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You're reading: Hero one day, but not the next: Stepan Bandera debate flares

Reuters – Ukraine on Jan. 12 officially scrapped the hero status newly conferred on a wartime nationalist leader, a move likely to fuel tension between the pro-Russian east and the nationalist west.

Former President Viktor Yushchenko sparked the ire of east Ukrainians a year ago, shortly before leaving office, by posthumously declaring World War Two nationalist Stepan Bandera a Hero of Ukraine.

Bandera was the ideological leader of nationalist fighters who fought for independence in western Ukraine in the turbulence leading up to the outbreak of war and beyond.

Bandera, who was assassinated by the KGB in 1959, has near-saint status among many people there and thousands of Bandera loyalists flock to the capital Kyiv every year and march hrough the streets in his honor.

But this sentiment is not shared by those in the Russian-speaking east of Ukraine who hold views of Soviet history which are closer to those of Moscow.

In a Jan. 22, 2010 file photo, then-President Viktor Yushchenko (L) hands Stepan Bandera, the grandson of the late nationalist leader, the Hero of Ukraine award in Kyiv.

Yushchenko’s award sparked anger in Russia, where Bandera is regarded as a fascist, and from Poland, where he is blamed for organising the mass killings of Poles.

The Simon Wiesenthal centre also expressed outrage, saying Bandera was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Jews.

In a statement on Jan. 12, the office of President Viktor Yanukovych, who took over from the pro-Western Yushchenko in February and has tilted policy more towards Russia, said the honor conferred on Bandera “has been found invalid by a court ruling.”

This appeared to foreshadow the announcement of a decision by the supreme administrative court which has the authority to scrap presidential decrees.

Yushchenko hit back, saying the move was a “gross error” by a presidency that “should be working for uniting society not dividing it.”

Yushchenko’s press secretary, Iryna Vannikova, quoted him as saying: “Attempts to re-write Ukrainian history and belittle Ukrainian heroes to please the Kremlin and Moscow with hired decisions of court, will only incline people against these authorities.”

Another sign of the recurring regional tension in the ex-Soviet republic surfaced on New Year’s Eve when a new monument to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin was blown up in a city in central Ukraine.

Though most Ukrainians see Stalin as a symbol of Russian oppression, communists in the town of Zaporizhya had erected the monument there in his honour last May. It was blown up on Dec. 31 — the eve of Bandera’s birthday.

The incident was later officially described as “a terrorist act.”

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