If you’ve been wondering what ever happened to that wonderful Orange Revolution in Ukraine–because let’s face it, it was probably the last feel-good moment America collectively experienced in an otherwise bummer-packed decade–Sunday’s presidential elections in the former Soviet republic provided the answer: it went bad. Voters returned to power the same supposed villain, Viktor Yanukovych, whom they forced out in mass demonstrations the last time presidential elections were held there in 2004. The Orange Revolution’s leaders were overthrown by the same voters whom they empowered.
No politician suffered a more humiliating rejection than the former leader of that revolution and the current sitting president, Viktor Yushchenko–the pockmarked hero of the revolution who overcame a poisoning attempt on his life to lead the pro-democracy crowds to power in 2004. Yushchenko is so widely loathed that he was knocked out of the presidential race in the first round in January, receiving a mere 5 percent of the vote, or fifth place–one of the most embarrassing defeats by any sitting president in modern times.
Unfortunately for Ukrainians and for the region, we lost interest in that area after Yushchenko’s victory because for us, the revolution was less about improving the locals’ lives and more about boosting American exceptionalism’s wounded ego, which in 2004-2005 was at its rawest. Now it’s five years later, and “our guy” Yushchenko, whom we backed unquestioningly, turned out to be a colossal failure in every way imaginable–and his final moves in office may turn out to be his most destructive of all.
Last month, shortly after Yushchenko’s humiliating defeat in the first round of elections, he officially rehabilitated one of Ukraine’s most controversial WWII-era figures, the ultranationalist leader Stepan Bandera–a move so fraught with danger down the road that it’s as though he did it to punish his disloyal voters. Operating in the western region of Ukraine known as Galicia from the 1930s through the 1950s, Bandera’s military organization adopted typical fascist symbols and trendy racist ideas promoting ethnic chauvinism and racial purity to pursue its goal of creating an independent Ukrainian state.
The move sparked angry reactions from Jewish groups in Ukraine and abroad, as well as Russian-speaking Ukrainians and Poland, among others.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center, a leading Jewish human rights group named after the famous hunter of Nazis, sharply criticized Yushchenko’s move. “It’s a terrible signal to send, giving that kind of recognition to someone whose group cooperated with the Nazis, and whose followers were linked to the massacres of Jews,” said Mark Weitzman, the group’s US director of governmental affairs.
In the 1930s, when the western part of Ukraine (known as “eastern Galicia”) was under Polish control, Bandera’s Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) terrorized Polish officials and families with assassinations. Bandera’s guerrillas grew increasingly successful, thanks to German military training and support. The 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact handed the Ukrainian-dominated eastern part of Galicia over to Soviet control, making Russia the main enemy for Bandera and the OUN. When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Bandera’s forces fought alongside the Wehrmacht. Jewish Holocaust scholars, among others, say that Bandera’s forces participated in the mass killings of Jews in L’viv and other parts of Western Ukraine where Jews once thrived. But within a few months after Operation Barbarossa started, Hitler soured on the alliance and imprisoned Bandera. Many of his followers integrated themselves into the Nazi-run security forces.
Last week, the chief rabbi of Ukraine, Reuven Azman, announced that he was returning his Order of Merit that the government awarded him to protest the rehabilitation of Bandera, calling the move a “hideous blow to Ukraine’s image” and warning of dark “consequences.”
Protests and criticism spread both inside Ukraine and in neighboring Russia and Poland. That’s because Bandera’s toxic ethnic chauvinism, centered on promoting ethnic Ukrainians from the western, more Catholic region, targeted not just Jews,but all non-Ukrainians. Given Ukraine’s ethnic makeup, glorifying one region’s racism as “heroic” is suicidal.
Ukraine is ethnically divided between the Russian-speaking east of the country, culturally closer to Moscow; the mixed Russian-Ukrainian center of the country, which is largely Orthodox; and the far west, where Catholicism runs strong. Already, an MP from the mostly Russian-speaking Crimea burned his passport to protest Bandera’s rehabilitation, while a lawyer from the eastern part of Ukraine filed a lawsuit to have Bandera’s Hero of Ukraine honor annulled.
Ever since its independence in 1991, Ukraine has had to grapple with the ethnic divisions, which some (including the CIA) have worried could tear the country apart if someone should exploit it. Making a hero out of Bandera, an ethnic chauvinist and arguably the most divisive Ukrainian figure of the past century, is exactly the sort of reckless move that could cleave Ukraine internally and set off its neighbors.
Like Poland–which until last week had been Yushchenko’s biggest supporter (thanks to their shared Russophobia). Bandera’s forces slaughtered some 100,000 ethnic Poles in their ethnic cleansing campaign during the thirties and forties, something that hasn’t been forgotten but merely shelved for the time being. Thanks to Yushchenko, this bitter wound has been torn open again: last week, Poland’s President Lech Kaczynski accused Yushchenko of putting “current political interests [over] the historical truth,” and suggested the move could even drive a wedge between the two nationalities. That sparked immediate counter-protests by ultranationalist Ukrainians who descended on the Polish Embassy in Kiev, denouncing centuries of alleged Polish imperialism in Ukraine. It all may sound petty and absurd, if the wars in the former Yugoslavia hadn’t reminded us how these old grudges can quickly turn ugly.
