Yushchenko Has Stirred Up a Political Hornet’s Nest for His Successor to Pacify
Outgoing Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko has used his last
days in office to elevate Second World War guerilla leader Stepan
Bandera to the status of a national hero. But Bandera, a nationalist
who fought both Nazis and Soviets in his quest for an independent
Ukraine, is seen in Russia as a Nazi collaborator and a war criminal.
The posthumous honor for Bandera will be seen as a last ditch attempt
by Yushchenko to sabotage his successor and stick a middle finger up at
The decree, which Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko signed on January 22, Ukraine’s Day of Unification, is probably the most succinct summary of what Stepan Bandera means to his admirers: a hero of “indomitable spirit in the pursuit of the national idea, heroism and sacrifice in the struggle for an independent Ukrainian state.”
If only it were that simple. Stepan Bandera is one the most divisive figures of Ukraine’s 20th century history, and he elicits reactions – both in Ukraine and in Russia – that epitomize the historical rows between the two.
Bandera was the leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), a pro-independence guerilla movement that briefly allied with Nazi Germany during the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.
The alliance was short-lived. The Germans had no intention of allowing an independent Ukrainian state, and Bandera was soon arrested and interned in a concentration camp. His followers carried out partisan operations against the German occupiers, but when the Germans finally retreated, the OUN continued the fight against the advancing Soviets.
For the Soviets, and many in Russia today, Bandera’s alliance with the Nazis was unforgiveable, and making him a hero is tantamount to glorifying a war criminal (there is compelling evidence to suggest his and his associates’ involvement in massacres of Jews and Poles). The pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi, always ready to defend the Red Army’s honor, has already said it would lobby the next president of Ukraine to overturn Yushchenko’s decree.
Yushchenko is not the only one in Ukraine who would find that presumptuous. But Bandera’s record of collaboration with the Nazis is an awkward truth that must be faced. “His collaboration with the fascists is a problem,” conceded Vakhtang Kipiani, a Ukrainian journalist and historian who supports Yushchenko’s decision to make Bandera a national hero. “But if we’re going to talk about collaboration with the Nazis, should we forget Stalin and the Molotov Ribbentrop pact? Bandera was no Nazi – he was a Ukrainian nationalist who did everything he could for Ukrainian independence, including using quite hard methods.”
That, at least, is Bandera supporters’ view, and apparently many people would agree with it. When the Inter television channel aired “Great Ukrainians,” a show based on the BBC’s “Great Britons” in which the audience voted for the most important figures in Ukrainian history, Bandera was the leading candidate at one point. “It was a decision of the station managers to stop him from winning,” said Kipiani. “For ideological reasons they could not agree to Bandera receiving a majority of the votes.” In the event, Bandera took third place with 16 percent of the vote (behind 11th century prince Yaroslav the Wise, and Nikolai Amosov, a heart surgeon and author).
Kipiani claims that Yaroslav the Wise was chosen as a suitably “unifying figure.” Yevgeny Kiselyov, a political talk show host on Ukraine’s Inter television channel who came to work at Inter sometime after the “Great Ukrainians” scandal, says he is still not sure what exactly happened. But he agrees that alleged vote-fixing bears a close resemblance to a similar scandal that afflicted the Russian version of the show. In the “Name of Russia,” Joseph Stalin initially took the lead before finishing in 10th place, prompting speculation that his votes had been held back for political reasons.
Yushchenko has never made a secret of where he stands on the matter of Bandera’s heroism or criminality – in 2007 he similarly honored Roman Shukhevich, a no-less controversial contemporary and comrade of Bandera. But this time he waited until he was voted out of office (he was decisively defeated in the first round of the Ukrainian presidential elections on January 17) before making Bandera a Hero of Ukraine.
That has prompted inevitable charges of political opportunism. Since both of his prospective successors have been promising improved ties with Russia, honoring Bandera was a good way to put them in an awkward position. And, points out Kiselyov, Bandera is no less controversial within Ukraine itself. The leader of the Ukrainian Communist Party, Petr Simonenko, responded by calling Yushchenko a “scoundrel,” according to the Kommersant daily. And on Sunday a Ukrainian MP burnt his passport in protest at the decision, RIA Novosti reported.
But Viktor Yanukovich and Yulia Tymoshenko are competing for voters on both sides of the county’s East-West divide, and tackling the question directly risks alienating at least some section of the population. Even Viktor Yanukovich’s Party of the Regions, which has its roots in the East, avoided criticizing Bandera directly. In its official response to Yushchenko’s announcement, the party said it “would not contribute to the unification of Ukraine.” For Tymoshenko, who relies much more on the West, where Bandera’s memory is taken for granted (in Lvov, the city in Western Ukraine where he proclaimed a Ukrainian republic in June 1941, he is immortalized with a street name, a statue and a theme-bar called “Bandera’s bunker”), questioning the decree is even more risky. “It makes things difficult for Tymoshenko,” said Kiselyov.
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