So am I pro-Russian am I pro-Russian or pro-Ukrainian?

This blog post was written by Alex Azarov.

So am I pro-Russian or pro-Ukrainian?

At a recent peacebuilding conference in Caux, Switzerland, a woman who lives in Crimea found out that I am originally from Moscow, now working on supporting dialogues in Ukraine. “So are you pro-Russian or pro-Ukrainian?”, she asked immediately. I will tell you what I told her but first, a bit of background.

I was born in the Soviet Union and moved with my parents to Australia when I was ten, right when the USSR was falling apart. Since May 2015, I have been working on the mediatEUr project – “Building a Dialogue Support Platform in Ukraine” in partnership with the UNDP. Living in Kyiv and travelling around Ukraine, my role has been to get to know dialogue initiatives personally and to provide in-country support for the project.

What’s going on in Ukraine?

The latest International Crisis Group briefing gives a thorough overview of the current situation in the east of the country, where there is a stand-off between Ukrainian military and volunteer battalions on one side and the Russian-backed forces of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk republics. People are still being killed regularly with the overall death toll estimated at almost 10,000 and the number of officially registered internally displaced persons at 1.7 million (many more unregistered). Until the shelling and shooting stops it is not right to call this a frozen conflict.

The high-level process that aims to resolve the conflict produced in February 2015 the Minsk agreement. This requires, amongst other things, a ceasefire, pull-out of heavy weapons, an amnesty, constitutional amendments to give a special status and significant autonomy to the two districts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions as well as the securing by Ukraine of its borders with Russia.

The Minsk talks are generally seen as a failure in Ukraine because they have not yielded positive results and seem deadlocked. Giving autonomy to the self-proclaimed republics is seen by many Ukrainians as a betrayal of what many have fought and died for and as appeasing Putin, giving him a powerful lever on Ukraine’s future. Letting Ukraine seal its borders is a risk for Russia because then Ukraine can retake control of the self-proclaimed republics. It seems that a mutually hurting stalemate hasn’t been reached.

The armed conflict in a small part of Ukraine has also been a distraction for the crucial struggle going on in the rest of the country – the struggle for reforms and against corruption. This was, arguably, the root cause of Euromaidan before it was hijacked by geopolitics. A recent Carnegie Centre publication outlines the progress and problems with Ukraine’s anti-corruption reforms. It is important to see this crucial issue in the broader geopolitical context – if Ukrainians are able to shake off the post-Soviet corrupt schemes and build a truly democratic country with a thriving civil society, this could have a serious impact on Russia, potentially threatening Putin’s status quo there. Unfortunately, the blatant resistance of the Kyiv government to anti-corruption reforms is playing right into Putin’s hands.

Why I’m pro-Russian

In answering my new friend from Crimea, I decided to explain why I’m pro-Russian but not the way she understands this, thereby breaking down the commonly used cliché. Russia to me is about my precious childhood memories; my grandmother, who still lives in Moscow; my new and old friends there; the beautiful lake Baikal and the fascinating Buryat region with its Buddhism and shamanic roots. Russia to me is Russian literature and the respect instilled in me at school for academic achievement and intelligence; it’s learning from history – that our successes and pride were built on conquest and repression, with such immense, unresolved suffering and wasted human potential. Russia to me is many things but it is not the kleptocratic regime in power that is becoming more paranoid and repressive over the years.

I am pro-Russian but I am not pro-Putin. At the same time, I can readily criticise many Western politicians including those in Washington, Brussels, Kyiv or Canberra. I acknowledge Western hypocrisy and double standards. But when it comes to my homeland, I am disgusted by the way Russia has been robbed of its potential over decades by the corrupt elite. I am ashamed of how the Russian government has favoured thuggish power politics at the expense of so many people’s lives and dreams. I want Russians to care about each other and not just themselves, to thrive not on fear and repression but on the ingenuity, stoicism and camaraderie that I hold dear, helping their neighbours to also strive towards truly democratic and prospering societies.

Many Russians support Putin because he is a tough leader who can ensure stability for Russia in a cut-throat world domestically and internationally. But in adopting this position we adopt a “survival of the fittest” worldview. We choose competition over cooperation, fear over love. This regressive trend has also become more apparent in Europe and the US lately. I support a Russia that strives to cooperate with its partners to solve scientific and technological challenges instead of building up its military.

Why I’m pro-Ukrainian

I am also pro-Ukrainian because I truly support the powerful spark of hope that appeared during Euromaidan and that is carried on by the real reformers and activists in the country. I support the powerful decision to take responsibility for your future instead of constantly complaining, blaming corrupt politicians and hoping that somehow things will change themselves or that someone else will fix all the problems. I respect and support the many Ukrainians who are fighting against corruption, for rights and freedoms in their country, for a responsible government and a strong civil society that is active from the grassroots to the national level. The world needs this now, not just Ukraine.

Many Ukrainians are being the change they want to see in their world. I am trying to do the same – a Russian coming to Ukraine to lend support and to reconcile divisions. I want the same things for both Russians and Ukrainians, which is why I cannot choose one side. My approach has been omni-partiality, which is building trust and rapport with all stakeholders equally.

Neutrality, impartiality and omni-partiality

To clarify: I use the term neutrality to mean not having a view on an issue, whereas impartiality is possibly having a view but not behaving in a biased way towards one or another side, not letting your views influence your behaviour. Impartiality is often characterised as fairly formal, detached behaviour, not partial to anyone, to avoid being perceived as biased. Omni-partiality is similarly unbiased behaviour but involves forming better rapport and closer working relationships with all sides equally.

My approach in Ukraine has been omni-partial, being open to personal dialogue with people regardless of their views. Importantly, this doesn’t mean that I have to agree with everyone or condone any behaviour but if my starting point is not to argue but to understand, people are more trusting and open as a result. Being Russian and speaking the language makes me somewhat of an insider mediator, making it easier to build rapport. Being an Australian mediator, on the other hand, gives me a valuable, unbiased background of a foreigner, an outsider mediator.

Ultimately, however, I have tried to avoid labels – Russian, Australian, pro-Russian, pro-Ukrainian – these all serve to narrow our thinking rather than maintaining an open mind. Although I have used such divisive labels in this blog post, I challenge you to question them and to break them down in your own discourse.

Challenging labels

It is human nature to simplify and categorise things, often in binaries – ‘with us’ or ‘against us’, friend or enemy, pro-Ukrainian or pro-Russian. When it comes to conflict and dialogue, this is a trap. Just like the popular litmus test question “Whose is Crimea?” the result of such a question in a dialogue risks division, polarisation and is, of course, not conducive to dialogue. What’s worse is that labelling another automatically elicits an emotional reaction and, relying on a host of assumptions, naturally reduces possibilities for real dialogue.

I will share what has worked for me – trying not to judge or label others. Discuss specific issues as rationally as possible with a vulnerable curiosity but respecting your own needs. Be aware of and accept your emotional reactions but remain open to hear and understand someone else’s views. Talk to someone not to convince them but to better understand them and the issues.

The reality is much more complex than a binary division of ‘us versus them’ or a commonly used label. I call us to explore what details and needs lie behind labels and positions. This approach helped me to establish relationships and dialogues with everyone I met in Ukraine, regardless of their position, from an Azov battalion volunteer in Lviv, to an Opposition Bloc politician from Mariupol, to pro-Putin friends in Moscow. People on opposite sides of divides often have the same needs but do not trust each other enough to really communicate, understand their conflict and work together to resolve it. Labels will not help this; dialogue will.

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