The war in eastern Ukraine and clash at the Black Sea: Church used as a political tool

by Rev. Paul Lansu
Pax Christi International Senior Advisor

The situation in eastern Ukraine can be described as a permanent and ongoing (-armed) conflict. Lives continue to be destroyed. The rebels of the two “People’s Republics” – Donetsk and Luhansk – and their backers in Moscow continue to provoke Ukrainian government forces. The Kiev government is doing little to win the “hearts and the minds” of the people in these two eastern republics. Tensions persist.

From time to time the continuing conflict in eastern Ukraine gets coverage in the national and international media. What is in the news is the persistent corruption coupled with the decline in living standards in the country that occupy the public. The rule of law remains low in Ukraine and that allows the government’s administration to pressure journalists, opinion makers and the broader civil society including churches for instance to speak out more in patriotic, nationalistic and uncritical wording. However, a political democracy needs critical opinions!

Identity of civil society is changing

For years, civil society has tended to be seen as liberal: supportive of human rights, democratic reform and the protection of minorities. Often, it is still these “progressive” causes that appeal to younger activists. However, today also in Ukraine, civil society involves an increasingly diverse mix of people and political goals, with those on the right gaining traction. Ukraine has seen radical national activists protest against Russian interference, while socially conservative groups, as in other Central European countries, focussed on religious and family values have grown. Identifying and belonging to a people, church and religion has apparently become a necessity for many. It mainly means turning against the other person who does not belong to his own group.

Russia wants to continue to exercise influence

The outcome of the 2018 presidential elections in Russia confirmed Vladimir Putin as its ongoing president. The presidential elections in Ukraine on 31 March 2019 will probably clarify the new direction the Ukrainian government is going to follow. The Minsk peace process[1] is not very popular and not part of the current debate. Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Ukraine began building defensive fortifications along its eastern border.

Russia does not want Ukraine to end up in the Western sphere of influence. Russia sees Ukraine as historically belonging to it. The cradle of Russian civilization is largely in Ukraine. It seems that there is a majority among the Russian public opinion having the Crimea annexed as historically part of their country. At the same time, the annexation of the Crimea is illegal and that is why the Russia-Ukraine conflict will remain internationally visible.

Black Sea clash

On 26 November 2018, the Ukrainian parliament has promulgated martial law for the next 30 days in all republics bordering on Russia after a weekend of naval confrontation off the disputed Crimean Peninsula in which Russia fired on and seized three Ukrainian vessels amid renewed tensions between the neighbours. While a 2003 treaty designates the Kerch Strait and Sea of Azov as shared territorial waters, Russia has sought to assert greater control over the passage since the annexation.

Since 2014, Russia views the Kerch Strait as its own territorial waters. It also claims territorial waters around Crimea. Russian officials fear a Ukrainian attack on the expensive, recently opened Crimean Bridge linking the Peninsula with Russia. The Russians no longer want free passage for Ukrainian vessels through the Kerch Strait without approval by Russia.

Churches used in political play

In October 2018, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew recognized Ukraine’s “autocephalous” independent Orthodox Church.[2] This recent new fact in Ukrainian society was not unexpected but reflects about the relationships between churches and nation states and is in this case, a country in transition, a dangerous fact that makes good neighbour ship between Russia and Ukraine even more complicated. Why is that? This is all about contemporary politics. There are some 12.000 churches in Ukraine that could become a new Russian-Ukrainian battleground.

For more than 300 years, the church in Ukraine has been part of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). The split of the two churches is one more consequence of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict that began in 2014. President Petro Poroshenko who is standing for re-election in 2019 wants this move and sees himself as the father of the nation using the super-patriotic triple slogan of “Army, Faith, Religion” in his campaign. He uses or misuses the relationships of the churches in his political campaign. Nevertheless, church leaders should be independent and should not become part of the nationalistic bargain. It is also clear that Russia will defend all the Russian Orthodox Christians “everywhere”. The Moscow ROC still has millions of adherents in Ukraine and it is the default mother church of many who also regard themselves as Ukrainian citizens.

