ECMI Minorities Blog. Ukraine’s National Minorities Trapped by the War: the Cases of Ethnic Greeks and Bulgarians

Kateryna Haertel
Image courtesy: mykhailo pavlenko /

*** This entry is part of the special section of the ECMI Minorities Blog on National Minorities and the War in Ukraine. ***

Author: Kateryna Haertel   |

Kateryna Haertel is a political and policy analyst, human rights advocate, and project manager in the fields of conflict prevention and democracy promotion. Her expertise in human rights and national minorities stems from her work with the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the High Commissioner on National Minorities (HCNM) of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Her research interests focus on specifics of minority politics and intersection between minority issues and security in the post-Soviet space.


A humanitarian catastrophe in Ukraine’s south-east

President Putin’s decision to order his troops into the territory of sovereign Ukraine has clearly put an end to the peaceful security order in Europe. After a month, the invasion attempt yielded destruction, displacement, and death. For weeks, the aggressor has been bombarding Ukrainian cities and rural areas, damaging strategic military infrastructure, and targeting civilians en masse.  Ca. ten million Ukrainians are assessed to have been displaced. In Mariupol, on the Azov Sea coast, people are trapped under siege with no electricity, heating, and mobile connection. The city is at the time of writing under heavy air strikes and the damage to the city’s housing stock is estimated at 80%. There is a lack of drinking water, medicine, and groceries. It goes without saying that the impact of war on the civilian population, and not only in Mariupol, is devastating. Victims of Russia’s war against Ukraine are also national minority groups such as ethnic Greeks and Bulgarians. 

Ukrainian Greeks struggling for survival, but positive about Ukraine’s victory

The wider area of Mariupol is home to about 80,000 ethnic Greeks, which settled there back in the 18th century. At least 10 of them have been reported dead as a result of Russian bombing of Sartana and Buhas, both localities with large ethnic Greek communities around Mariupol, in February. Since then, the number of casualties has grown. The Greek community is literally trapped under fire in Mariupol as well as in nearby Volnovakha, Sartana, in the villages of Buhas, Granitne, and Staromlinovka. Altogether, more than 15,000 ethnic Greeks are surrounded in the area with either minimal or no possibility of evacuation. In her open letter sent from a Mariupol bomb shelter, the Chairwoman of the Federation of the Greek Communities of Ukraine, Aleksandra Protsenko-Pichadzhy, urges the international community and foremost Greeks all over the world, to take immediate action against “open and obvious terrorism” and “a genocide of the Ukrainian nation and Ukrainian Greeks by the Russian Federation”.

Emotionally but concisely, the minority leader depicts the pervasive damage of the unfolding events onto the community – from human losses to the destruction of local infrastructure such as schools and hospitals, cultural sites, and historical artifacts. Protsenko-Pichadzhy describes the situation in Sartana, with particular sorrow. Located 17 km from Mariupol and less than 10 km from the contact line with the government non-controlled areas, Sartana has suffered heavily in the first days of the Russian offensive. The chairwoman pictures in detail how a peaceful community was caught by war: ‘local residents woke up at 3:30 am on February 27, 2022 from a powerful rocket attack. Within an hour, eight missiles were fired. Local residents ran out of their houses in underwear and pyjamas and tried to hide in basements. Those who dared to pass through the field were blown up by mines’. She also speaks about two ad hoc evacuation buses with children that made it from Sartana to Mariupol and emphasizes the endeavour was possible only due to the efforts of the chairwoman of the local Greek community Natalia Papakitsa. What happened next to the evacuees in the besieged city remains unknown.

It is only from those who survived the evacuation, like ethnic Greek Afina Khadzhynova, that we learn about nuances of life under siege. Together with her elderly mother, Afina got out of Mariupol rather spontaneously on 15 March. After a long journey westward, she took a temporary exile in Poland. These are some of her memories from the last days in her home city: ‘the day before our departure, some guys, apparently butchers, they had frozen bones from which the meat was trimmed, but something was still there. They brought it and gave it away for free to people. […] They understood the situation and at least gave people hope that they would cook these bones for themselves, so they would have some kind of broth that would nourish the body’.

Even when under existential threat, Ukrainian Greeks remain constructive and send clear messages to the world – they need safe passage for civilians and delivery of humanitarian aid to Mariupol. What should not go unnoticed is that Protsenko-Pichadzhy’s powerful address on behalf of the Ukrainian Greeks concludes with optimism about Ukraine’s victory, “we believe that your support will help save the Greeks of Ukraine and the Ukrainians surrounded by the enemy, will give us all the strength to protect the independence, territorial integrity of Ukraine and victory”.

It is worth mentioning that the Azov Greeks fall victim to Russian aggression for the second time in the last eight years. Back in 2014, after the Russian Federation initiated military conflict in eastern Ukraine, ethnic Greeks found themselves divided by the contact line between territories controlled by the Ukrainian government and the so-called ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’. Despite regular attempts by community members to maintain personal contact with those compatriots from thirteen Greek localities ‘on the other side’, the division has been always seen as painful and tragic, and as leading to alienation within the ethnic group.

