Ukraine leader's move on nationalist embarrasses rivals

Ukrainian President Yushchenko elevated a controversial wartime nationalist leader to the status of hero of Ukraine.

Ukraine leader's move on nationalist embarrasses rivals

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, in a move likely to embarrass the two rivals fighting to succeed him, on Friday elevated a controversial wartime nationalist leader to the status of hero of Ukraine.

Yushchenko issued a decree conferring the honour on Stepan Bandera, the leader of the Ukrainian nationalist forces (OUN) which fought against both Nazi invaders and Soviet forces in World War Two and after.

Bandera continued to resist Soviet rule in Ukraine well into the 1950s. In the Soviet period he was the embodiment of anti-Sovietism and "bourgeois nationalism" and the very mention of his name was a post-war criminal offence in the Soviet Union.

He was assassinated in 1959 by a KGB agent in Munich.

The nationalist-inclined Yushchenko now has no chance of a second term in office and his rehabilitation of Bandera was a decisive move to square the issue away before he stepped down.

Yushchenko, in his decree, referred to Bandera's "demonstration of heroism and self-sacrifice in fighting for an independent Ukrainian state."

His decision, he told a public meeting in Kiev, "had been awaited by millions of Ukrainian patriots for many years.

It was certain to irritate the Kremlin which has dubbed Yushchenko "anti-Russian" because of his nationalist policies.

It will also pose a problem for opposition leader Viktor Yanukovich and particularly Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko seeking to succeed him. They meet in a final vote on Feb. 7.

Some observers said Yushchenko, deeply opposed to both Yanukovich and Tymoshenko, had deliberately tried to place both candidates on the spot.

Bandera the hero

Bandera is regarded as a hero in nationalist western regions of the country, which looks more to the West for inspiration. But the Russian-speaking east, which identifies more with Moscow's interpretation of history, view him with suspicion.

Both Yanukovich, whose main support base is in the east, and Tymoshenko, backed by many in the west and centre, are out to scoop up as many of the floating voters from the west as possible in what appears likely to be a very close contest.

To their discomfort, they may now have to take up a position on the highly sensitive issue of Bandera's status when they face voters in the western regions.

Political analyst Oleksander Dergachev said Tymoshenko especially might find it tricky to handle the issue in her campaigning in the west.

A wrong word could backfire on her chances of making inroads into the Yanukovich vote in the east, he said.

"She has, to a certain degree, to position herself as the successor of the Yushchenko line. In order to mobilise the national-democratic electorate she must support their expectations, which is specific to a significant part of the electorate.

"This may prove difficult for her in that it could arouse discontent in the other part of the electorate," said Dergachev.

Yanukovich's Party of the regions denounced the Bandera move. "This is a step towards even greater division in the country," it said in a statement.

Yushchenko repeated his view that Ukraine faced a choice between two evils on Feb. 7 rather than a true election.

He said a vote for one showed "you don't have a brain", a vote for the other indicated "you don't have a heart".

Reuters
Last Mod: 23 Ocak 2010, 00:31
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