The new autocephalous church will only be able credibly to call itself Ukraine’s national church if it can persuade thousands of priests currently loyal to the ROC to defect, along with their parishioners and churches. The split of churches within Ukraine and between the ROC and the Ecumenical Patriarchate is a step backwards towards unity and cooperation.[3] Is it splitting first and then working together again afterwards? The World Council of Churches has a file on top to mediate and to look for new forms of cooperation.

However, more important might be the religious dimension of the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine. It is possible that the church situation on the ground can provoke violence and spark yet another dimension to the conflict, which would be truly intra-Ukrainian and with a highly pronounced religious dimension. These types of conflict might be less manageable and can lead to fragmentation of political space, the rise of radical far-right conservative politics and largescale violence and chaos. There are groups of muscular young men who are prepared to fight for both churches. There are hundreds of villages and towns in eastern Ukraine where the ROC is strong.

Religious politics are now another reason to be worried about what 2019 will bring with the election campaign and the result of it in Ukraine.


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Ukraine’s conflict with Russia

By Rev. Paul Lansu
Senior Policy Advisor, Pax Christi International

Despite its central role in European politics and East-West relations more generally, the war in Ukraine has largely disappeared from public and political view. We must be aware that we face the real prospect of “the mother of all frozen conflicts” on our doorstep.

In international relations, a frozen conflict is a situation in which active armed conflict has been brought to an end, but no peace treaty or other political framework resolves the conflict to the satisfaction of the parties involved. A “frozen conflict” also means that there is no daily fighting but the situation remains permanently tense and a local outburst of violence is possible at any time. Therefore, legally the conflict can start again at any moment, creating an environment of insecurity and instability. The de facto situation that emerges may match the de jure position asserted by one party to the conflict; for example, Russia claims and effectively controls Crimea following the 2014 Crimean crisis despite Ukraine’s continuing claim to the region. Alternatively, the de facto situation may not match either side’s official claim.

The war in eastern Ukraine is also rapidly slipping off the political agenda in those countries tasked with brokering and ensuring peace and conflict resolution. The EU lost its dynamic and remains inwardly oriented for the time being. Ukraine will hold in 2019 both presidential and parliamentary elections and that is casting already a shadow over the domestic politics.

Whereas three-quarters of the population are ethnically Ukrainians, around 17% – mainly in the east of the country – are ethnically Russian and around 30% of the population say Russian is their first language. Ukraine is a country of more than 40 million people with very diverse views.

Some 2 million of these Russian-speaking Ukrainians instantly became Russian citizens on 18 March 2014 when Crimea was formally annexed by Russia. The loss of Crimea was compounded by a well-armed pro-Russia separatist movement in eastern Ukraine, which has led to months of heavy – but inconclusive – fighting with government forces.

High number of displaced

The conflict in eastern Ukraine has claimed over 10.000 lives and more than 24.000 wounded and constitutes a grave ongoing humanitarian crisis. About 1.8 million have been displaced internally or are affected by conflict in Ukraine, and an estimated 1 million have fled to Russia. At the end of 2017, the UN estimated that almost 4.4 million people are affected by the conflict, with 3.4 million of them in need of humanitarian aid and protection.

Mother Russia is alive again!

It was and still is the ambition of President Vladimir Putin to restore Russia’s status in the world. That meant for instance in 2014 the threat of military force to help local pro-Russian forces accomplish the annexation of Crimea – a majority of whose population are ethnically Russians – from Ukraine.

The Crimean parliament hastily organised a referendum on independence under the watchful eyes of growing numbers of still unidentified soldiers! The vote was overwhelmingly in favour of independence. On 17 March 2014, the Supreme Council of Crimea declared the Republic of Crimea an independent nation. The republic then renounced its independence and requested admission into Russia. President Putin granted the request and declared that the proper conditions are ensured for the people of Crimea to be able to freely express their will.

Crimea also contains the port of Sevastopol, a base for Russia’s Black Sea navy giving it access to the Mediterranean. Moscow is or has been planning either a direct bridge or a road from Russia to the Crimean Peninsula. At the same time, most Crimeans did want to join “mother Russia” as the Russian writer Fjodor Dostojevsky (1821-1881) described it earlier in the 19th century. Tsarism, nationalism/patriotism and the orthodox religion were the bounding foundations of this concept of “mother Russia.”

