I have no doubts about Ukraine’s European future

Interview on May 9, 2022, for Viktoria Vlasenko for one of the first editions of the Ukrainian governmental newspaper Uriadovyy Kurier after the start of the full-scale war.

Russia’s war against Ukraine has become a challenge that has united Ukrainians not only in the country but also around the world. Hundreds of Ukrainian public organizations and volunteer groups abroad are doing everything possible to help our Armed Forces and bring victory over the aggressor closer.

We met with Marta Barandiy, the founder of the Belgian NGO Promote Ukraine, in the European Quarter of Brussels, in a spacious office provided by the Stakeholders when they learned that Ukrainian volunteers needed space. Marta was busy preparing for the March of Solidarity with Ukraine. That’s where we started our conversation.

Q: Marta, please tell us more about your event.

A: It so happened that several dates coincided in these May days. On May 9, European countries celebrate Europe Day, on this day in 2014 our organization Promote Ukraine was registered. So we decided that our action on May 8 — a march in support of Ukraine and a concert in Luxembourg Square near the European Parliament — would be a good opportunity to remind about Ukraine, what is happening there now, and the values defended by Ukrainians. Ukrainian and Belgian performers took part in the concert. The concert was the finale of our event, and it all started with a march from Rogier Square to Luxembourg Square, during which Belgian politicians addressed the participants. In particular, the MEP from Belgium, Benoit Lutgen, of the Belgian Parliament, Georges Dallemagne, thanks to which, by the way, Belgium voted in favor of providing weapons to Ukraine. Both politicians personally traveled to Ukraine to hand over humanitarian aid.

Q: In order for the war in Ukraine to end with our victory, international support and attention are extremely important. However, for the third month in a row, it is difficult to keep the events in Ukraine at the highest level of public interest in other countries despite the horrors of the war. Do you feel tired of Europeans from the war in Ukraine?

A: It is probably too early to talk about fatigue, although it has gradually begun to manifest itself. We have noticed that fewer and fewer people come to our demonstrations and rallies. At first it was easy for us to involve two or even five thousand participants in our protests, now gathering so many people is a problem. Not even Ukrainian refugees come to the rallies. When we invite journalists, they ask us how many participants we expect. And we tell them that there will be 200 people, the media do not even want to cover such actions.

The same trend is observed with humanitarian aid — it is also becoming less and less efficient. People are already donating less money, because all those who wanted to transfer to help Ukraine have already done so and cannot transfer funds constantly. There is also some information fatigue. It is unfortunate to say this, but at first, the news from Ukraine shocked people, yet gradually, they became accustomed to the emotions caused by the war. In addition, many Ukrainians came to Belgium, and the Belgians communicated with them, lived next to them, and began to take this whole situation for granted.

Q: How did the war affect the activities of Promote Ukraine?

A: When Russia struck the first missile strikes on Ukraine on the morning of February 24, Ukrainian activists in Brussels began to correspond with each other in messengers, trying to find answers to dozens of questions. We quickly realized that it was impossible to solve everything through messengers, and we needed to meet in person to share information and communicate effectively. We started looking for premises, wrote letters everywhere, and in the first week, we were approached by the owners and management of the building in which you and I are now. They offered us this rather spacious room.

When we gathered here with the volunteers, we realized that not everyone was familiar with each other. So, at first, everything was chaotic; everyone took on many different tasks, of which there were many. However, in these two months, we have become a real family. Since February 24, our team has multiplied. Currently, more than 100 volunteers are involved in Promote Ukraine’s activities, 35 of whom work on a permanent basis.

Q: And what exactly does Promote Ukraine do?

Q: We have formed several working groups. One of the main ones is the one responsible for humanitarian aid. We receive requests from Ukraine, mainly for protective equipment for our military. We work on these requests, conduct fundraising campaigns, cooperate with various partners who transfer money to us, and then look for the necessary equipment throughout Europe. When we find it, we organize logistics, and from us it goes to all hot spots of Ukraine. Our defenders always send us videos confirming that they received everything.

