Do Ukraine's new nationalist laws justify Kremlin's criticism?

Kiev has passed new laws that outlaw communist symbols and honor Ukrainian nationalists connected to Nazis and ethnic cleansing during World War II. Experts say the timing could not be worse.

Gleb Garanich/Reuters/File
Ukrainian nationalists march in October 2014 to honor the role of the movement in Ukraine's history, in Kiev. The protesters, including far-right activists and nationalists, demanded to ban the local Communist Party and to declare members of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) participants of combat operations – demands that were fulfilled last week by Ukraine's parliament.

Russian propagandists have argued all along that Ukraine's Maidan revolution, which toppled an elected pro-Moscow president a year ago, was motivated by ultra-nationalist aspirations, not pro-democracy ones.

Now, a cluster of sweeping new laws is helping to prove their point.

Some here call the legislation, which bans communist symbols and elevate controversial anti-Soviet fighters to "national hero" status, long overdue. But it also risks deepening the rifts in Ukrainian society at a time when chances for reconciliation between the nationalistic west and the more Russified east are slipping away.

One of the laws passed late last week by the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine's unicameral parliament, will ban communist and Nazi ideologies along with all of their emblems, including the five-pointed red star, crimson flag, and hammer-and-sickle. It even mandates local authorities across Ukraine to pull down Soviet-era monuments and change street names that honored communist-era heroes.

Oleksandr Klimenko, minister of revenue in the government of former President Viktor Yanukovych, argued on his Facebook page that even that step could cost the near-bankrupt Kiev government hundreds of millions of dollars it doesn't have.

"There are 459 cities in Ukraine, and each has some 30 streets named after Soviet-era figures," he writes. "It's not so simple to change names. Everyone who lives or works on those streets has to renew all their documents, records need to be revised, maps redrawn. All this to comply with a law passed out of quasi-patriotic feelings that nobody needs?"

Ukraine's Communist Party, which no longer holds seats in the Rada but still has 112 members of regional legislatures, would seem to be effectively banned by the law, given its ideology and use of communist symbols. Party representatives were not answering phones in Kiev Monday. But party leader Pyotr Simonenko, who was detained and interrogated for 11 hours by Ukrainian security services last week, told Russian media that "[these laws] only lead to a greater split in the society and continuation of war."

Venerating collaborators and war criminals?

A second law, potentially more polarizing, grants recognition to a broad group of "fighters for Ukrainian independence" in the 20th century, including armed groups who fought against Soviet forces in World War II. However, historians say that many of the honored fighters, such as Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych, are tainted by their collaboration with the Nazis and participation in the ethnic cleansing of Jews and Poles during the war.

About 200 members of the anti-Soviet Ukrainian Insurgent Army are still alive. The new law would provide pensions and benefits, as well as recognition of their role as "independence fighters."

And while those fighters may be perceived as heroes in western Ukraine, the majority in the country's east – whose grandfathers served in the Soviet Red Army – have learned to view them as enemies.

"There is no reason to expect Russia's well-paid and manned propaganda machine to stay silent when such obvious opportunities to fuel resentment and anger are handed to them on a platter," writes analyst Halya Coynash in the Kyiv Post.

A third law would end the Soviet-era practice of celebrating the victory over Nazi Germany on May 9, and change it to a "Day of Remembrance" to be marked on May 8, the day most of Europe commemorates the war's end.

"There are thousands of surviving veterans of the Soviet army, who are used to rallying on May 9, who will now feel gratuitously offended," says Iryna Vereschuk, a former mayor from western Ukraine and founder of Dobro Team, a group that works for civic reform. "Why antagonize people in the eastern Ukraine like this, especially right now?"

'You can't blame Putin for this'

Proponents of the laws argue that after a string of military defeats against Russian-backed rebels ended by a shaky ceasefire, an economic crisis that is starting to bite very deeply, and infighting within government ranks, Ukrainians need to glimpse a larger vision of what they're fighting for.

"People have been feeling disillusioned in the results of the revolution, some are starting to lose heart," says Alexei Kolomiyets, president of the independent Center of European and Transatlantic Studies in Kiev. "These laws make a clean break with the Soviet past. We should have done this long ago."

But other experts argue that at the very least, the effort to legislate a solution to long-standing historical disputes at a time when Ukraine is wracked by civil war is ham-handed and extremely untimely.

"These are extremely unrealistic laws. With all the problems we're facing, our parliamentarians think they can fix everything like this?" says Mikhail Pogrebinsky, director of the independent Kiev Center of Political and Conflict Studies. "And how on earth can they be implemented? If you follow the logic, anything that glorifies the Soviet regime is punishable by law. So, must we forgo our favorite old movies?"

"It's as if our leaders want to keep the war going and deepen the divisions in the country," says Ms. Vereschuk. "You can't blame Putin for this. We're doing it ourselves."

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