It is the first time since the Second World War that a European country with military force has changed its borders and annexed part of another European country. The EU will extend the sanctions against Russia, but the annexation of the Crimea will silently be accepted.

In April 2014, pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine could rely on the political backing of Russia in their effort to secede from Ukraine and join Russia, although not all people in the region prefer this scenario. Pro-Russian separatists declared the People’s Republic of Donetsk and the goal of unification with Russia. Later in that month, separatists declared the People’s Republic of Luhansk, which in May merged with its Donetsk equivalent to form the confederation of Novorossiya. However, the lack of unity and control remains in the occupied territories.

These events created serious tensions because in 1994 in the Budapest memorandum the USA, UK and Russia agreed to be joint guarantors of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. The memorandum confirmed also to remove the (former Soviet Union) nuclear warheads stationed in Ukraine back to Russia.

A regional solution?

The consequence of the crisis in and around the Ukraine is the threat of a renewed cold war, and the possibility – if only by accident – that it might become hot. Moscow tries to freeze the conflict as much as it can. The UN Security Council was not able to settle the dispute because the Russians intended to make use of their voting right.

A UN backed military response was impossible, because Russia holds a permanent seat on the Security Council and thus is in a position to veto any authorisation. Russia is also a nuclear power, and its military strength is second only to the USA. The only option for the international community was to outcast Russia with economic sanctions. The EU decided to do this because the sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of Ukraine must be respected. The EU cannot accept the annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol to the Russian Federation. Russia was excluded from the major industrialised countries, the Group of Eight – G8 (and became consequently only G7). Russia responded with sanctions as well, which has consequences for some EU countries. Anyway, international law should be respected and a regional solution will have to be found in which all those involved must recognize themselves.

Is Ukraine part of Europe?

Possible European integration is a key discussion in the conflict. The majority of Ukrainians are in favour of being part of Europe via the EU. The country seeks a European future. If the majority of Ukrainians choose to also enter into close relations with Europe, and are willing to cooperate with Europe to this end and want to take over a lot of European values and regulations, then we cannot accept that another country, in this case Russia, which tries to stop that choice. On 27th of June 2014, the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement was signed.

Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko’s government has not addressed the systematic corruption at the root of many of the country’s problems. Many Ukrainians are losing faith in laws, institutions, and elites. Ukrainian society has a low level of trust in central authorities. Anger at the Minsk II agreement, which Ukrainians see as a concession to separatists and Moscow, is growing, even among reformists. The authorities continue to use the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine as an excuse for the slow pace of reform and to silence critical voices by labelling them as Russian agents.

Civic groups that work toward seeking dialogue, truth, and reconciliation in the context of the armed conflict are blamed by other civic organisations for being unpatriotic and influenced by Russia. Nevertheless, volunteer activities in Ukraine have decreased since 2014. While civic activists have not given up, serious concerns persist about its civil society’s impact. A culture of compromise and cooperation needs to be strengthened in the society that is more important in a context given the impact of radical nationalist and far-right groups that promote religious and ethnic intolerance.

UN Mission in Ukraine?

The UN Security council is discussing a possible UN peacekeeping mission to Ukraine. Some more political will on all sides is a condition in realising a peace keeping dynamic. Clearly, a UN mandate should cover the whole territory of the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, including the Russian-Ukrainian border. At the same time, a UN mission should reinforce – not replace – the operations of the OSCE mission on the ground. The UN lacks practical experience in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and has been recently involved in peacekeeping operations mostly outside of Europe. UN peacekeepers should help the OSCE to maintain peace. It is expected to have some 20.000 peacekeepers, of course excluding Russian forces! Also important is that a UN mission should support the implementation of the Minsk agreements, not at least in monitoring local and parliamentary elections.

A UN mission creates a small window of opportunity for further diplomacy. Political will on all sides remains a prerequisite for keeping peace.

Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Refugee Stories: From peaceful protest to no way back


The following interview was done by Willeke, a member of the Young Peace Journalists. This story is about Vladimir and Valentina, a Ukrainian couple in their sixties, who fled the cruelties of present-day Lugansk. It is the latest entry in the Young Peace Journalists project featuring the stories and voices of refugees.


It was one of those stuffy warm afternoons. After 4 days of 27 degrees with hardly any wind, the old city centre of Utrecht was breathing the heat it absorbed earlier. And so was the room of Vladimir and Valentina, situated just outside the centre, in one of the shelters provided by the municipality in Utrecht. I would not call Vladimir and Valentina lucky to have this 16m2 room for their own, but the knowledge that even more than 50 people in Utrecht are waiting for a place to sleep, does give a feeling of relief, though I would never say Vladimir and Valentina deserved this penal situation they are in.

I start the interview with the question if they could explain what happened in Lugansk. Valentina takes the lead and tells me the following:

Their story of refuge started in 2014, when the once so friendly city of Lugansk, as Valentina describes it, became the scene of a bloody civil war. Valentina explains that this civil war was the result of several peaceful protests from the Lugansk people against the regime of Yanukovich, in which the Lugansk people demanded more independence to rebuild the once so economically flourishing region. According to this group of protesters the government was conducting corrupt activities, and kept the money earned at Lugansk for itself, instead of investing it in Lugansk’s region.

During one of the protests, near the end of May 2014, the protesters occupied one of the main government buildings in Lugansk. Not in a violent way, since they wanted to protest peacefully. However, shootings by a militia group started to take place in the West of the city, and the elderly people at the border checkpoint at the West of Lugansk were shot. The interim president of Ukraine responded to these events by starting an anti-terroristic operation in Lugansk, in which all the citizens of the Lugansk were regarded as potential opponents to the Ukrainian army and government. Consequently, the protesters also turned to violent ways of protesting and occupied several army points around the city where they provided themselves some heavy artillery. From 2 June on, Lugansk was being bombed and the war officially began. Right at this moment of the bombings Valentina was present in the center of the city. It was the first time she saw the cruelty of war around, and surrounding her everywhere, as she was confronted with the death of lots of her fellow citizens. It was  also that exact same moment when Valentina saw the presence of another, yet at that time unknown, militia group for the first time. We currently known them as the rebels or separatists.

In the middle of this violent scenery, Vladimir and Valentina started to organize protests for peace with their motto being “Peace for citizens of Donbass”. Their protest was not politically motivated, yet since Vladimir and Valentina also believed that more independence to govern their own region would do Luhansk good, they only used Lugansk’ and Russian flags. This sign of ‘disrespect to Ukraine’ led to fights during the protests at which Valentina and Vladimir were beaten, kicked and injured.

In the meantime, the separatists gained more control and authority over the city and fought against the Ukrainian army which was surrounding the outer borders of Lugansk. The frequency of the bombings increased and as a result, many tried to flee the city. With this increasing severity of the war, the separatists were eagerly recruiting young people still inside the city to fight for them. However, soon these recruitments became abductions as young people desperately tried to escape Lugansk. Many young men disappeared and people never heard of them anymore.

During these bombings and fights, the apartment of Vladimir and Valentina in the West of Lugansk was destroyed. Together with their neighbors they collected some of their personal belongings from the rubble, and put their stuff into the basement of the complex, were Vladimir and Valentina lived together with a handful of people that had not fled the city yet.

During these summer months the separatists began to abduct middle aged and elderly people too, during a big attempt of mobilization from their side. Vladimir could escape the mobilization because he showed them the paper which stated he had been a worker in Chernobyl, and that consequently his health was in a bad shape. They accepted his ‘excuse’ and left him to stay in the basement where he lived with Valentina. However, as the separatists left, they told him: “It may not be your time at this moment, but we will come back to get you.” It took them a couple of months before they came back for Vladimir as the war was getting less intense in the autumn months of 2014.

