Against the backdrop of tense East-West relations how does a community of expats from Russia and Ukraine function in the very heart of Europe? Vladimir Matan went out and about in Brussels to find out.
EU-Russia relations have hit a post-Cold War low with sanctions, blacklists and threats increasing on both sides. Talk of a new Cold War is making the rounds amongst politicians and in the media, West to East. Just recently Moscow added 12 new NGO names to a list of "undesirables."
Back in May a similar list was compiled for more than 80 EU politicians, among them Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the centrist European Parliament group Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) and a former Belgian prime minister. Upon hearing of his blacklisting, Verhofstadt penned an opinion piece for the Brussels-based newspaper "Politico," where he advocated offering Russian people an alternative to "Putin's narrow authoritarianism."
What the former prime minister might not know is that there already exists a thriving Russian community in Brussels. And "it's not just Russians, it's the Russian-speaking community," Arkady Sokholutsky, who manages the expat group, tells DW. "There are people from all former Soviet countries, not just Russia - Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine. We all speak Russian."
The expat group is very active on social media, but they also meet in person "at least every month or two," Arkady explains. "The aim of the group is to help our people feel welcome, and also to make life here a bit more exciting."
Arkady, who grew up in Moscow and is the Brussels commentator for Russian daily "Kommersant," says he got used to Brussels and its smaller size. He came to the Belgian capital in 2005, working for an American company. He started a blog about life in Brussels, and soon had a decent-sized group of Russian-speaking followers. Today the community numbers around 2,000 members.
They organize various cultural events, dinners, and trips. Last month they visited the Chagall exhibition at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, organized for them in Russian as the curator is also part of the expat group. This month they went on a trip to Ghent, and workshops are planned on photography, modern art, fashion, and even politics.
Now that the weather has improved, they gather for "Russian picnics" in Brussels' landmark Parc du Cinquantenaire.
No Ukraine talk
The Russian-speaking expat community wants nothing to do with a new "Cold War" between East and West
Talk on Ukraine is strictly banned on the group's social media and blog accounts. "It's not just that there are Ukrainians in our community, Russians also have different views on the situation," Arkady says. "We don't need those tensions and conflicts in our community, so I closed comments on Ukraine one year ago."
"I see how many people whom I know have stopped talking to each other because they have taken different positions in this propaganda war," Evgenia Maidaniuk, a Ukrainian expat, tells DW. She tries to distance herself from it all. "Yes, people ask me all the time what I think about it, I just try to change the topic. I usually say 'we either switch the topic, or I leave the room' - it always works."
She says that her circle of friends is mainly from the Russian-speaking community. "I do not divide people by the countries of their origin, so they are Ukrainians, Russians and other Russian-speaking expats."
Evgenia grew up in Kyiv but came to Brussels when she was 17-years old to join her father who was a professional violin player for the National Orchestra of Belgium. She likes the city very much, "not only the people, but even the weather. I don't like it when it's too hot, so I am ok when it rains once in a while."
Arkady likes Belgium too, saying he has no problems being "openly Russian" here. "Belgians are very understandable and polite." He visits Moscow from time to time and says "things do not look good there now - economically."
Evgenia also travels back to Ukraine "for a week or so. I like it. A week is usually more than enough, and then I want to go home, to Belgium."
According to recent polls by the Levada Center, a Russian research organization, President Vladimir Putin has more public support than ever, his approval rate at a staggering 89 percent. Critics say it proves that EU imposed sanctions are not fruitful in the way Europe intended.
Arkady says that when Europeans think of Russians "they think of the golden years [2001-2011], but forget Russians grew up in poverty in the 90s."
Arkady manages the group on a voluntary basis without a budget. The community initially had some support from the Russian Center of Science and Culture, who would offer their premises for various events. However the center's activity was scaled down after the Belgian government froze Russian assets in the country. Their building is on the list of Russian property that might be confiscated following a Hague international court ruling ordering Russia to pay $50 billion to the bankrupt oil company Yukos.
"All this Cold War talk is worrisome," Arkady sighs. "Nobody remembers anymore, but two years ago there was talk of a border-free area from Lisbon to Vladivostok. Now, I'm afraid, nothing good can come out of this."