Viktor Yushchenko, the 2004 Orange Revolution hero once admired around the world as a champion of democracy and reform, is leaving office, laying divisive political landmines that are stirring emotions in Ukraine and around the world -- including in Canada.
The Ukrainian president has travelled to western Ukraine, the heartland of Ukrainian nationalism and the ancestral homeland of most of Canada's 1.2 million diaspora, to tell countrymen they shouldn't vote for either of the two candidates in the run-off vote Sunday -- his former Orange Revolution partner, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, and Opposition Leader Viktor Yanukovych.
Yushchenko, who got a mere five per cent of the vote in the first round of balloting last month, also caused yet another spat with the Kremlin when his administration publicly revealed this week the apprehension of an alleged Russian spy trying to steal Ukrainian state secrets.
But most of the controversy centres on Yushchenko's decision to name Stepan Bandera, one of the main military leaders of Ukraine's Second World War-era nationalist movement, a Ukrainian hero.
The award was given to Bandera's Canadian grandson Stephen Bandera, a Kyiv-based journalist, in recognition of Bandera's lead role in fighting for the creation of a Ukraine state before a Soviet assassin [Stashinsky] killed him in 1959 [Oct. 15].
Ukraine's chief rabbi, Moshe Reuven Asman, and the U.S.-based Simon Wiesenthal Center both howled in protest, with the Wiesenthal Center expressing its "deepest revulsion" and accusing Bandera of being a Nazi collaborator whose followers killed thousands of Ukrainian Jews.
The Ukrainian Canadian Congress, meanwhile, has stirred the pot further this week by praising Yushchenko's decision to recognize Bandera and other Ukrainian resistance fighters.
"The UCC calls upon the Government of Canada to make changes to Canada's War Veterans Allowance Act by expanding eligibility to include designated resistance groups such as OUN-UPA," said the release, referring to the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army.
A University of Alberta history professor denounced the politically influential UCC Wednesday, saying the call on Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government to recognize any living Ukrainian insurgents as benefit-eligible veterans in Canada "very disturbing."
John-Paul Himka listed a succession of incidents during the Second World War showing that the Ukrainian nationalist fighters collaborated with the Nazis, killed Jews and launched in 1943 a major ethnic cleansing initiative against Poles in western Ukraine that led to tens of thousands of deaths.
[W.Z. Mr. Himka engendered contempt by denying that the Holodomor of 1932-33 was a genocide. Now he compounds this contempt by denying the legitimacy of the struggle for Ukrainian independence. The Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) was a carryover from the fight for independence after WWI. Their members carried on a struggle against the Polonization policies of Pilsudski throughout the 1930s and many of them ended up in the Polish concentration camp, Bereza Kartuzka. Stepan Bandera became the leader of the OUN-b faction of this organization in late April 1941. Eight days after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, on 30Jun1941 in Lviv, Mr. Bandera unilaterally declared the independence of Ukraine. Eleven days later, he and the OUN leadership were arrested and incarcerated in German concentration camps for the rest of the war. The Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) was created circa 14Oct1942 specifically to fight against the Germans. The civil war between the Poles and Ukrainians, involving a great deal of ethnic cleansing in the border areas, raged from the mid 1930s to 1948 -- culminating with Aktsia Wisla.]
Steve Outhouse, a spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon, said the government couldn't comment on Yushchenko's decisions in the dying days of his presidency.
"This is an internal matter for Ukrainians and therefore, it would not be appropriate to comment."
Several analysts said this week that Yushchenko's actions may sincerely represent his political and policy views as he leaves office, though University of Victoria historian Serhy Yekelchyk said there's likely a political gambit at play.
"In Ukraine, Bandera is a national hero in the western regions but a highly controversial figure in the rest of the country," according to Yekelchyk, author of Ukraine: Birth of a Modern Nation.
"For Yushchenko, this was a very calculating step — to polarize the country, thus building up his support in the west."
The outgoing president could use the publicity to win seats if there is a spring parliamentary election, making him the leader of the nationalistic right, Yekelchyk said in an e-mail.
Stephen Bandera, who accepted the award on behalf of family members in Canada and Germany, said he and his mother appeared before Canada's Deschenes Commission in the mid-1980s to successfully clear Stepan Bandera's name.
He cited as evidence the fact that his grandfather was sent to a Nazi concentration camp in 1941, along with many other nationalist leaders who were executed or locked up after they attempted to establish Ukraine's independence. Bandera's two brothers died at the Auschwitz death camp in Poland.
Yale University historian Tim Snyder, who refused to be interviewed for this article due to the fiery controversy surrounding Bandera, has written that Bandera's fighters were "the most impressive example of popular resistance to communist power in wartime and postwar Europe."
But Snyder also wrote that Bandera and other nationalist leaders, desperate to end Soviet and Polish rule over different parts of their homeland, saw the Nazi invasion of Poland, and then the Soviet Union, as an opportunity to establish Ukraine's independence.
"Since Germany was the only possible ally in the Ukrainian nationalists' quest to build a new independent state out of Soviet and Polish territories, such men had convinced themselves that Hitler's rise was a good omen."
But those hopes were almost immediately dashed when the nationalists discovered that the Nazis, who considered Ukrainians "sub-human," had no interest in cutting a deal.
Snyder said Bandera was in the German concentration camp when his men, many of whom worked as police officers in 1941-42 assisting Nazis in rounding up and killing Ukrainian Jews, abandoned the police force in 1943 to form an army to ethnically cleanse the Volhynia region of many thousands of Poles -- either killing them or chasing them out.
"Ukrainians in the German auxiliary police in Volhynia
collaborated in the Final Solution throughout November 1942. In March
and April 1943, they provided the bulk of the recruits for the OUN-B
(Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists-Bandera) partisan army, the UPA
(Ukrainian Insurgent Army)," he wrote.
Canwest News Service
The Orwellian term "Collaborator" is a treacherous one because it implies
working with the enemy against the duly constituted national government of one's
own Fatherland. (see Dr. Vasyl Veryha here: http://bit.ly/9JI0fk). But during
WW2 our Fatherland, Ukraine, had no national government because it had been
destroyed by invaders and colonisers long before. The people of Ukraine were
prostrate, raped by three marauders: the Bolsheviks, the Nazis, and the Poles
(not to mention several other vampires of less vital importance).
To have fought against any of these, either singly or severally in whatever strategic combination that seemed to offer a chance of success of freedom for Ukraine, was to honourably defend one's own Fatherland in keeping with the ancient traditions of our Kyivan-Rus forebears.
It was, moreover, perfectly consonant with international law. The term "collaborator" under these conditions is ludicrously irrelevant except when applied to Stalin for his friendship with Hitler, and is bandied about today principally as a ploy to shield the world-class genocidist of that day: Stalin and his, (yes!) collaborators.
The American general, George Patton wanted to keep his tanks rolling towards Moscow. Had he done so and with the assistance of Ukrainian freedom fighters along with those from other nations oppressed by Russia, democracy would had flourished sooner in Eastern Europe.