Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko has failed to reconcile Red Army veterans with former fighters of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) on the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. The Yushchenko government initially wanted all the veterans to march along Kyiv’s main streets together on May 9 to mark the holiday. But protests from veterans’ organizations and radical politicians compelled Yushchenko to drop the plan, and the holiday was for Red Army veterans only, as it has been in past years. After some hesitation, Yushchenko also accepted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invitation to attend the Victory Day parade in Moscow.
Yushchenko’s unique background should have helped his reconciliation efforts. His father was a Red Army soldier and held at Auschwitz; and Yushchenko himself remains very popular in the west of Ukraine, where most UPA veterans live. But the president’s good will failed to dispel the decades-old enmity between the two sides that fought against each other in World War II. The majority of the Red Army veterans share the official Soviet view — one that is also accepted in Putin’s Russia — that the UPA were Nazi collaborators. But UPA veterans argue that they fought against both Nazi and Soviet invaders for Ukraine’s independence, and they view the Red Army as an occupying force.
World War II was essentially a civil war in Western Ukraine. Stalin annexed the territory from Poland in 1939 according to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. But the national-minded west of Ukraine — which had been a UPA stronghold — is better prepared for reconciliation than the south and east, which has been historically dominated by Russian culture. According to an April 23-28 nationwide poll by the Kyiv-based Razumkov think tank, reconciliation between UPA and Red Army veterans is supported by 67% and rejected by 9% of western Ukrainians. In the east and south only 19% of the population are in favor of reconciliation, while 42% in the east and 51% in the south are against it. Incidentally, Victory Day is marked as a holiday by 91% of eastern Ukrainians but by only 65% of western Ukrainians, according to the same poll.
Parliament, dominated by Yushchenko’s supporters, approved the Victory Day activities through Kyiv in March. Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko had been against the parade, saying that she would rather scrap the ceremonies and “dance a waltz with a veteran.” The official veterans’ organizations indignantly rejected Deputy Prime Minister Mykola Tomenko’s idea of an open-air dinner for veterans instead of the parade, saying that they had not fought for free food. But plans to invite UPA veterans caused the greatest controversy. “We have found common understanding with the Poles, even with Japan. We have failed to find common understanding only between ourselves,” Yushchenko said, invoking reconciliation at the meeting of the Council of Veteran Organizations in Kyiv. But the Red Army veterans adamantly rejected the idea.
The opposition tried to use the controversy against the government by stirring up emotions. Parliamentarian Ihor Shkirya, a spokesman for former prime minister Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, said that a joint parade would be “treason in relation to the older generation.” And the Communists set up their own command post “to forestall outrage against the memory of forefathers,” in order to prevent “the traitors of the Ukrainian nation from stepping on the festive Khreshchatyk [Kyiv’s main street].” Communist leader Petro Symonenko called on World War II veterans and “all honest citizens” to march on Kyiv in order to disrupt the plans to invite UPA veterans. On May 5 Communist activists and supporters of former prosecutor-general Hennady Vasylyev’s Derzhava party picketed Yushchenko’s offices, demanding that he cancel any plans to include the UPA. The government backed down the same day, removing the joint parade from the scheduled festivities.
On May 6 Yushchenko’s press service announced that he would attend Victory Day festivities in both Moscow and Kyiv, rather than in Kyiv only, as initially planned. Yushchenko had argued that his place on May 9 would be with his own nation. But then he decided to stay in Moscow for the local parade along with dozens other heads of state invited by Putin, and then join Ukrainian Red Army veterans in Kyiv in the afternoon. Yushchenko’s refusal to attend the parade would have exacerbated tension between Kyiv and Moscow. Yushchenko would rather avoid aggravating Moscow, as his opponents in next year’s Ukrainian parliamentary elections are likely to play the Russian card in the east and south of Ukraine.
(Interfax-Ukraine, May 4; for-ua.com, STB TV, UNIAN, May 6; Zerkalo nedeli, May 7; Channel 5, May 5, 9)