As there was less direct danger during these autumn months, Vladimir and Valentina decided it was safe enough to organize another gathering for those who wanted express their opinions about the violence and war in the region. The separatists were, to say the least, not keen on his kind of activism and during her way to work Valentina was abducted and locked for eight hours by them. They left Valentina in the room for these eight hours without any water and foot, nor sanitary and forced her to sign a document stating she would not participate in these gatherings anymore. Valentina tells me how terrified and desperate she was as she did not know what would happen to her. After these eight hours in the room the men took her out and she was ruthlessly kicked and beaten because of her activism. Eventually they led the lady go and she rushed to the basement of their former flat. As Valentina is telling me this, she cries and tears are mastering her eyes. Vladimir decides to take the lead with the conversation since a hard experience which caused them to leave, is still to be told..

Vladimir explains that after the autumn the war was getting its grip on the city again as heavier fights and bombings were shaping the scenery, and on one Friday in January 2015, as the separatists told Vladimir, they got back to the basement to force him to fight for them. When they entered Vladimir begged them not to take him with, and recalled the fact that he was old and in bad shape. The men did not accept that Vladimir undermined their authority and beat him brutally with their rifles. At that moment, another elderly man, also one of neighbors living in the basement, could not take the violence against Vladimir anymore. He bravely stood up against the separatists and tried to argue with them to stop the beatings and kicking to Vladimir. His perseverance agitated the men and they kicked and beat him till he was not protesting nor moving any more. As soon as the men noticed that Valentina was trying to help Vladimir they turned to her and ripped off her clothes while beating and kicking her with their rifles. One of the men entering the basement fired a shot and told Vladimir that they were coming back for him on Monday.

It was this weekend in January that Vladimir and Valentina decided that there was no way back than to leave the city forever. At one of the queues where the people in the city could get some water and food, Vladimir met a person who could help them get to know others who could get them out of the city for payment. They were told to come to a place on Sunday Morning at 4 am with all their belongings. At that Sunday morning as they stood there, a bus rode in front of them and told them to get in. Valentina and Vladimir stepped into the bus with its blinded windows without knowing what their destination would be.

Valentina and Vladimir are here in the Netherlands from the beginning of the 2015. Their asylum claim got rejected because the Dutch Immigration Office does not believe that Vladimir, an old man, would get abducted to serve on the separatist side. Both have physical but above all psychological scars from all that has happened to them. They do not see returning as a possibility as they are in fear what will happen to them when going back to the country. Currently we are trying to get a temporary residence permit on the basis of the Paposhvili arrest from the European Court of Human Rights.

After our 2.5 hours conversation I leave the 16m2 room and cycle back home to my apartment in an old monastery, also situated just outside the center, realizing what different realities there are in this world.

Willeke is a master student Public International Law at Utrecht University.  She works at Stil-Utrecht, an organization providing for medical and judicial aid to asylum seekers who got a rejected asylum request.

Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Young Peace Journalists: When the war is a way to distract people


The following interview was done by Viktoriia Stepanets, a member of the Young Peace Journalists. It is the latest entry in the Young Peace Journalists project featuring the stories and voices of refugees. 


Vjacheslav came from Lugansk to Kiev in 2014 and received Internally Displaced Person status. Today he lives in Kiev and is a chief editor in the online edition, which highlights the news of Lugansk and the Lugansk region. Vjacheslav shared his view about the relationship between Russia and Ukraine, the present and future of Ukraine, and also expressed his opinion on the decommunization process in Ukraine. [Editor’s note: “Decommunization process” means to take down monuments which are connected with the Soviet Union, to rename streets and cities named after the Russian or Soviet Union heroes.]

How would you describe the situation in Ukraine?

“Everything is bad, everything should be remade”, – I often say these words to the journalists which work on my issue. And today I say the same words to Ukraine. A lot of people make an effort to present the situation in Ukraine as a civil war, where one nation kills itself. It is a manipulation of the citizens’ consciousness. This is not about the internal conflict in the country, but it is about the aggression of one country to another. The situation we observe today is a result of a carefully planned operation. Everything has been prepared for a long time with the help of the local elites.

To what position do the citizens of Lugansk and the Lugansk region adhere? In the case that the referendum on self-determination of Lugansk and the Lugansk region is held, what decision would be taken?