The author’s contacts at the Greek Embassy in Kyiv, in an informal communication, also mentioned two evacuation operations from Mariupol covering ca. 100 diaspora members. They also informed that, as a result of the Russian bombing, the building of the Consulate of Greece was destroyed, with the Consul first taking temporary shelter on the premises of the local office of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, and later evacuated from the city. When in Greece, after a four-day ride through Odesa, Moldova and Romania, the diplomat commented ‘there are thousands of victims, how many of them Greeks - I don't know. Mariupol will be among the cities destroyed in the wars’. On 22 March, the Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias declared his readiness to accompany a humanitarian mission to Mariupol. According to official sources he had informed the Ukrainian and Russian sides about this plan and coordinates his trip with the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

There are some limited passages for civilians out of Mariupol, though without any security guarantee. Evacuation is not possible for residents of the nearby villages, with a majority or significant portion of ethnic Greeks. Many of them are either fully surrounded by the Russian army, subject to constant bombings and air raids or, in some instances, have ended up under a temporary occupation regime.

Ukrainian Bulgarians fully mobilized in supporting refugees

Whereas Ukrainian Greeks strive for basic survival, Ukrainian Bulgarians are active in supporting those displaced by the war. The ethnic Bulgarian minority, whose numbers are estimated at ca. 200,000, is concentrated mostly in Odesa and to the south of it. The fact that Anton Kisse, their community leader, is both President of the Association of Ukrainian Bulgarians and an elected official at the national level, brings benefits for the wider community of Ukrainians in this extreme situation. On the first day of the war, Kisse reached out for help to the Bulgarian authorities. Initially, they agreed to support the evacuation of ethnic Bulgarians from Ukraine. It was later announced, however, that Bulgaria would provide temporary shelter to all affected Ukrainians, irrespective of ethnicity. Subsequently Kisse reported on social media that among those who found shelter in Bulgaria are ethnic Bulgarians, Gagauz, Moldovans, Albanians, Ukrainians, Russians, Jews, and Greeks.

Odesa-based Dmitry Terzi, Chairperson of the All-Ukrainian Center of Bulgarian Culture, added in a direct conversation with the author that the kin-state supports Ukrainians through the provision of humanitarian aid too, but, unfortunately, does not deliver weapons. Concerning the housing situation of Ukrainian refugees, he emphasized that mayors not only of large Bulgarian cities, but also smaller localities, readily accept those displaced by the war. According to Terzi, ‘The support on the side of Bulgaria is huge. It was made possible due to a prompt reaction of our community leader and his direct contact with the political leadership of Bulgaria,’. Different sources report about ca. 25,000 Ukrainian refugees in Bulgaria.

Considering the overflow of Ukrainians moving toward the Ukrainian-Polish border, evacuation through Odesa and Moldova to Bulgaria became strategically important as an alternative evacuation route. This option is also closer and more accessible for those fleeing direct war zones or places in their proximity in the south-east, i.e. Mykolayiv, Zaporizhia, and Donetsk regions. As reported by Kisse, the number of refugees from the temporary occupied southern cities such as Kherson or Melitopol has increased on this route in the last days too.

All in all, such solidarity and mobilization for wider community needs by civil society organisations representing a national minority is without a doubt admirable. Moreover, it is not only a case of a useful service to the host-state, but also an example of regional-level minority CSOs becoming civil society agents of change of a country-wide significance.

The war as a litmus test for the state and its minorities: reflections on potential lessons learned

Having looked into the war experiences of only two of Ukraine’s national minority communities makes generalizing interpretations difficult. At the same time, some reflections on potential ‘lessons learned’, based on the information presented above, are possible.

Firstly, the war clearly poses an existential threat to persons belonging to national minorities as individuals and also as community members and holders of unique knowledge, language, and culture. Ethnic groups, being traditionally reluctant to move to new territories, are now forced into displacement, including outside of Ukraine. Such forced migration will result in considerable shifts in Ukraine’s post-war demographics. As never before, there is a pressing need for a new census and, consequently, new evidence-based minority policies.

Secondly, the role of community leaders, and that is true for both minorities analysed here, has moved far beyond the symbolic. If the Greek Foreign Minister indeed travels with humanitarian aid to a besieged Mariupol, this will be an unprecedented example of a minority community’s role in facilitating international assistance of national significance to the country. Additionally, this also could mean that Ukraine’s minority or indigenous groups without a kin-state - like Roma, Crimean Tatars, Karaites, or Krymchaks – are especially vulnerable.

Thirdly, having a minority leader as an elected national-level politician pays off. The operational role of the elected minority politician in this particular context was definitely instrumental in facilitating responsiveness and practical support from the kin-state. This good example can serve inter alia as a stimulus for strongerencouragement of political participationof minorities in post-war Ukraine.

Fourthly, CSOs representing a national minority have proved to be effective when also engaging with a wider spectrum of topics, beyond the minority-related ones. One of the suggestions for such CSOs would be to maintain humanitarian and social components of their activities, as well as keep on working in regions beyond their traditional engagement after the war. Such an approach would help minority CSOs to develop capacities, become eligible for broader funding and more visible as civil society actors of national significance.

Finally, and most importantly, in case of these two particular minorities a patriotic pro-Ukrainian stance of community leadership is obvious. If this fact is paid attention to by Ukrainian political elites after the war, there is a real chance for the discourse on national minorities to become finally less politicized and more inclusive.

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