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Why Poles cheered Yushchenko's ouster

20th century Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera still divides Poland and Ukraine.

Ukraine's then-President Viktor Yushchenko lays flowers at the monument to Stepan Bandera, one of the founders of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), after conferring to him the rank of a Ukrainian hero on Feb. 2, 2010. (Mykola Lazarenko/Pool/Reuters)

WARSAW, Poland — Viktor Yushchenko, Ukraine’s now-former president, used to be very popular in Poland, but after his decision to honor controversial 20th century nationalist leader Stepan Bandera many Poles greeted his ouster from the presidency with unrestrained joy.

Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution had enormous support in Poland, with people like Nobel laureate Lech Walesa and then-president Aleksander Kwasniewski traveling to Kiev to show backing for the democratic revolution. The hope was that Ukraine could be peeled away from Russia and better integrated with the European Union, which would enhance Polish security by pushing Russia further away from Poland’s borders.

Despite Ukraine’s descent into chaos as Yushchenko fought for power with Yulia Tymoshenko, Poland continued to place great hopes in the Ukrainian leader, who became a close ally of Lech Kaczynski, Poland’s right-wing president. The two even traveled to Georgia to support their counterpart Mikheil Saakashvili during that country’s disastrous 2008 war with Russia.

But ties took a dramatic turn for the worse in Yushchenko’s final days in office. As his term wound down, Yushchenko named Bandera a hero of Ukraine for battling for a free Ukraine during the 20th century. During that bloody period, most of Ukraine was part of the Russia and the Soviet Union and before the war the west of the country was under Polish rule.

Yushchenko’s Jan. 22 decision was supported in western Ukraine, where many see Bandera as a hero, but it was greeted with disbelief in eastern Ukraine, where Bandera is viewed as a pro-German collaborator and a traitor. In Poland demonstrators showed up outside the Ukrainian embassy and consulates, and an advisor to Kaczynski said the decision had caused “consternation.”

“It does not seem right to undertake decisions with which one’s partners are in fundamental disagreement,” said Mariusz Handzlik. “Stepan Bandera is a very controversial figure for Poles.”