It is very difficult to determine the position of this region. Different opinions on this question depend exclusively on the particular person’s surrounding, and this person can be misled that it is the opinion of the majority. In fact, everything is a bit more complicated. There is no sense to hold the referendum today because everybody is under the power of propaganda, from the Ukrainian and the Russian sides.

I have a question to you as a chief editor. What criteria do you follow to present the information, especially during the period of war, as objectively as possible?

It is very a difficult and painful issue. The journalists do not know how to behave themselves in this war period. One of the principles of objectivity is a necessity to provide the information from different sides, to present the points of view of different parties. But this means to give the word to the terrorists too, and we realize what they can tell about. Also a problem is in writing about military events directly from the places of their development. By having a conversation with the witnesses, by publishing their comments, the media endangers them. Generally, these people are caught in such occasions. Often in such situations the representatives of the media claim that they did not ask anybody to tell anything, and that means that the arrested person is a spy. Thus he is captured, and the more he begins “to make noise”, the more “expensive” he becomes.

Being a chief editor I strictly forbid my journalists to make photos of the places of military events. I suppose that the safety of the journalists is paramount. In such situations I have to be content with the facts the journalists inform by telephone or email without providing any video or photos to confirm their words. When the journalist informed us that during a half an hour in the direction to Lugansk heavy machinery goes, most likely tanks, we published this way: In the direction to Lugansk the heavy machinery goes, probably, tanks. Undoubtedly, it violates the law of information, but when it is a question of life and death, the rules of a game should be changed.

How do you see the solution of the Ukrainian conflict?

It is necessary to switch off the television – and the empire will collapse. The war is not for territory or placement of the military bases. The war helps to keep people in obedience, to enhance the reputation of some representatives of the authorities. Not the United States of America nor Europe has to solve our problems. We must rely on our own strength. But it has to be taken into account that the interests of the Ukrainian people and Ukrainian authorities are not the same. While Ukrainians want to stop the war and to live peacefully, the Ukrainian government aggravates the situation. The war is an effective way to distract people from pressing issues, non-responsibility of the authorities to their obligations, not implementing numerous reforms that the government promised. The escalation of the conflict is favorable to the authorities of the country and it explains a lot. I would say it explains everything. If the war had not begun, it would have been a continuation of the Maidan. [Eeditor’s note: Maidan means the beginning of the revolution in Ukraine, in 2013, when people revolted against the President Viktor Yanukovich.] A military ardor of the people would be directed to the Ukrainian government. It could not be allowed.

What is your attitude to the decommunization process in Ukraine? Particularly, do you suppose that the decision to take down a lot of monuments of Lenin in the Ukraine to be effective?

The decommunization process was necessary in Ukraine. Perhaps it was not the best time for that: taking down the monuments of Lenin, renaming of numerous streets and cities while there were a lot of problems in Ukraine which required a deep intervention and prompt solutions. But we have to realize that Ukraine has to be freed from the Soviet past. It is only formal that Ukraine is sovereign from 1991. In fact, the fight for independence began from Maidan, and decommunization is a part of this struggle.

Don’t you think that such a fight against the Soviet past by vandalism only intensifies a hatred among the people?

Yes, intensifies, and moreover, wound a lot of people for whom Lenin is still a hero. Personally for me, these monuments are not an historical or cultural value. Therefore, the taking down of Lenin’s monument does not hurt me. I suppose it would be better to collect the monuments of the controversial heroes in one place, for instance, in the special park. But it requires much financing. And money, as always, is not enough. My conclusion: the decommunization process began to be implemented at the wrong time, but everything that has been done had to be done.

Today we observe that there is being built a high wall between Ukraine and Russia. Do you suppose this way is correct? How do you see the development of the relationship between Russia and Ukraine in the near future?

I consider that Russian troops must be withdrawn from the territory of Ukraine. About the development of the relationship between Russia and Ukraine, I am convinced that the decision to break all ties and to build a fence even higher is a way to nowhere. The world has to be without borders, especially in the 21st century. We have to be able to know what happens in Russia, Europe, the United States, and they have to realize what situation is in Ukraine. We have to travel around the world and gain experience from each other, to interact and build strong international relationships. And even if one country is at war with another country, it needs to be understood all the reasons of this conflict, and not to make only one side guilty in all that happens. We do not need to fence ourselves off from each other; rather we have to find a compromise for the benefit of our country. Another issue is that media manipulation imposes us different information, and it is impossible to find the truth. People have to travel, speak with witnesses, analyze. And we, journalists, have to state the facts and speak about different issues, not only about what we want or what is advantageous.

