Saturday, January 23, 2010

Ukraine's President Honors Controversial Partisan

Ukraine’s President Viktor Yushchenko isn’t leaving office quietly. Fresh from his embarrassing loss in Ukraine’s presidential election last Sunday, (he won only about 5% of the vote) Yushchenko conferred “Hero of Ukraine” status upon the controversial WWII-era partisan leader Stepan Bandera. To Ukrainian nationalists, Bandera is a hero who fought passionately for an independent Ukraine in the 1930’s and 40’s; Russia and many ethnic Russian Ukrainians though, view Bandera as a Nazi collaborator who led a brutal guerilla war against the Soviet Union. Bandera was killed in Germany in 1959 by KGB agents.

The decision on whether to honor Bandera or not has been a source of controversy in Ukraine in recent years. Monuments in his honor have been raised in several cities in western Ukraine, where he is cast as a patriot for his efforts to resist Soviet rule, though at least one town in eastern Ukraine, where much of the country’s ethnic Russian population lives, set up their on memorial to the “victims” of Bandera’s nationalist militia. The militia organized by Bandera operated in a wide area of southeastern Europe during the war, so the controversy over their actions is not limited to just Ukraine and Russia. Slovakia has expressed their own disapproval of Yushchenko’s honoring him because of alleged atrocities committed by Bandera’s militia in Czechoslovakia during the war, while Poland last August banned a Ukrainian youth group from entering the country during a bike rally to honor Bandera because of charges that his militia was responsible for the deaths of perhaps 100,000 Poles during the war as well.

In honoring Bandera in the waning days of his term, Yushchenko is continuing some the policies that marked his presidency – stoking Ukrainian nationalism while at the same time provoking Russia. It was a deliberate strategy on the part of Yushchenko to try to once and for all break Ukraine out of Russia’s sphere of influence. But it was also a policy that overlooked the long history of deep cultural and ethnic ties between the two nations, as well as the fact that a large portion of Ukraine’s population – 30% or more – are themselves ethnic Russians who didn’t appreciate the sometimes open hostility Yushchenko showed towards Russia. In the end Yushchenko’s policies did more to cause tension between Ukraine’s ethnic groups than to build a new national identity. The two candidates in the February 7th run off election – Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and former President Viktor Yanukovych – are both proposing to improve relations between Kiev and Moscow as part of their campaigns.
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