Should President Viktor Yanukovych try to void the award, he might face street protests.
LVIV, Ukraine – Thousands of people from around the globe have signed a petition protesting a recent resolution by the European Parliament asking President Viktor Yanukovych to reconsider the Hero of Ukraine award that was posthumously bestowed on Stepan Bandera.
During the World War II era, the nationalist freedom fighter led the difficult struggle for Ukrainian independence. Assassinated in 1959 by a KGB agent while living in exile, Bandera headed one branch of Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and backed its military wing, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), which fought against Poles, Soviets and Nazis.
While there is no archival evidence to date that Bandera himself took part in pogroms against Jews, a brief alliance with the Nazis against the Red Army fueled Soviet propaganda which tainted him as a Nazi collaborator, and sparked widespread criticism of his movement by Jews. Supporters of Bandera see him as a hero, and are criticizing the European Parliament for siding with what they describe as a deliberate and anti-Ukrainian smear campaign.
“The opinion expressed by the European Parliament about Stepan Bandera is an insult to millions of Ukrainians who were killed or otherwise repressed for their commitment to freedom and independence,” reads the petition, which was initiated last week by the Ukrainian Informational Service, a Kyiv-based group aligned with the OUN. “When the European Parliament issues such statements, the very idea of European integration is discredited among its supporters in Ukraine who, as patriots, consider Stepan Bandera to truly be a national hero.”
Andriy Levus, who heads the service, said when the petition reaches 5,000 signatories, it will be presented to representatives of the European Parliament in Kyiv. The appeal has gained roughly 1,000 signatures a day since it was posted over the weekend and can be found on www.petition.org.ua/?action=view&id=251148.
Most of the signatures come from western Ukraine, which has remained the stronghold of Ukrainian nationalist and independence movements for centuries. The main goal behind the appeal is to return to the country historical truths, Levus said. “We still live with the stereotypes of Soviet propaganda, which is now Russian propaganda. The petition demonstrates that Ukrainians are not indifferent to their history,” he added.
On Feb. 25, as part of a resolution supporting Ukraine’s European integration, Europe’s parliament also called on Yanukovych to rethink the Bandera award, which was granted by ex-president Victor Yushchenko on Jan. 22. The Europeans alleged that Bandera, who headed OUN, was a Nazi collaborator.
Yanukovych appeared willing to comply when, during an official visit to Moscow on March 5, he told journalists the award would be revoked by May 9. Known as Victory Day, many former Soviet republics still annually commemorate the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany on that day. He also promised to annul a similar award that in 2007 was granted to Roman Shukhevych, who headed the guerilla Ukrainian Insurgent Army.
“As to Yushchenko’s decrees, they have caused great resonance. Of course, these decrees aren’t accepted in Europe or in Ukraine,” Yanukovych said, adding it was “not by accident” that the European Parliament turned to the new Ukrainian leadership to void the Bandera award.
“There is a legal and political process – and Ukraine is going through it. And this decision will be made by Victory Day,” Yanukovych said.
Yanukovych’s comments sparked immediate outrage at home. Throughout the week, prominent politicians have criticized the president while national-democratic forces threatened to take to the streets if Yanukovych annuls the awards.
Yushchenko said his successor’s comments were a sell-out of Ukraine’s national interests and “notwithstanding all the efforts of Soviet propaganda” both Bandera and Shukhevych remain heroes for “millions of Ukrainian citizens.”
“They were leaders of the armed struggles for independence that unfolded during the Second World War,” the former president said in an on-line statement posted immediately following the Moscow press conference. “Their protracted resistance to Hitler’s and Stalin’s regimes rested on widespread national support in many regions of Ukraine.”
Borys Tarasiuk, who heads Ukraine’s Narodny Rukh party, said in an open letter that the Bandera award was an internal matter and warned the resolution gave Yanukovych political ammunition that would not work in the country’s best interests.
“The European Parliament, unfortunately, was led by biased information, which, after all, caused the given misunderstanding,” he wrote in the letter, which was addressed to parliament president Jerzy Buzek and posted on the Ukrainska Pravda website on March 9. “Furthermore, the newly-elected president Victor Yanukovych, who is far from the ideals and principles of European democracy, now can ‘cover’ himself with the parliament’s decision in order to justify his anti-Ukrainian steps and rescind the presidential decree regarding Bandera.”
Levus said Europe’s parliament merely bowed to pressure from Russia when it called on Yanukovych to void the award. Few lawmakers in Brussels know Bandera’s true biography, he said.
“This is all provoked by the Russian lobby,” said Levus. “Yanukovych’s steps show he’s not ready to be president of all of Ukraine.”
Should Yanukovych try to void the awards, he might face street protests.
“Here he will have a national opposition…and it won’t be just from western Ukraine,” Levus said. “People will go out to defend their national sovereignty. In 2004, this was a political battle. People go out for language, historical truths, and their independence. This time, it will be for the independence of Ukraine and the nation.”
Natalia A. Feduschak is the Kyiv Post’s correspondent in western Ukraine. She can be reached at email@example.com.