Why Poles cheered Yushchenko's ouster

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.”

That’s because Bandera, who was a citizen of pre-war Poland, helped organize the assassination of an interior minister in 1934. Although he spent much of the war imprisoned in a German concentration camp, his idea of creating a purely ethnic Ukrainian state that was cleansed of Poles (as well as Russians and Jews) was taken up enthusiastically by his followers in the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, who were principally responsible for the massacre of as many as 100,000 Polish civilians from 1942 to 1944. Bandera lived in Munich after the war, where he was assassinated in 1959 by a Soviet agent.

Poles responded to wartime butchery by killing several thousand Ukrainians, and after the war, when Poland’s borders had been shifted hundreds of miles to the west, the communist-era military embarked on a deportation campaign against the few Ukrainians who remained within the country’s new frontiers.

Although Poland was the first country to recognize an independent Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the bloody past between the two countries has made reconciliation a delicate and difficult task, something that Yushchenko’s praise of Bandera has exacerbated.

“Shame on Bandera! Shame on Yushchenko! Shame on Polish politicians who thoughtlessly supported Yushchenko,” wrote Tadeusz Isakowicz-Zaleski, a Catholic priest who helped lead the protests outside the Ukrainian embassy in Warsaw.

However the fuss over Bandera could make it easier for Yanukovich to forge a closer relationship with Poland. Although Ukraine’s new president had been viewed with suspicion in Warsaw because of his pro-Moscow inclinations, he has indicated he would retract Yushchenko’s Bandera decree, something that his core electorate in the east of the country would strongly support. That would also buy him credit in Poland.

Although he says he does not have much sympathy for Yankovich, Isakowicz-Zaleski noted: “What a paradox that only the election of a pro-Russian ex-Communist will create a positive turn in these issues.”