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Prof. Nicolai Petro
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'Two narratives'

Interview: Michael Knigge
April 9, 2014

The Ukrainian conflict is having serious consequences even for people living far away from Crimea and the Eastern part of the country, a US Russian scholar currently residing in Ukraine tells DW.


Deutsche Welle: The situation in Eastern Ukraine is continuing to be very tenuous. What is it like in Odessa on the Black Sea where you are?

Nicolai N. Petro: It's calmer than in the other regions. This region is more cosmopolitan I think and about evenly split in terms of population ethnically.

How is the conflict with Russia and the danger of a military escalation over Eastern Ukraine perceived by ordinary citizens?

They are certainly concerned about it. It's hard for them - and I would include myself in that category - to know what is really going on. The Ukrainian channels by and large are promoting one point of view, the Russian channels locally have been all turned off since March 8, but of course you can go on the Internet and on your cell phone and see everything you want to and find out that way. But people are just confused, because there is a lot of contradictory information. I would say what happens a lot is that people call other people in Crimea and Donetsk and find out what's going on there. It's a lot of word of mouth. It is considered more reliable than news media.

You have been living in Ukraine since last year. How has life been changed by events in the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine since when you arrived?

There hasn't been any real change as a consequence of the loss of Crimea. What has been occurring with more and more obvious progression within the last month has been the collapse of the local currency, the hryvnia, which has lost 40 percent of its value in the last month. And then there are the proposed, mostly not yet enacted, price rises for all sort of local services and for gas and utilities. People are preparing themselves for that and they are glad that the summer months are coming because what they can do at least in that area is spend a lot more time in their local dachas and prepare more food that way and bolster their budget. But they are clearly worried how to pay the increasing costs that are coming.

How would you describe the general sentiment in the country towards the West and towards Russia these days?

The events on the Maidan and the change in government in February have really been seen through two narratives, through two very distinct interpretations of what happened. In the West of Ukraine and in much of the center including Kyiv this is seen as a popular uprising and they see this change as may be not as an elegant one, but as a legitimate one. Whereas in the East and South just as many people feel that what happened in February was illegitimate and illegal. And this narrative continues. Each side blames the other for everything and blames the respective sponsors of each side, because people in the Eastern regions of the country see what happened in Kyiv as promoted by the Western powers and conversely those in the Western regions see what is happening now in the Eastern regions of the country as promoted by Moscow. No one is really listening to the local people and asking them what they want. That is why the idea of referenda has caught on so much as a way of saying, "Talk to the local people and ask what they want."

As a Russia scholar, would you have thought Russia's annexation of Crimea and its aggressive stance concerning Eastern Ukraine possible half a year ago?

No, I did not anticipate this turn of events. But I do see what happened in Crimea as a unique circumstance, not likely to be repeated in the rest of the Ukraine. And one of the things that led to the way things unfolded in Crimea was a very decisive move on the part of the Crimean legislature as soon as the February 22 change in power took place: "We in Crimea, which is an autonomous republic, do not recognize the legitimacy of what happened in Kyiv." And then they mutually excommunicated each other. So there was very little chance for dialogue in this kind of mutual decision not to recognize the legitimacy of the other side.

Nicolai N. Petro is professor of comparative and international politics at the University of Rhode Island. Since July 2013 he's been in Odessa as a Fulbright Research Scholar.

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