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'Ukrainians in Barentsburg fear being mobilized'

Vjatsjeslav and Olga Sjevtsjenko runs the restaurant "Kransnyj Medved" (The rea Polar Bear) in Barentsburg. FOTO: Christian Nicolai Bjørke

General director sounds a warning:

'Ukrainians in Barentsburg fear being mobilized'

They are afraid of being involved in the war if they go home. Ukrainian experts understand the fear.

Monday was a bloody day in the Donetsk People's Republic, the self-proclaimed state in the eastern Ukraine. More than 30 pro-Russian separatists were killed after an attempt to take over the airport. The situation in the area has been tense ever since Russia invaded Crimea in March. Those tensions are also reflected all the way up to Svalbard.

"Many of our employees in Barentsburg are having difficulties during this time," said Alexander P. Veselov, general director of the mining company Trust Arkikugol.

"Many are afraid to go home on vacation because they fear being mobilized to the war effort."

Pro-Russian area

Barentsburg is perhaps the place in Norway with the highest concentration of Ukrainians. Most miners are Ukrainians, particularly from the provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk, where Russia has huge support among the population.

The provinces are also known for their mining activities. Just within the boundaries of the industrial city of Dontesk, which bears the same name as the province, there are 40 coal mines. 

Undertands the fear
Jakub M. Godzimirski, a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI), said he understands the fear.

"I myself am Polish and remember how the state of emergency in 1981 did something to us," he said. "Ukrainians from these areas do not know who has power and are seeing acts of violence taken by both sides."

However, he said he believes the danger of being mobilized is not great.

"My impression is that the so-called separatist groups are mostly voluntary," he said.

"But there have been incidents where people are forced to join things they basically have not wanted to."

Different versions
The experience of Ukrainians Vjatsjeslav and Olga Sjevtsjenko is everyone has their version of the conflict.

"We talk a bit with friends and relatives on the phone, but all have different stories and perceptions about what is happening," said Olga Shevchenko, 26.

Together with her husband Vyacheslav, 27, they operate the restaurant "Krasny Medved" (Red Polar Bear), which this season has been popular with snowmobilers who come to Barentsburg. Now the busiest time is over and it is only boat tourists who come by.

The couple said they get the most information about the situation in their home country from TV – and then only from Russian channels. The phone is also an important tool for getting updates.

"Our friends said that there is no war in the streets and that it is only at the administration building in the center that there has been trouble," Vyacheslav Shevchenko said.

The regional government building was stormed by pro-Russian protesters on April 6 and for a lengthy period was the symbol of resistance against the Ukrainian government in the province.

Hoping to remain
The couple has been in Barentsburg for seven months. They recently extended the length of their contract to 2015. The reasons they sought to go northward are twofold.

"First, we sought a change and the life we ​​live here is completely different than in Donetsk," Olga Shevchenko said. "Second, the wages are better here."

"We hope to be here for as long as possible," Vyacheslav Shevchenko said. "There are many good people here. But it depends on Trust Arkikugol."

What about going home for a vacation?

"It depends on the situation in Ukraine," Olga Shevchenko said. "Now that we have a new contract, we plan to be here. We enjoy ourselves as well. But if something happens with relatives and friends, we may go."

"Of course," her husband chimed in. "But we call them often and they say everything is normal."

No cooperation problems
The management in Barentsburg is mainly Russian, both at Trust Arkikugol and the Consulate General. Is is problematic for the couple that the two home countries are in conflict?

"No," both respond quickly.

Vyacheslav Shevchenko, as the Russian interpreter, added his own account of a passage explaining why there are no such problems here.

"All are equal here and all have come here to earn money," he said. "There are no separate associations or groups of nationalities."

End of the war
But the conflict is a hot topic of conversation they do not shy away from.
"Yes, there are many people talking about this and there are many opinions," Olga Shevchenko said. "Some support a Ukrainian party, the others are for the federation."

What does the couple think?

"My first wish is that there will be an end to the war, and that they can talk to each other and come to an agreement," Vyacheslav Shevchenko said.


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