Many observers assume that those who fled the Donbas to the Russian Federation did so because they were pro-Russian while those who fled in the opposite direction into other parts of Ukraine were pro-Ukrainian, Maksym Butkevych says. But in fact the calculations of those who fled the fighting were far more complicated.
Some chose the direction because they had relatives with whom they could live, and others did so because it was easier or even simply possible to go in one direction rather than the other, a reality, the head of the Without Borders project says, that everyone should remember as people return home.
Kyiv officials and Ukrainians more generally must not assume that the direction people fled the Donbas says everything one needs to know about their politics. Some pro-Ukrainian people had no choice but to flee to Russia; and some pro-Russians ended up as internally displaced persons (IDPs) elsewhere in Ukraine.
Butkevych says that it is important to keep this in mind to overcome stereotypes and to ensure that all Ukrainian citizens are treated as Ukrainian citizens and not viewed with suspicion by others. That issue will become ever more important as Ukrainians return from Russia or seek to return to the Donbas from other parts of Ukraine.
The first and smallest wave of those fleeing the Donbas did so to escape running into armed groups or block posts. Then a larger group left, and it included “the entire spectrum of social strata, professional groups, and convictions,” with the direction they chose to flee determined most often by where they had friends and family.
Overwhelmingly, however, as time went by, the refugee expert says, their physical location determined their flight: “Those who lived close to the Russian border went to Russia.” Those who lived further west went in the opposite direction into areas of Ukraine where they could escape the pro-Moscow forces.
Unfortunately, many Ukrainian journalists did not understand that and promoted the idea that people made decisions on ideological bases. There was undoubtedly some of that, but this was hardly the driving force. And that means that no one should use the “absurd” notion that those who went east are “’our former fellow citizens.’” They remain our citizens and deserve our support, Butkevych says.
In other comments, the expert on refugees and IDPs pointed out that Ukraine was not ready for the flow. It had no law on IDPs and did not know what to do at all. A major reason it didn’t is that there is no model IDP law. Those countries which have them each define the situation in their own way. Consequently, it was not a simple matter of copying someone else’s.
In this vacuum, Butkevych says, volunteers and activists played a greater role than did the Ukrainian state. But there are greater challenges ahead and Ukrainians must overcome certain stereotypical prejudices that now circulate about people from the Donbas being particularly pro-Russian or particularly disposed to criminality.