Ukraine’s Refugees In Russia Are There To Stay, In New Twist For Separatist Conflict

TULA, Russia -- First the war in eastern Ukraine sent Anna Gurova’s family running to Russia. Now most of the residents on her old street have departed — and she said few of them plan to return, even if peace settles over the industrial region they once called home.

Evgeniya Stavnichaya, 31, with her daughter Victoria Stavnichaya, 9, in Tula, Russia. Stavnichaya, a driving instructor, has been living in a temporary home in Tula since the summer when she fled her home in Ukraine.

As Ukraine’s conflict settles into a calmer but still bloody rhythm, many of the war’s hundreds of thousands of refugees are rebuilding their lives elsewhere and giving up on a region that appears destined for permanent instability.

Many have little intention of living in an area that is violently polarized between those who support Kiev and those who trust Moscow — especially now that the battle lines appear likely to be frozen in place, perhaps for years.

The depopulation of eastern Ukraine may have tough consequences for the region’s status as the country’s industrial heartland — and it is a first sign of the prospects for the evolving enclave.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin has used dormant conflicts in Moldova and Georgia to pressure national governments, stoking low-level tumult that has lasted years.

The terms of the Sept. 5 cease-fire may do the same in Ukraine, officials say.

“We are working on our Russian documents to become citizens,” Gurova said as she rested after her shift as a ticket-seller on a public bus route.

“We came here just to save our children and move on with our lives.” 

Gurova, her husband and two sons fled the eastern Ukrainian town of Snizhne in June, convinced that the fighting would soon find them.

Gurova gave up her job as a candymaker and her husband quit his factory job, and they cashed in the last of their savings to pay for the bus tickets to Russia.

Eventually, they found their way to Tula, a city of 500,000 residents about 100 miles south of Moscow that is famous for its curving brass samovars.

Now, she says, they have no intention of going home, particularly because sporadic shelling has continued near rebel-held Snizhne even after the cease-fire took effect, as both sides appear to be jockeying for position before battle lines solidify even further.

“There won’t be peace anytime soon. How can you be at peace when your brothers come to shoot you?” she said, referring to the Ukrainian military forces that she blames for the violence.

Most of her friends from back home are now in Russia, she said, and they have fanned out across the country’s vast territory.

Some moved to Magadan, a Siberian city that was once central to Stalin’s penal system.

Others are in Astrakhan, a city near the Caspian Sea.

The United Nations says that more than 1 million Ukrainians have been displaced by the fighting.

Estimates of the number of people who have fled vary and frequently have been cited to support political points.

Russian officials have given fluctuating estimates of the number of Ukrainians who fled into their country to escape the fighting, but officials most recently have said that 875,000 people fled and that about 300,000 of those have applied for temporary residence.

The Sept. 5 cease-fire has allowed some people to return home, but violence has continued, keeping many away.

Perhaps more enduringly, the polarized nature of the conflict means that pro-Russian citizens will long be cautious about returning to Ukrainian-held territory, and pro-Kiev residents fear life in rebel-held lands. 

Help for the newcomers 

Authorities on both sides of the Russia-Ukraine border appear to be preparing for a long-term population shift.

“This is a group of people who we should accommodate and provide for,” Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said last week.

“They are staying here to work and live, and they should get jobs and their children should go to school.”

Source: The Washington Post