Another huge area is our refugees. About 45,000 Ukrainian refugees are officially registered in Belgium to date, although many are already returning to Ukraine. To help our compatriots adapt and enable socialization, we opened the Ukrainian Cultural Center, where you can practice vocals, dance, and learn French and Dutch. Our volunteers work in the center. We organize free lunches for Ukrainian refugees, where they can get to know each other. We are negotiating with several Brussels schools to organize Ukrainian language training for our children on their basis. We have also opened three warehouses where refugees can pick up the necessary clothes or other necessary things. We store cargo there, which we later send to Ukraine.

Promote Ukraine also takes care of the media. We communicate mainly with Belgian journalists, but correspondents from other countries also approach us on various issues. They not only take comments from our volunteers but also ask us to find the right people or experts in Ukraine, and we help them with that.

Q: Now, it seems the whole European political arena is open to Ukraine. Do you manage to meet party leaders and politicians working in Brussels?

A: This is another area of our activity — advocacy: communication with Belgian and other European politicians and ambassadors of different countries to the EU about their position on Ukraine. We recently visited the Permanent Mission of Hungary to the EU and planned to hold a meeting at the Delegation of Germany in the near future. We convey to European diplomats the position of Ukrainian civil society. And today it coincides in almost everything with the position of the President and the Ukrainian government. However, due to the fact that we are representatives of civil society, we can communicate more sharply and openly than the official representatives of Ukraine. For example, in the Hungarian Mission, we openly said that Budapest takes a pro-Russian position, which, incidentally, offended the Hungarian ambassador. Our representative to the EU cannot say that, but we can and must do so. Today, the Ukrainian government and civil society complement each other. Although in reality the role of civil society is to control and criticize the government. But today, we are united because we are talking about the survival of Ukraine.

Q: Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Promote Ukraine has organized more than one action. I remember the picket of the Russian embassy in Belgium and the action near the National Opera in Brussels, where activists lit candles with a large sign “Children” to draw an analogy with the Russian-bombed drama theater in Mariupol, which killed about 600 civilians.

A: The organization of demonstrations is a significant area of our activity. During this full-scale war, we held 35 of them. Now, we are holding a series of demonstrations, “Boycott Lukoil.” Every Sunday, our activists with posters stand near gas stations and explain to drivers that Russia is at war with Ukraine, and you are refueling at a Russian gas station.

Q: And how do drivers react to this?

A: Differently. But many people, after talking to our activists, leave the gas station and say that they will no longer refuel at Lukoil. We noticed that many drivers do not know that this network of gas stations is Russian. And we ask Belgian journalists to write more about this and inform their audience that Lukoil is a Russian oil company. And in Belgium there are now almost 180 gas stations of this company. In the near future, we plan to hold a large-scale demonstration near Lukoil’s headquarters in Belgium. It has already been agreed with the police.

Q: Many in Ukraine are concerned about the statements of some European leaders that there can be no special accelerated procedure for our country’s accession to the EU. How do you feel about Ukraine’s European perspective?

A: “There should be no doubt that Ukraine is almost in the EU. The leader of the European Commission and the President of the European Parliament state this openly. Many in Brussels sincerely support Ukraine and are ready to do more for it than for any other country. That is why I have no doubts about the European future of Ukraine. However, there is fear that we will be pushed to certain compromises instead. It can look like this: we are giving you the status of a candidate for membership, and you a little bit give up here, give up a little there. Although I have no reason to say it, I am intuitive. For example, I am told that European firms began to hire Russians actively. The response to the protest of Ukrainian employees is that it is not necessary to show militancy and that it is necessary to be inclusive and to not talk about politics in the office, but only after work. So, I fear that such rolling back may occur at the political level. Therefore, we need to be prepared that the fight for Ukrainian interests will become more difficult, in particular for civil society”.

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