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You're reading: Historical baggage gets between Ukraine, diaspora
The large Ukrainian diaspora in the West has an uncomfortable and complicated relationship with independent Ukraine. Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko, for example, has been accused of all manner of sins simply for having an American‑Ukrainian wife; it is inconceivable that an American‑Ukrainian could ever become president of Ukraine. By contrast, the Polish and Baltic diasporas see eye to eye with their homelands on most issues, and emigrй personalities have taken up high ranking positions – right up to the presidency in the cases of Lithuania and Latvia.

Compared to the return of emigrй politicians and parties in other post‑communist states, the most successful example of which has been the return of the former king of Bulgaria, diaspora parties have only had a slender impact on politics in Ukraine. At the World Congress of Ukrainians in Kyiv in August 1992, the government‑in‑exile of the Ukrainian People’s Republic (1917‑1921) passed on its “mandate” to then President Leonid Kravchuk. In contrast to the return of the Polish government‑in‑exile to Poland after 1989, however, this was a purely symbolic action.

This situation should not be surprising. Until the late 1980s, those very members of the Ukrainian elites who are today’s oligarchic centrists, like Kravchuk himself, the former ideological secretary of the Communist Party of Ukraine, were in the forefront of ideological offensives against “bourgeois nationalists” at home and abroad. The March parliamentary elections showed just how easy it was for them to return to the past and mobilize eastern Ukrainian voters against the “nationalist” Our Ukraine.


Return to disappointment

The reasons for the uneasy relationship between the Ukrainian diaspora and Ukraine are mainly historical. Probably about three‑quarters of the Ukrainian diaspora in the West have roots in Western Ukraine. One large group left prior to World War I, largely as economic migrants to North and South America. A second, more political wave of emigration moved to Western Europe, Scandinavia, Australia and the Americas (particularly the east coast of the United States and Canada) after 1945.

In Canada and the United States, the relationship between the two diaspora groups is itself uneasy. The older economic diaspora in places like Canada tends to focus less on politics and more on culture, language and developing a Ukrainian identity within multi‑cultural Canada. The political diaspora, which is dominated by the three wings of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, tends to emphasize its Ukrainian origins ahead of its, say, Canadianness.

The OUN split acrimoniously in 1940 into two factions – one under the conservative Andry Melnyk (OUNm), the other under the more radical Stepan Bandera (OUNb). Relations between the two factions have remained hostile ever since. Both have re‑located their political activities from the diaspora to Ukraine. They adopted different tactics, however.

OUNb initially funded two Ukrainian‑based parties, the Ukrainian Inter‑Party Assembly (since 1992, the Ukrainian National Assembly) and the now largely defunct State Independence of Ukraine (Derzhavna Samostiynist Ukrainy). After breaking with OUNb, UNA went on to set up the Ukrainian National Self Defense para‑military organization that saw fighting in Transdniestr, Abkhazia and Chechnya. After its squabbles with the UNA and DSU in 1991‑92, the OUNb established its own Ukraine‑based political party, the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists (KUN), in 1993. The diaspora OUNb and KUN in Ukraine were both led by Slava Stetsko. The relationship between the two parties lasted until 2001. Stetsko is now the leader of KUN only, and OUNb has returned to being a purely emigrй party. This divorce has possibly contributed to KUN’s migration away from the far right toward the center right.

In the 1998 elections, KUN allied itself with the Republican and Conservative Republican parties in the National Front, which only polled 2.72 percent in the proportional voting lists. In this year’s parliament elections, KUN was a “sleeping partner” of the Our Ukraine bloc. Its former National Front partner Levko Lukyanenko’s Republicans joined the Yulia Tymoshenko bloc, while Stepan Khmara’s Conservative Republicans merged with Tymoshenko’s Fatherland party last year.

