A Russian cultural center has been evicted by the local council in Lviv. The building is now to be handed over to groups involved in the Ukrainian army's operation in eastern Ukraine against pro-Russian separatists.
Members of the Russian community and its Pushkin Society call the decision to evict them from Korolenko Street 1a in Lviv politically motivated. "This is an anti-Russian decision. We own the property and the authorities have no right to get rid of us," Albert Astachov, the society's chairman, told DW.
The cultural center dates back to the 1990s, when the regional government had originally designated the premises as a movie theater, as a place for Russian-language meetings, concerts, exhibits and readings. The Russian Pushkin Society has about 400 members, who pay a nominal fee to belong. The city has taken a symbolic rent of 5 hryvnia (about $0.20) every month since 1999.
This the regional council first took aim at, concluding that the building was being neglected. In Lviv, about 40 cultural organizations pay the city a symbolic rent, including Polish and Czech associations.
Political or economic motivations?
Lviv political scientist Ruslan Demtchychak sees political maneuvering behind the eviction order. "This would be viewed critically in the west. The financial questions are best not delved into. However, in the context of the Ukrainian-Russian war, this dispute won't play out in our favor when considering how Europe values adherence to minority rights," he said.
Olexander Hanuchtchyn rejects such accusations. "The building belongs to the regional council," Hanuchtchyn, the council's chairman, said. "It was given to a cultural association in the early 1990s. Then another association took it. We received many complaints. In reality, this is now about bringing order to municipal properties."
The Russian organizations suffered from internal strife 11 years ago, resulting in two Pushkin Societies. The one retaining official authorization was led by Oleg Lyutkov, and the other by Albert Astachov remained in possession of the property, located in Lviv's city center. Only Astachov's Pushkin has cared for the building since the split, he said, and paid the bills. The condition of the property has deteriorated, as evidenced by water stains on cracked walls and ceilings.
Unwelcome symbols in Lviv
The rooms of the cultural center are characterized by the portrait of Czar Nicholas II and the ribbon of St. George. The black- and orange-striped ribbon is a Russian symbol of Soviet military courage during World War Two. It found renewed meaning for pro-Russian demonstrators during the Ukraine crisis in 2014. There are also Russian-language newspapers available to read at the center, and its website includes Kremlin-supported slogans such as, "The Crimea is ours."
Scandal is nothing new at the cultural center. In the 1990s, its representatives would make statements perceived in Lviv as anti-Ukrainian, making the center a repeated target for vandalism. Building walls were spray-painted and its windows broken.
Activists going to court
Lviv's regional council has seen to it that the cultural center will not be left out in the cold. The city is home to between 65,000-100,000 Russians, making them the largest minority there. Additional space is to be set aside for the cultural center, the details of which remain to be specified.
Representatives of the Russian community want the center to remain where it is. As a last resort, they may file suit at the European Court of Human Rights, although neither Pushkin Society has expressed a wish to participate.