Last week, a group of deputies in the city council of Ivano-Frankivsk (in western Ukraine) drafted a motion to rehabilitate twenty-four local surviving veterans of the Nazi SS Galicia division. This sparked a fierce debate that showed how deeply Ukraine is divided over its history. Oligarch-controlled media hurried to use the dispute in an ongoing campaign against the March 31 parliamentary election frontrunners, Viktor Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine bloc. Yushchenko, coincidentally, was on a campaign trip in Ivano-Frankivsk when the local council was debating the issue.
Many western Ukrainians met German and Romanian troops as liberators from the Soviet occupation of 1939-1940, which followed the secret pact between Stalin and Hitler. Some of them later fought against the Nazis, others against both the Nazis and the Soviets. SS Galicia, which included some 15,000 ethnic Ukrainians, remained faithful to Hitler and was destroyed during the Soviet offensive in 1944. Soviet propaganda held western Ukrainians guilty of collaboration with the Nazis, juxtaposing them with eastern Ukrainians, most of whom served in the Red Army. This divide is still hindering national consolidation.
On March 20-21, Ukrainian and international media reported that the Ivano-Frankivsk council decided to recognize the SS Galicia veterans as fighters for Ukraine’s independence and give them privileges enjoyed by other WWII veterans. Ivano-Frankivsk Regional Governor Mykhaylo Vyshyvanyuk was late in denying the reports. By March 25, when he said that the council merely discussed–but not passed–the decision, passions were already high.
Russia was the first to react or, rather, overreact. On March 20, Duma Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Dmitry Rogozin warned against “radical nationalist circles taking power in Ukraine.” By this, he explained, he meant Our Ukraine. (Yushchenko’s bloc is indeed backed by radical nationalists, including the Social Nationalist Party and the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists.) Moscow does not conceal its dislike of Yushchenko. On March 18, Putin administration chief Aleksandr Voloshin branded Our Ukraine as a bloc “openly advocating anti-Russian policy.” Our Ukraine is very popular in western areas of the country, including Ivano-Frankivsk.
The Russian Foreign Ministry condemned “the dangerous precedent” in Ivano-Frankivsk. On March 21 Ukrainian Premier Anatoly Kinakh retorted that it was an internal Ukrainian matter. But pro-Russian and leftist circles in Ukraine shared Russia’s concerns. Russian Bloc, the Ukrainian Jewish Congress chaired by media tycoon Vadym Rabynovych, pro-Russian media tycoon Andry Derkach, the Socialists, the Communists and the United Social Democratic Party (USDP) all condemned Ivano-Frankivsk city council. “No one has so far canceled the Nuremberg Tribunal’s ruling on the crimes of SS troops,” the Socialist leader Oleksandr Moroz said. Our Ukraine was the only serious force to protest the Russian statements, describing them as an attempt to influence the Ukrainian vote.
The media linked to oligarchs from the USDP, which apparently believes that all means against Yushchenko are fair (see the Monitor, March 25), have jumped at the opportunity to stigmatize the nationalists from his camp. Inter TV and Studio 1+1–the most popular nationwide channels–reported that Our Ukraine was behind the move to rehabilitate SS Galicia’s veterans. This was a grave accusation in a country where millions perished during the occupation, in concentration camps and at the front fighting Nazis. Yushchenko was unable to effectively reply, because there are no major media under his control. On March 26, Our Ukraine dissociated itself from the attempt to honor the SS division. Yushchenko’s press service recalled that Yushchenko’s father served in the Red Army and was held as a prisoner of war in Auschwitz. This might have assuaged those Ukrainians who believed the accusations against Our Ukraine, but the statement was virtually ignored by Ukrainian television (Ukrainian media, March 20-26; AFP, March 21).
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