the crisis.

Losev, for his part, was not surprised by the developments in Moscow.

"I am afraid that Russia will not accept it and I think the Russian Federation is capable of taking very tough and cunning actions," Losev said. "It is not difficult to understand why -- this regime of neo-totalitarianism in Russia, which Putin calls "managed democracy," cannot coexist with a democratic Ukraine."

If Russia is losing control in Ukraine, Losev said, the Kremlin is likely to play "the so-called Ukrainian Russian card" -- and whip up fears among Russian speakers that their interests would be trampled under a pro-Western Ukrainian government.

And if that happens, he said, Ukraine's ethnic harmony could prove short-lived.

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