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On Russia's Borders, Opposition Mounts to Patriotic Symbol Ahead Of Victory Day

Pro-Russia activists hand out St. George Ribbons in Kazakhstan ahead of Victory Day celebrations on May 9.
Pro-Russia activists hand out St. George Ribbons in Kazakhstan ahead of Victory Day celebrations on May 9.
The St. George Ribbon, an orange-and-black military symbol of both imperial and Soviet Russia, is encountering scattered resistance ahead of Victory Day celebrations in several former Soviet republics amid a push by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine to claim the ribbon as their own.

In western Ukraine, many are shunning the ribbon for the May 9 celebration of the victory over Nazi Germany and instead will wear poppies similar to those worn in Britain and other Western countries to honor fallen soldiers.

The initiative is being organized by the Ukrainian Institute for National Memory, created in 2006 by then President Viktor Yushchenko to try to reclaim Ukrainian history from the Soviet era.

In eastern Ukraine, meanwhile, the ribbons are a sign of opposition to the new government in Kyiv and solidarity with Russia.

In Belarus, various groups are calling for a ban on the ribbon and looking for an alternative. The opposition group "For Freedom" said in a statement that the ribbon is "more and more becoming a symbol of Russian imperialism."

During the Ukraine crisis, the ribbon has become a symbol of the "glorification of separatism and military aggression," the group said.

The pro-government Belarusian Youth Union advised its members to wear red-and-green ribbons -- the colors of the Belarusian flag -- instead of the orange and black of the St. George Ribbon. While the group did not call for an outright ban, it called the red-and-green alternative "our patriotic ribbon."

Increasing Salience

There are also plans for alternative ribbons in Kazakhstan.

On May 5, some Kazakh-speaking users of Facebook, including civic activist Kasim Amanzholuly, changed their profile pictures to the colors of Kazakhstan's flag -- blue and yellow -- in the pattern of the ribbon.

Several months ago, the head of Almaty's department of internal politics promised that, instead of the St. George's Ribbon, one featuring the colors of Kazakhstan's flag could be used, Amanzholuly said.

"The department promised to find funds and hold a special contest. However, it seems that everything remained [as it was]," Amanzholuly said.

The internal politics department said that it was not aware of the contest.

While the efforts are scattered, they appear to signal that, in disparate regions, the pro-Russian significance of the ribbon is gaining salience. In several Central Asian countries, pro-Russian groups have organized to distribute the ribbons ahead of Victory Day. They argue that it is purely a symbol of historical memory and that its use has no connection to the unrest in Ukraine.

Yevgeniya Kadikova, who was passing out the orange-and-black ribbons on May 6 in Almaty, said she did not know why supporters of Russia in Crimea were wearing the St. George Ribbon. But she did not foresee any backlash in Kazakhstan.

"I think that this ribbon will not be looked at negatively," she said. "We do not pursue political aims, we think only about how to remember our grandfathers who died during the war."
Written by Luke Johnson in Washington based on reporting by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service
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