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Yushchenko rattles Ukraine as election nears

Sinking into irrelevance as rival politicians scrapped to take his place, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko lobbed a grenade into the final days of the campaign: He named a controversial anti-Soviet nationalist assassinated by the KGB half a century ago a “Hero of Ukraine.”

Here in Ukraine’s most avidly Western-leaning, anti-Russian city, news that the rare honor had been bestowed on Stepan Bandera was met with jubilation. Disgust and dismay swept the Russian-speaking provinces, where Bandera is remembered as a Nazi collaborator.

As Ukrainians head to the polls Sunday for a presidential runoff, the country’s deep and problematic divides are on display.

On one side is Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, the former Orange revolutionary who pledges to orient Ukraine toward Europe and the West. On the other is Viktor Yanukovich, seen as a staunch ally to Moscow, who is popular in the eastern industrial provinces.

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Like all politics in Ukraine, the final choice is freighted with intractable questions of history, identity and language in a fragmented country. Key decisions -- over which foreign alliances to build, which language to speak and what historical narrative to embrace -- tap uncomfortably into unresolved questions over Ukraine’s identity as a former Soviet nation split in loyalties between Moscow and the West.

Both candidates have tried to showcase their appeal to voters across Ukraine. But they also fought to shore up support in their usual constituencies. Tymoshenko, for example, reminded voters that she would never support the recognition of Russian as a second state language. Yanukovich, in contrast, repeated that he would push for Russian to be adopted as an official tongue alongside Ukrainian.

This is a sensitive question. Many Ukrainians from Russian-speaking homes and schools struggle to speak the national language, and complain of alienation and discrimination. Meanwhile, others regard the marginalization of Ukrainian as a historic act of repression on the part of Polish and Soviet overlords, and say it should not be put on par with Russian.

“We have a dozen issues that split Ukraine -- religion, language, tradition, many things,” said Vasyl Kosiv, Lviv’s deputy mayor for humanities. “It’s a big problem for Ukraine, probably one of the biggest.”

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Enter Bandera. A fiery young nationalist from western Ukraine, Bandera got his start plotting attacks against Polish officials in the 1930s. Some say that as World War II began, Bandera collaborated with the Nazis.

His followers have been linked to the killings of Jews, Poles and others. After declaring an independent Ukrainian state in 1941, Bandera was locked up in a Nazi prison camp.

In 1959, he was poisoned by a KGB assassin.

To the Russian-leaning side of Ukraine, Bandera was a blood-stained traitor. But here in Lviv, a western city where a bustling avenue bears Bandera’s name and a massive monument to him looms over a prominent square, Bandera is described as a patriot and a martyr. His most avid admirers dismiss the accounts of Nazi cooperation as the lingering traces of Soviet propaganda.

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“Bandera is popular here not so much because of what happened, but because of what people remember,” said Yaroslav Hrytsak, director of the Institute for Historical Research at Lviv National University. “People forget the bad things done to Jews, to Poles, but what they do remember is that he was an anti-Soviet hero.”

Yushchenko couldn’t have overcome the controversy of touting Bandera’s heroism while he cherished hope of remaining president, analysts say. Only after collecting a humiliating 5% of the vote in the first round of the elections did he make his declaration.

Some believe that a cold calculation lay behind Yushchenko’s move, that it was intended as a vote-stripping slap at Tymoshenko. The onetime allies have battled bitterly for political power, and some analysts believe Yushchenko would do anything to chip away at his rival’s popularity.

“He was slamming the door, but most of all slamming the door in the face of Yulia Tymoshenko,” Hrytsak said. “He challenges her to give her voice, knowing that if she says one thing she loses one part of the country, and if she says another thing, she loses the other part.”

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Reaction to Yushchenko’s act was swift and fierce. A lawmaker in Crimea burned his Ukrainian passport. Ukraine’s chief rabbi said he would return his own state honor in protest.

In neighboring Poland, President Lech Kaczynski said Bandera was to blame for the massacre of Poles and the award “defeated the historical truth.” Russia lashed out too, calling the honor “repulsive.”

And in a letter to Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, the Simon Wiesenthal Center expressed “deepest revulsion” over the decision to honor Bandera, “who collaborated with the Nazis at the beginning of World War II, and whose followers were linked to the murders of thousands of Jews and others.”

Meanwhile, the two candidates faced a dilemma: how to make their supporters sense their solidarity without alienating voters they still hoped to win over.

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Tymoshenko seemed to hint obliquely at her approval of Bandera’s award. Yanukovich, meanwhile, dished out mild criticism. Then they both carefully backed away, leaving the more strident statements to others.

Here in Lviv, Bandera’s monument is still under construction. A corrugated metal fence snakes behind the statue of the nationalist, who is rendered striding forward, trench coat blowing open.

Paused in the shadow of the statue, economics student Natalia Basarab said that she and her family admired Bandera as a patriotic hero.

But when asked about the election, she sighed.

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“I’ll vote for Yulia Tymoshenko because you have to pick the lesser evil,” she said. “Neither one really corresponds to my convictions, but Yanukovich would simply destroy Ukraine. He’d sell it to the Russians.”

megan.stack@latimes.com


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