Ukraine crisis sparks worries in Southeast Europe

17/03/2014

Citizens in Southeast Europe are concerned about family members in Ukraine as tension increases.

By Marina Stojanovska, Paul Ciocoiu, Mladen Dragojlovic and Ivana Jovanovic for Southeast European Times -- 17/03/14

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Pro-Ukrainian supporters hold a giant flag as pro-Russian activists throw tear gas on them during a rally in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on March 13th. Many in Southeast Europe are concerned for relatives in Ukraine. [AFP]

Citizens and residents of Southeast European countries are closely watching the Ukraine crisis, looking for news about friends and relatives in the Crimea peninsula, and they remain deeply concerned about Russian intervention in the region.

Although many are in contact with friends and family, the information coming from the region on Russia's border seems chaotic and invalid, Southeast European residents said.

Ukraine has been in turmoil ever since a government crackdown against pro-western rallies in Kiev turned violent, sparking widespread outrage and prompting deposed President Viktor Yanukovych to flee to Russia rather than face charges for the deaths of protesters.

Moscow refused to recognise the new pro-western government in Kiev and is supporting pro-Russian paramilitaries in Crimea, surrounding military bases and launching intimidating military manoeuvres off the Ukrainian coast.

The west urged Moscow to pull back its troops in Crimea and to stop support of local militias, but Russia refused to do so or to start diplomatic talks with the new government in Kiev. All the while, citizens fearful for their loved ones' safety can only watch and wait.

'I'm totally confused'

Juliana Portjanko Nikolic, who plays for Macedonian handball club Vardar, was born in the Ukrainian city of Dnepropetrovsk and has lived in Macedonia for 11 years.

"I'm totally confused by the entire situation in Ukraine, especially on the events in Crimea," she told SETimes. "I'm constantly contacting my friends from Crimea and I think that they do not understand what is happening there. They only say that everywhere there are tanks and troops. Someone said that the troops that arrive every day are from Russia, others claim that they are from western Ukraine."

She said that she talks with her grandmother and cousin who live in Kiev every day.

"I was very worried and scared last month when the violence in Kiev was happening because that is exactly where my relatives live. I checked everything every day; they kept opening internet pages so I was able to understand what was going on. The situation was particularly critical on February 21st and 22nd when they announced the possible stoppage of the internet connection," she said.

Although Nikolic lives in a different country, she has opinions on the crisis in her homeland.

"I want it to stay part of Ukraine, to get back to normal, I want my friends to stop being scared to go out," she told SETimes.

"Ukraine is in great crisis, this is also felt by my relatives, I'm helping them as much as I can, but it is not right to use the situation for political purposes," Nikolic said.

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Juliana Portjanko Nikolic was born in the Ukrainian city of Dnepropetrovsk, and has lived in Macedonia for 11 years. [Tomislav Georgiev/SETimes]

'I definitely support Ukraine's pro-European course'

Dorin Tivodar, a Ukrainian language teacher in Ruscova, Romania, has relatives in Ukraine. He said he is glad to see the EU supporting his homeland, adding that the country's path toward the Union should continue.

"I definitely support Ukraine's pro-European course, because, as a Romanian citizen, I have witnessed the progress Romania has made since it joined the European Union. And this is why I am concerned about what is going on in Ukraine now and the fact that its course risks being diverted by people who are misinformed and manipulated, people who are nostalgic after old times and do not realise Ukraine can no longer live off one source alone," he told SETimes.

'This is a hard time for Ukrainian people'

Ukrainians in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) have a long history, especially in the country's northeast. Most of them have relatives in Ukraine and maintain strong cultural ties.

Branko Deket, who lives in Prnjavor, BiH, represents national minorities in the local parliament. He has cousins in Ukraine and worries about their future.

"This is a hard time for Ukrainian people. Some political structures in the country exploit the hard social situation for their goals. Now we have Russians in one part of the country additionally complicating the situation. We don't trust media reports from Ukraine. Most of the information we receive is from relatives and friends," Deket told SETimes.

He said that the 2,000 Ukrainians in Prnjavor support their people, and think that a solution can be initiated by starting negotiations.

'The Ukrainian people need help'

Stefan Stanek, president of the Ukrainian cultural association in Prijedor, told SETimes that the efforts of NATO and EU in Ukraine can be successful, but Ukrainian citizens must solve the internal problems of corruption and high crime.

"The Ukrainian people need help and will need it more and more in the future. The EU and other western organisations, including NATO, can help to stabilise the situation," Stanek said.

He added that the current situation is a chance for the country to solve its major problems, but it must be done in a peaceful manner.

'We are in contact with him every day'

Natalia and Antun Cirka are third-generation Ukrainians in Banja Luka. Their son Mihajlo went to Ukraine to try to find his cousins 22 years ago. Although he is still looking for his relatives, he did find the love of his life, married her and moved to the country permanently.

"We are in contact with him every day. He said that the situation there is a bit better than before concerning corruption and crime, but the country still is under pressure. We worry what will happen there," Natalia Cirka said.

She added that the EU and NATO are doing a good job of calming the situation, but regions where Russians are a majority are still precarious. Like other Ukrainians in BiH who remember the 1992-1995 conflict, they hope for a peaceful solution.

'Nobody feels safe'

Marija Vislavski, a journalist at Radio Television Vojvodina in Novi Sad, came to Serbia from Buchach, Ukraine, in 1995 when she got married. Her family is still in Ternopil, which is in the western part of Ukraine.

She has friends in and around Crimea, and visits them a few times a year.

"Although my family lives in a part of the country where the situation is peaceful, nobody, including me, feels safe while we know that weapons rattle in Crimea. We are all very concerned, because we do not want any kind of fight or war," Vislavski told SETimes.

She said that her family has relatives and neighbours who are Russian, and a war or conflict with Russia would be terrible thing.

"All of them, I mean Russians, Tatars, adore Ukraine, and nobody wants to see anything bad happen to anyone there. There are Polish, Germans, Jews, Serbs in Ukraine and we all co-exist and want to keep it as it is. This is so unnecessary for us and we can't wait until the situation is calmed down," she added.

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She said that the positive effect of the work by the EU and NATO has become obvious in Ukraine in recent days.

"I support Ukraine's EU aspiration, and believe in a Ukrainian future within the EU, and I'm happy to see the support for EU integration in Ukraine is rising. The support that the EU and NATO have been giving, we are grateful for," Vislavski said.

Correspondent Marina Stojanovska reported from Skopje; Paul Ciocoiu reported from Bucharest, Mladen Dragojlovic reported from Sarajevo, Ivana Jovanovic reported from Belgrade.

Do you have friends or relatives in Ukraine that you are concerned about? Tell us your story below.

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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