How do you see the future of Ukraine?

I am a sad optimist: I observe that we began to build a civil society, and, as a result, we will have built it. And even if we have to go through all these difficulties, I believe we will cope with it and prove to everybody, first of all ourselves, that Ukraine is a strong, worthy and self-respecting country.

Viktoriia Stepanets is a journalist born in Kiev, Ukraine. She studied multimedia journalism in the High School of Economy in Moscow, Russia. Viktoriia took part in various projects related to peacebuilding, including LofC Caux and Peace Tour around Ukraine. Now she works as a journalist in the cultural sphere and participates in the Young Peace Journalists project trying to learn more about the situation of internally displaced persons in her country and refugees in the larger world.  

Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Young Peace Journalists: What it is to be an internally displaced person


The following interview was done by Viktoriia Stepanets, a member of the Young Peace Journalists. It is the latest entry in the Young Peace Journalists project featuring the stories and voices of refugees. 


We are different from non-internally displaced persons (IDPs) by not making plans for tomorrow.” – Natalia, an internally displaced person from Sverdlovsk, and the director of the Department of Protection of IDPs’ rights in Kharkiv

The tragedy of Ukraine today is a widespread topic for discussion abroad. There are different interpretations of what is really going on in Ukraine. Each country adheres to the position on this issue which is favorable for it, or to be exact – for its government. The manipulation of consciousness has reached such an extent that even people who live in the territory of military actions (Donetsk and Lugansk regions) cannot give a clear and confident explanation of what is happening in the eastern part of Ukraine. Even they have a lot of questions about it.

The war in Ukraine is manifested in all forms: information, civil, international. In addition to the deaths, loss of houses, injuries, and the breaking of family ties, the war has necessitated a change of places of residence for a huge number of people whom we call refugees, migrants and displaced persons (depending on the area of their resettlement and the presence or absence of the certificate that determines their status). Today the problem of refugees is acute in many countries. Thanks to this interview with Natalia, an internally displaced person from Sverdlovsk city which is situated in Lugansk region and the director of the Department of Protection of IDPs’ rights in Kharkiv, I was better able to get to know the way IDPs live in my country, what are the benefits of this status, what major difficulties do they face, and what is the attitude toward them from local people.

Viktoriia Stepanets: Natalia, what are the advantages of having the status of “internally displaced person”?

Natalia: I have not felt them for myself. I decided to move to Kharkiv after I witnessed a bus with Chechen armed forces in my native city of Sverdlovsk city. (The first time Chechen armed forces were mentioned in the Sverdlovsk city was in 2014 when they took part in the hostilities.) It was the last straw. I went to Kharkiv in June 2014, where my son studied. I wanted to be near to him. I had no need for the status of an internally displaced person until I had decided to start my own business in 2015. For this reason, I needed this certificate. Also this status allows one to register in the Employment Centre and to get monthly financial assistance of $15. But when you pay 200 euro for the rent apartment, this sum does not make life easier.

How long is the status of IDP given for?

Previously, the status of IDP was given for six months; now it is termless.

Does the government provide a place to live for internally displaced persons?

There are three special camps: two of them are in Kharkiv, and the third one is in the neighbouring Kharkiv region. But I did not consider the option to reside there. I have never been there. I was told that everything needed is available there, but the atmosphere is depressing. You feel like a social outcast. My goal is to catch on in one of the largest cities of Ukraine, in the first Ukrainian capital, to develop my business, to give a future to my child, to get on my feet, as far it is possible in the current economic and political conditions of our country. Once I have reached Kharkiv, I was looking for a room to rent; I had not even thought about the camp. Within two years I have changed my apartment more than three times. At first I was evicted because of differences in political views with the owner of the apartment; then I moved out by myself due to rising rents (as the hostess said, “As IDPs come here in large numbers, rent sum will be increased twice”). For a while I was living at the filling station where I worked as a cleaner. The most significant issue that IDPs face today is accommodations. And our organisation does its best to solve this problem at least partially.

