Politics comes to Expo with Ukraine crisis

08 March 2022
Event organisers maintain an apolitical stance while individual countries express support for Ukraine

For the Ukraine pavilion and its staff, the future is decidedly uncertain.

As the conflict with Russia inches towards its third week, the pavilion's communications lead Kateryna Moroz and her colleagues cannot guarantee if they will be able to safely return home after the culmination of Expo 2020.

"The evolving nature of the situation makes it difficult to know anything for sure," says Moroz. "Some of us are based in Dubai full-time, but have families back home. Those who are here on temporary basis will stay back in Dubai for some time, since the airspace is closed and air hubs have been destroyed."

Decisions regarding the pavilion structure have been put on a back-burner. They have to be directed by the Ukrainian Ministry of Economy and will require funds. The previous plan was to retrofit the pavilion as the embassy of Ukraine in the UAE.

"For now, the Ukraine pavilion has turned into a place of support and a symbol of peace for the entire world, because we wish for this to end with our country."

On 4 March, the mood inside the Ukraine pavilion is sombre. Visitors pour in one after the other, many keen to offer their support to the nation. Colourful notes of solidarity span several walls and glass railings within the pavilion, while staff members sport t-shirts that say '#PrayforUkraine' and 'Stand with Ukraine'. Digital screens in the pavilion proclaim the same message against the backdrop of the Ukranian flag.

Expo participants convey solidarity with Ukraine

"The first note was put up on the wall by a group of children and once the adults saw it, they decided to do the same," explains Moroz. "The messages are from so many different people, including Russians. My staff and I feel anger towards the situation, but understand that it is not the Russian citizens that are to be blamed. Seeing the messages of support from them warms our hearts."

At the Russia pavilion, the long queues of visitors have not abated. The director of international communications, Yekaterina Pribytkova, refrains from commenting on the political crisis and instead says - "it is business as usual".

Time for fraternity

World Expos are generally a low-politics zone, with the focus instead on innovation and portraying the best that a nation has to offer. Despite the ongoing social and political tensions in Middle East nations such as the State of Palestine, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon, each of these nations have a dedicated presence at Expo. 

Across the site, several European nations have made their support for Ukraine loud and clear. 

At the Czech Republic pavilion for instance, the Ukrainian flag flies next to its own. Nations including Italy shone the Ukrainian colours on their pavilion facades.

On 24 February, the same day that the Russian invasion began, Poland initiated a gathering of several nations outside the Ukraine Expo 2020 pavilion. Polish commissioner general Adrian Malinowski was joined by his peers from Ukraine, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and the US, stoically standing shoulder to shoulder.

"It was a spontaneous gathering of like-minded nations that wanted to express their support for Ukraine," Malinowski tells MEED. "We have not confronted members from the Russia pavilion - that is not the point of this. It is merely to voice our solidarity." 

24 February 2022: Delegates from Poland, Ukraine, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and the US gather outside the Ukrainian pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai (Image courtesy: Polish Investment and Trade Agency)

Malinowski says that several of the volunteers at the Polish pavilion are Ukranians and Russians, and the pavilion is facilitating their stay until it is safe for them to return. Several staff members returned to Ukraine in January 2022, and Malinowski has remained in touch to ensure their safety, replicating his nation's approach to facilitating safe transit for Ukrainian refugees over the Polish border.

"Putin could have never imagined the ramifications of his actions could lead to this level of unification and deepening of ties between European nations," he says. "We all know what it's like to be ruled by a dictator, and it is our duty to step up for our neighbours."

Expo 2020's organisers firmly maintain an apolitical stance on the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. But Malinowski notes that World Expos should not be about diplomacy. Instead, it needs to be about "expressing fraternity with each other".

More from MEED on the Ukraine-Russia crisis:

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