The irony of Poland complaining to Ukraine about historical revisionism hasn’t been lost on Russia, which lost millions in World War II fighting the Nazis and their collaborators, and battled against Bandera’s forces well into the 1950s, ending with the KGB assassination of Bandera in 1959 while he was living in exile in Munich. Next to Poles, Bandera’s ultranationalists reviled Russians and Russian-speakers above all, since they saw the Soviet Union and Russian imperialism as their mortal enemies. The Russian Foreign Ministry denounced the glorification of Bandera as “odious,” while Prime Minister Putin, during a meeting with Russia’s chief rabbi in late January, pledged to continue monitoring “the distortion of history and Holocaust denial.” Putin has been closely policed by Western pundits and politicians for signs that he may be whitewashing, or at least insufficiently denouncing, the Soviet Union’s crimes–but these same pundits have been oddly silent over the appalling ultranationalist historical relativism coming out of the former East Bloc countries, or what the neocons call “New Europe.”
Indeed, both Russia and several Jewish organizations have been increasingly alarmed over a concerted effort over the past few years to rewrite the history of World War II in order to equate the Nazi crimes and the Holocaust to the Soviet crimes, something that Mark Weitzman of the Wiesenthal Center terms, “Relativizing the Holocaust.”
Bandera’s rehabilitation may be the last straw. Weitzman said that in his talks with US officials in Washington and on Capitol Hill, he believes that the American silence on the matter will soon change as they are beginning to understand the seriousness of the situation. “They [US officials] didn’t even know this was happening until recently,” he said, referring to the “Prague Declaration” in 2008, a gathering of politicians mostly from Central and Eastern Europe, which called for the revision of history textbooks to equate Soviet crimes with Nazi crimes, and Soviet culpability in starting the war with the Nazis.
(Repeated attempts to reach Vice President Joe Biden’s office and State Department officials for comment went unanswered this week, as the government was closed due to the snowstorms.)
Dovid Katz, a professor of Yiddish at Vilnius University in Lithuania, said, “This is a plague over the entire anti-Soviet, anti-Russian part of Eastern Europe, this adoration of fascists and racists. It’s an ultranationalism that is anti-Russian and anti-Semitic, that is a social illness.” Katz said that in Lithuania, for example, the government has been moving to prosecute only Jews among surviving veterans of the anti-Nazi Soviet partisans for alleged ‘war crimes’ against Lithuania–but they have yet to punish a single Nazi collaborator, despite the mass extermination of Jews by the Lithuanian units that enthusiastically carried out most of the killing.
The dirty little secret about Yushchenko all along has been his close relationship with ultranationalist elements in western Ukraine. His “Our Ukraine” coalition includes some ultranationalist groups, and Yushchenko was on the board of MAUP, the controversial private university in Kiev. MAUP was nailed which produced nearly all of Ukraine’s anti-Semitic print material, and which counted former KKK leader David Duke as one of its favorite visiting scholars. Yushchenko finally resigned from his university board seat in 2005, after a three-year campaign waged by Jewish leaders both in Ukraine and in Washington. (A full account of this sordid episode is covered in a recent Moment magazine feature, “The Mysterious Tale of a Ukrainian University’s Anti-Semitic Crusade.”)
In his last year and a half in office, not only has Ukraine collapsed economically and politically, lurching from bad crises to worse crises, but by adopting a belligerent, erratic posture over the past year and a half, Yushchenko has poisoned Ukraine’s well for years to come. In 2008, when Russia and Georgia fought a brief war over South Ossetia, Yushchenko tried dragging his divided country into the conflict, by declaring solidarity with Georgia and threatening Russian warships stationed in the Crimea. Then he whipped up fear about an imminent Russian invasion of Crimea and sold it to gullible Western journalists and officials, who duly panicked, because after all, he was “our guy”–pro-Western, pro-American. After poisoning relations with Russia, Yushchenko set a new low in domestic politics by accusing his rival and former Orange Revolution cohort Yulia Tymoshenko of “high treason” and plotting with the Kremlin to hand over Ukraine. His demagoguery failed: Ukraine’s voters threw him out at the first chance, while Tymoshenko, who dropped the confrontational anti-Russian grandstanding, barely lost in the second round.
Neocons loved Yushchenko’s late incarnation but his own people despised him. Even Burston-Marsteller CEO and former Hillary Clinton campaign strategist Mark Penn, who served as one of Yushchenko’s campaign advisors, couldn’t boost Yushchenko beyond the 5 percent barrier and rescue him from his own self-destruction.
And to think we were going to plunge into a new cold war with Russia on behalf of Yushchenko and Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia–who recently announced that he was imposing mandatory patriotic-military classes to be taught in schools across Georgia, something not seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“Yushchenko has been a great disappointment for his supporters,” said Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of international affairs at the American Jewish Committee. “We really thought a decade ago that this sort of ultra-nationalism would be disappearing by now. We thought it was [a temporary] thing. We were wrong.”