Ukraine, A Nation Divided Ahead Of Vote

BILOGORSHCHA, Ukraine -- It is an unlikely location for a major monument and debate over national identity. A field next to a quiet road outside Ukraine's western city of Lviv where only the crows disturb the peace.

Portrait of Roman Shukhevych.

But it was here on March 5, 1950 that Ukrainian nationalist leader Roman Shukhevych, perhaps the single most controversial Ukrainian figure of World War II, was shot dead by Soviet secret police after years in hiding.

In March 2009 the local authorities opened a statue of the rebel commander that has served not just to commemorate his death but also to create another symbol of deep divisions that still fracture Ukraine.

And its east-west divide will be shown up again on Sunday when Ukraine goes to the polls to elect a new president.

Commander of the Nazi-trained Nightingale Battalion and then of pro-independence Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), Shukhevych is regarded with adulation in Ukraine's west and equally impassioned dislike in its east.

He led a rearguard insurgency against the Soviets after this region -- the former Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia -- became part of the USSR after the war.

Costing tens of thousands of dollars, the statue shows Shukhevych in military uniform emblazoned with Ukraine's trident symbol and draped in a cloak like a Roman Emperor staring out over the hills.

"Glory to the Heroes!" reads a plaque on a nearby house where Shukhevych hid from the Soviets for half a decade. In 2007, pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko posthumously bestowed on him the award of Hero of Ukraine.

Not all agree. MPs from the east of Ukraine furiously protested the statue as celebrating fascism and demanded that the "glorification" of such figures be made illegal.

And while nationalist historians vehemently deny Shukhevych and the UPA were anti-Semitic Nazi collaborators, Western experts accuse the rebel forces of brutal ethnic cleansing of the local Polish population in the 1940s.

Memorials to UPA figures are conspicuous by their absence in the east of the country, where the majority of people use Russian rather than Ukrainian as their first language and the Soviet past is remembered much more fondly.

Inhabitants of the western region's main city of Lviv, whose beautiful civic architecture betrays its Austro-Hungarian past, boast that it was the first Soviet city (aside from the Baltic states) to dismantle a statue of Lenin.

Rather than Lenin, Lviv can now claim a new statue of Stepan Bandera, another wartime nationalist leader whose controversial legacy is underlined by the 24-hour police guard the monument receives.

By contrast, a larger-than-life statue of the USSR's founder still proudly dominates Lenin Square in the centre of the eastern city of Donetsk, the heartland of Ukraine's coal mining industry.

In western cities like Lviv, Russian is rarely spoken and the main language both in public and private is Ukrainian, a distinctly gentler tongue that although written in Cyrillic has much in common with Polish.

For example, whereas Russian sticks with the Latin names of months, Ukrainian uses words that underline the importance of agriculture in the country. November is "Listopad", literally the "falling of leaves".

The contrasts are hardly surprising -- the Lviv region spent over two centuries under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, which showed a degree of tolerance towards the Ukrainian language.

The east of modern Ukraine, then known as "Malorossia" (Little Russia), was part of the empire of the Russian Tsars who suppressed the use of Ukrainian, contributing to the linguistic divide seen in the country today.

"There will always be regional differences in Ukraine. This is a peculiarity of the country which has both its negative and positive sides," said Ilko Kucheriv, director of Ukraine's Democratic Initiatives Foundation.

"What now is one of the main tasks for Ukraine is to formulate our national identity, to formulate our interests as a nation and what the Ukrainian dream is."

Polls repeatedly show up the glaring regional differences within Ukraine -- a trend set to be repeated in the support for candidates in the presidential election.

A poll in October last year by the Kiev-based Razumkov Centre found that 41.7 percent of people in the east believed the anniversary of the 1917 October Revolution should be a holiday, compared with just 12.7 percent in the west.

In eastern Ukraine, 51.3 percent of the electorate will vote for Viktor Yanukovich, the champion of the cause of Russian speakers in the region, according to the latest poll by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology (KIIS).

Only 4.3 percent will support his main challenger Yulia Tymoshenko, usually seen as a more pro-EU figure. A similar trend is repeated in the southern regions of Odessa and Crimea, again dominated by Russian speakers.

But in the west the situation is partially reversed -- Tymoshenko will obtain 24.7 percent of the vote, compared 9.1 percent for Yanukovich, the poll found.

Source: AFP

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