How long has your organisation existed and what goals does it set for itself primarily?

The Department of Protection and Assistance to IDPs (via the international public organisation, “European Police Association” or EUROPOL) was established in May of this year. Our organisation is financed by membership fees. The government does not support us. We are the only organisation in Kharkiv which consists entirely of internally displaced persons. We work in three directions: IDPs’ business development, their accommodations, and the restoration of constitutional law. We run a special campaign, “I have the right to choose”, which has the aim to amend legislation, namely to change “to vote according to the registration” to “to vote according to the place of actual residence”. The idea of this action came to us after we had faced an official refusal of our request to the administration of the areas in which we are registered to be included to the voters list. We have also created a business incubator which is intended to bring all businesses together, to accumulate money for further development of the organisation.

Did you think about moving abroad and obtaining refugee status there?

No. I have never had such plans. I always wanted to live in my own country. Ukraine has enough problems right now, and I want to help in the development of its present and future.

What were your expectations from moving to Kharkiv and obtaining IDP status? Are they fulfilled?

I expected a great deal in June 2014. I hoped that Ukrainian troops would come and the chaos would end. When nothing was over but only aggravated, I stopped waiting for anything, pulled myself together and realised that my tomorrow depends on me — that my problems should be solved by myself. And the state will not help. When I moved to Kharkiv, I did not have any expectations.

What, in your opinion, should the Ukrainian government do to improve the situation of IDPs in our country?

The main problem which has to be emphasised is that we need to settle somewhere permanently. To live in a camp for several years is unreal. There are a lot of abandoned and deserted buildings in Kharkiv. In my opinion, it is a rational choice in current circumstances to give them to IDPs. In our turn, we will be able to address the issue of their reconstruction (by applying for grants or by our own efforts). We will cease to exist as a problem, and we will begin to pay taxes to Kharkiv. Taking into account the current economy and political situation in Ukraine, I suppose it is impossible to compensate the housing we had lost in the war zone. There is a discussion now in Kiev about the issue of preferential housing loans, under which the cost of apartments is repaid by an IDP, while a percentage of the loan is paid by the donor. The state should and can take part in this matter. We agree to consider a variety of ways to address this issue. We do not ask for free housing because we are perfectly aware that it would lead to a wave of indignation from the side of local residents.

What is the relationship from Kharkiv people to IDPs?

Ambiguous. It was hard to get a job and rent a house. “We do not rent the apartment for convicted persons, with dogs, and from Lugansk” is written in the ads. The rent is increased twice (which I also faced personally). Despite the level of my education and work experience, I have not been taken even as a dishwasher. The reasons for refusing were: “We cannot trust you,” or “You will not stay here for a long time. You will work and leave again and we need the employees for the long term.” There are those who are sympathetic, and intelligent people do not distinguish; they treat locals and IDPs equally, looking at the person, not at what is written in the passport.

Do IDPs prefer to stay in Kharkiv or plan to return home?

Based on my experience, elderly people tend to return. In our organisation, everybody prefers to stay, regardless of future Ukrainian development. Perhaps someone will change the decision if the legislation system improves in our native region. Now there is a complete mess with it.

How do you see the future of internally displaced persons in Ukraine?

I see that that a diaspora is being created. IDPs cooperate with IDPs. And hardly ever will we be able to stay in one line with Kharkiv people. We are different from non-IDPs by not making plans for tomorrow. We do not try to predict, to plan, to hoard. We live “today”. Somehow. But still we live.

Viktoriia Stepanets is a journalist born in Kiev, Ukraine. She studied multimedia journalism in the High School of Economy in Moscow, Russia. Viktoriia took part in various projects related to peacebuilding, including LofC Caux and Peace Tour around Ukraine. Now she works as a journalist in the cultural sphere and participates in the Young Peace Journalists project trying to learn more about the situation of internally displaced persons in her country and refugees in the larger world.