Friends, families divided over Ukraine crisis | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 15.03.2014
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Friends, families divided over Ukraine crisis

Ukraine is caught up in its worst crisis in decades. Political upheaval in Kyiv and Russia's actions in Crimea have split society, especially in Ukraine's east, where the rift goes right through families and friendships.

Andrei and Mykola preferred not to give their real names. "Who knows what lies ahead," they said. The two men, both in their late 30s, have known each other for 25 years. They've been close friends since their student days in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk. Andrei has Russian roots, Mykola is Ukrainian. Up until now, that barely played a role in their lives. Russian is their native language, which is true for most of the 225,000 inhabitants of the city on the banks of the Dnieper River, which divides Ukraine in two.

Andrei is a civil engineer, his friend Mykola works as a train driver. Both men have families, and have a greater interest in fishing than in politics. But the conflict in Ukraine has put their friendship to the test.

In early March, they got together for a beer and talked for hours. "Afterwards, I lay awake half the night," Andrei said. The two old friends no longer got along.

Friends with opposing opinions

The West controlled the opposition movement in Kyiv, Andrei said, adding that he is wary of far-right groups such as the Right Sector collective that played a major role in the clashes with police forces. Fascists, Andrei called them.

Demonstrators on the maidan

Tens of thousands of protesters demonstrate against the Russian invasion

Andrei sees Russia's de facto invasion of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula as an attempt by Russian President Vladimir Putin to protect the base of Russia's Black Sea fleet. In case of a war with Russia, Andrei would not want to fight, but he conceded he might be enlisted by the government in Kyiv.

Mykola said he thinks his friend is a victim of Russian TV propaganda. "There was no fascist coup in Ukraine," Mykola said. The change of power in Kyiv is the result of a "social revolution that all levels of society participated in," Mykola added.

The events in Crimea have turned Russia into an aggressor, he said. "Putin is taking revenge on Ukraine for the fact that we don't want to live under his command and for toppling President Viktor Yanukovich," Mykola said, adding that he has volunteered with the Ukrainian army. "I served as a commander in a special antitank defense Navy unit, and if I'm needed, I'll go to war,"

Andrei said it saddens him to hear his friend speak like that.

Rift in society widens

Sociologists say such stories are a prime example for the split in Ukrainian society. The rift has always existed, but it is growing wider, according to Liudmyla Shanghina of the Kyiv-based Razumkov Center. The east and the south of the country, where many Ukrainians have a Russian background, are especially affected.

The change of power in Kyiv - overshadowed by violence - and the presence of Russian troops in Crimea have an impact on society, Shanghina said. "Some people, disappointed in Russia's actions, opt for Europe and against Moscow, while others irrevocably have their sights on reintegration with Russia," the NGO's director of social programs said, adding that no one knows where the split could lead.

A woman walking by a poster calling people to vote in the upcoming referendum

Stoking fears of neo-Nazis ahead of the Crimea referendum

There is no doubt Russia is waging a war of information against Ukraine via TV, Shanghina said. "We Ukrainians underestimated this war, so we lost," she said, adding that many Ukrainians in the east fear Ukrainians in the west - the driving force behind the opposition movement on Kyiv's Maidan protests.

Russian TV broadcasts, widely received in eastern Ukraine, brand western Ukrainians as nationalists, Nazis and fascists. Such fear of right-wing populism is exaggerated, Shanghina said but added that it cannot be ignored.

Emotional state

Andrei and Mykola left their discussion frustrated and disappointed: their arguments fell on deaf ears. It's a typical reaction for a crisis situation where people are dominated by their emotions, Shanghina said. For months, Ukrainians have been caught up in an emotional state of emergency, she said, "without a break to come to terms with the situation."

Andrei said he feels he is caught in the middle. The Ukrainian engineer experiences the split in his friendship with Mykola, and even within his own family. "I've thought about emigrating to Russia," Andrei said, but his wife, who is from western Ukraine, is opposed.

These days, Andrei avoids talking politics with his wife.

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