MILOVE — This town located 900 kilometers from Kiev and Moscow is unwittingly embroiled in the bitter, and at times deadly, dispute between Russia and Ukraine.
The border separating the two countries divides the town of Milove in half, and Ukrainian residents in this poor region vitally need to trade with the richer Russia to survive. But amid diplomatic tensions following Crimea’s secession, inhabitants here feel abandoned by Ukraine.
Around 5,600 people live on the Ukrainian side of Milove, and about twice that number live on the Russian side. A road sign here indicates the Russian border will soon be reached. Around us, tiny second homes with collapsing fences dot the landscape. Traffic here is virtually nonexistent, and cold gusts of wind are blowing in the unwelcoming streets.
At the border, there have traditionally been no customs officials, with people able to move freely between the two countries. But that was before the relationships between Moscow and Kiev deteriorated, as Alexander explains. His shop is right on the border.
“Since the tensions rose between the two countries, police officers are controling every passerby,” he says. Both Russian and Ukrainian customs officials patrol along the border. According to the salesman, only the inhabitants of the town can cross the border without any problem.
But these new control measures put the local economy in jeopardy. On the Russian side, the wages and standard of living are higher, and the Ukrainians make their livings from the cross-border business. Without this, people such as Viktoria Tokareva are compelled to abandon their trade. And for that, the Georgian woman is blaming Ukraine. “The situation is deteriorating every day, and this is all the Ukrainian government’s fault,” she says.
Tokareva was the star of a reality TV show that could have make her famous in Milove. But nobody watches the Ukrainian channels, both because residents identify more strongly with Russia and because they use satellite dishes. The new government of Kiev forbade the broadcast of Russian channels, calling them propagandists. But Tokareva believes the opposite to be true. “Ukrainian news only tells people lies, whereas the Russian journalists remain neutral or at least try to be,” she says.
Milove Mayor Olexandr Kislitsin designed various projects to transform the region into a trading center — building a new road and a new train station, for example. But if the border is closed, “all of this could fall through,” he says.
The mayor hopes the tensions will calm down, but he says Kiev “doesn’t care about the East of the country.” As for Tokareva, she doesn’t plan to vote in the May 25 presidential election. “If we had a strong man like Russian President Vladimir Putin, we wouldn’t be in this situation,” she says. “This coward ousted President Viktor Yanukovych put us there.”
But more than the economic impact, what worries Tokareva most is the possiblity of war. “The two goverments are gathering soldiers around us. And I don’t want to find myself between the shooting of the two armies.”