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Ukrainian embassy alleges new school is Russian front for data collection

Flowers pictured at the Ukraine embassy in Brussels, Sunday 27 February 2022 in Brussels. (BELGA PHOTO JULIETTE BRUYNSEELS)
06:25 04/05/2022

The Embassy of Ukraine in Brussels has advised Ukrainians not to send their children to Vesna, the school for Ukrainian children that opened this week in Brussels, reports Bruzz. The embassy believes the school is a ruse to pass on personal data of Ukrainians to Russia. Co-founder of the school Maria Smirnova strongly denies the allegations.

"Currently, the front line of the war is not only on the territory of our country, but also outside its borders," reads a Facebook message that the Ukrainian embassy in Belgium posted on Monday.

"Russia gives money for opening schools, kindergartens, language courses, and so on, in order to collect personal data and carry out propaganda. We urge you to be vigilant when responding to that 'help'. The embassy certainly does not recommend enrolling in questionable educational institutions, such as the Ukrainian school 'Vesna', and not sharing your personal data with such a pseudo-educational institution."

Vesna, which opened this week, is the only initiative mentioned in the post in which the Ukrainian embassy warned of Russian infiltration in Belgium. The embassy claims that it is unclear where the money for the school comes from, where it gets its teachers and what the educational program is.

The concern stems mainly from the fact that Maria Smirnova, the co-founder of the school, is a Russian, who, according to the embassy, does not speak Ukrainian. The embassy demanded a meeting with Smirnova which finally took place at the beginning of last month, but without her co-founder Kira, a Ukrainian with whom the embassy had also been trying to meet for a long time.

According to the embassy, many questions remained unresolved even after the conversation, including about Smirnova's position and her motivation. Precisely because she is Russian, the embassy fears that the school is – directly or indirectly – sponsored by Russia, which can collect data from Ukrainian citizens through the school.

Maria Smirnova denies all allegations. "It is very unfortunate that they are now making these unfounded accusations," she told reporters. "We are here to help the children, and do so with people of different nationalities, such as Ukrainians, but also French and Belgians. The fact that they call me a Russian is a form of discrimination: I am now French, I have been living in Europe for 15 years. And you can't accuse every Russian of complicity in the war just because they're Russian. Am I against this war? All wars are terrible."

According to Smirnova, she quickly responded to the request for an interview, and gave the embassy all the necessary information. "Not just about the funding, but also about my experience: I have already opened three schools in France. The fact that Kira wasn't there is because she tried to get her parents from Ukraine."

She is adamant about the use of the personal data: "They are not forwarded, there is no leak. We also never asked for people's passports. The surname and first name only, but without checking whether they correspond to the official documents."

Smirnova and her colleague Kira have now contacted the embassy again, but they do not want to elaborate. "We have made our statement," she adds. "Now it's up to the Ukrainians to decide what they're going to do. Belgium is a free country."

According to Smirnova, so far there are no parents who have taken their children out of school, as a result of the warning. "On the contrary, the parents thank us."

Written by Nick Amies