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.