OUNm never created a political party in Ukraine. Instead, it is registered as an NGO and has established close relations with national democratic parties. Instead of politics, they have focused on educational work through the Olzhych Foundation, which publishes the weekly newspaper Ukrainske Slovo (Ukrainian Word) and formerly the monthly magazine Rozbudova Derzhavy (Rebuilding the State). The only newspaper published by KUN is the far less popular weekly Shlyakh Peremohy (Path to Victory).

Not all segments of the political diaspora have attempted to export their politics to Ukraine. The more intellectual and liberal‑leaning OUN Abroad (OUNz), which broke off from OUNb in 1953 in rejection of its integral nationalist ideology, has never attempted to establish itself in Ukraine. The Ukrainian Revolutionary Democratic Party, the main party that represents the diaspora originating in eastern Ukraine, adopted a similar hands‑off approach.

Dominated by the older generation, the emigre OUNs seem never to have really understood that they were not going to gain influence in post‑Soviet Ukraine by following the same tactics they used in inter‑war Poland. None of them have invested in new technology (e.g. the Internet, cable television), or private television and radio stations.


Perspectives on the past

Diaspora attitudes to Ukrainian history tend to be shared only by western Ukrainians. In the case of the much‑smaller Baltic States, by contrast, the diasporas and their homelands hold largely identical historical views. If all of Ukraine were similar to its western portion, the relationship between the diaspora and the homeland would be closer to the unanimity of views seen in the Baltic states.

Western Ukrainians and the diaspora see the Soviet annexation of western Ukraine in 1939 as “occupation,” not liberation. As in the three Baltic States, Western Ukrainians and the diaspora see little difference between Nazis and Soviets. The returning Soviet armed forces are seen not so much as “liberators” from the Nazis but as their Stalinist totalitarian flip side.

On the other hand, they take a positive view of the struggle of the OUN and later the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) (a military force established by OUNb in 1942) against the Poles, Nazis and Soviets from the 1930s to the 1950s. This positive view of the nationalist, anti‑Soviet underground is received less enthusiastically outside western Ukraine.

It was fairly easy for the post‑1991 Ukrainian authorities to rehabilitate the independent governments of 1917‑1921: A statue of the president of the Central Rada, Mykhailo Hrushevsky, now stands in Kyiv. However, the heated discussions about the rehabilitation of the OUN‑UPA ahead of the elections showed just how divisive an issue it still is. As for the Halychyna Division of the Waffen SS (i.e. military, not police, units of the SS), the bulk of whose survivors have lived in Britain since 1947, the possibility of their rehabilitation seems even more remote.

Ukrainian school textbooks now describe the activity of the OUN‑UPA (but not the Halychyna Division) in their chapters on World War II on the basis that they fought both the Nazis and Soviets. This has involved adopting a more inclusive view of Ukraine’s experience of World War II than was prevalent in Soviet times – one that includes all aspects of military operations. This view is not pleasing to some eastern Ukrainians, who would prefer to ignore OUN‑UPA or dismiss them as Nazi collaborators. Nor is it pleasing to some west Ukrainians and members of the diaspora who would prefer to ignore the role of Soviet military formations or dismiss them as the vehicles of Russian imperialism.

The most painful question for the diaspora is probably language. They tend to share the views of west Ukrainians, putting language at the center of Ukrainian national identity. This understanding of how Ukrainian identity should be expressed is not shared outside western Ukraine. In most other parts of the country, attitudes to the Ukrainian language are no longer altogether negative (except perhaps in Donbas and Crimea). Central and eastern Ukrainians do not put language at the center of their definition of national identity. Most Ukrainians understand and even speak both Ukrainian and Russian and use them both interchangeably. In the March elections, for instance, all of the Central Election Commission’s documentation was published in Ukrainian for use throughout Ukraine.

The relationship between the Ukrainian diaspora and Ukraine has been shaped by historical, regional and ideological factors that are not likely to go away soon. The narrowing of the gap is most likely to be undertaken, albeit slowly, by those with less baggage from the past – the younger generation in both the diaspora and Ukraine.


Dr. Taras Kuzio is a research associate at the Center for Russian and East European Studies, University of Toronto.

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