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The uneasy neighbors

Relations with Poland and Ukraine are strained. Again.

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and Ukraine's Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko drink champagne after signing documents in Kiev on March 28, 2008. The neighbors are friendly, as evidenced by their plans to jointly host the 2012 soccer championships, but their relationship is not without its bumps in the road. Ukrainian cyclists trying to cross the border into Poland recently were turned away. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

LVIV, Ukraine — Poland and Ukraine are co-hosting the 2012 European soccer championships, and the two countries are close allies — but even 70 years after the start of World War II, their bloody history has an uncomfortable way of resurfacing.

The latest tremor to shake Polish-Ukrainian ties was a seemingly innocuous group of less than two-dozen Ukrainian cyclists who wanted to cross Poland on their way to Munich in Germany. They were denied entry into Poland earlier this month after interventions at very senior levels of government.

The cyclists were supposed to arrive in Munich on Aug. 24, Ukraine’s independence day, to honor Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian nationalist leader who had been assassinated by Soviet agents in 1959.

The problem is that while Ukrainian nationalists see Bandera as a hero of their independence movement, Poles see him as a terrorist who was morally responsible for a wave of ethnic slaughter in eastern Poland during the final years of the war that saw Ukrainian nationalists kill as many as 100,000 Poles. “Poles have a diametrically different point of view about Bandera and his actions [than Ukrainians], and the Ukrainians are very aware of that. If they want to praise Bandera that’s their business, but they shouldn’t do it on Polish territory,” said historian Andrzej Chojnowski in an interview with the Rzeczpospolita newspaper. “Ukrainians should avoid provocative moves that could cause problems in our relations. Our countries don’t need that.”

Bandera is also causing tensions within Ukraine, where embattled President Viktor Yushchenko is thinking about naming him a national hero, which may help lift his abysmal popularity ratings with Ukrainian nationalists in western Ukraine, but which would cause him further problems in the Russian-speaking east of the country, where Bandera is also seen as a war criminal.

Bandera was a Ukrainian nationalist active in the inter-war period, when the territory that is today western Ukraine was part of Poland. He created the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and saw Poland as Ukraine’s greatest enemy. He was imprisoned after the 1934 assassination of Poland’s interior minister.

The outbreak of the war, 70 years ago this Sept. 1, changed his fortunes. Germany occupied the west of Poland and the Soviet Union took over the east, incorporating those regions into the USSR. When the German war machine struck at the Soviet Union in 1941, Bandera tried to declare an independent Ukraine, something which the racist Nazis were not prepared to tolerate and for which they imprisoned Bandera in a concentration camp.