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In Central Asia, Patriotic Russian Symbol Claimed By Ukraine Separatists Is Revived

St. George's ribbons being handed out on the streets of the Tajik capital, Dushanbe. (file photo)
St. George's ribbons being handed out on the streets of the Tajik capital, Dushanbe. (file photo)
The St. George ribbon, a military symbol of both Imperial and Soviet Russia, is being distributed in several Central Asian countries ahead of Victory Day on May 9, an ostensibly apolitical move that could provoke tensions as the ribbon also symbolizes pro-Russian separatism in Ukraine.

The Russian Embassy in Uzbekistan is distributing the orange-and-black ribbons until the eve of May 9. However, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, spoke to a Tashkenter who visited the embassy on April 23 and found few taking the embassy up on its offer. The Russian Embassy told RFE/RL that it could not provide statistics about how many people were getting the ribbons until after Victory Day.

In Tajikistan, the ribbon is being distributed by the Russian nonprofit Institute for Eurasian Research in the capital, Dushanbe. The organization told RFE/RL's Tajik Service that 150 schoolchildren will take part in events related to the ribbon from May 5-10 under the slogan "We remember! We are proud!"
ALSO READ: What's Orange And Black And Bugging Ukraine?

The Border Service of Kyrgyzstan issued a press release on April 29 announcing the relay of the ribbon beginning on the Tajik border and ending on May 9 in Moscow, when three veterans will be presented with the ribbon in Red Square.

WATCH: Kyrgyz soldiers taking part in a St. George's ribbon relay race in the Batken region near Tajikistan. (RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service)
Kyrgyz Soldiers Participate In St. George's Ribbon Relay
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The ribbon has been revived in recent years in Russia as patriotism has grown under President Vladimir Putin after the Soviet collapse. In 2005, journalists from RIA Novosti and an organization called Student Community began a campaign to distribute ribbons ahead of May 9. The campaign is continuing after RIA's liquidation and reconstitution as Rossiya Segodnya.

Backers of Russian actions in Ukraine are using the ribbon to show support for the invasion of Crimea and opposition to the new Ukrainian government in Kyiv. Many Duma lawmakers have worn the ribbons on their suits, and pro-Russian activists in eastern Ukraine have donned it as well.

Symbol Of Occupation?

Russian machinations in Ukraine have put Central Asian states in a geopolitical bind: Putin's declaration of protecting all Russian speakers could apply to those countries (all of which have varying populations of ethnic Russians), making leaders wary of alienating Moscow.

Local residents told RFE/RL's broadcast services that the symbols sparked concern.
St. George's ribbons are distributed in Moscow on April 24, ahead of Victory Day.
St. George's ribbons are distributed in Moscow on April 24, ahead of Victory Day.

Tajik journalist Safvat Burhonov told RFE/RL that the ribbon is a symbol of Russian occupation.

"Russia in this way is demonstrating its strength," Burhonov said, "because NATO troops are leaving Afghanistan and, secondly, the influence of Russia has decreased in the world -- in order to hold its influence in Central Asia, it must change the government and implement other things. In addition to that, in Tajikistan, it has a powerful base."

Jahangir Shosalimov, a Tashkent resident, told RFE/RL that the Ukraine crisis has made Uzbek society view Russia with suspicion. "We respect the people of Russia. We have boundless love for Russia. But this does not mean respect for Russian chauvinism. This does not mean to place the interests of Russia above the interests of Uzbekistan," Shosalimov said. "In this sense, we would have supported it if would not be seen as a manifestation of Russian nationalism and chauvinism."
Written by Luke Johnson based on reporting by RFE/RL's Uzbek, Tajik, and Kygyz Service