Friday, April 10, 2015

Ukraine Bans Soviet-Era Symbols

KIEV, Ukraine -- Parliament voted Thursday to ban Soviet as well as Nazi symbols here, a move that reinforced Ukraine’s recent pivot away from Moscow but raised the prospect of exacerbating the country’s divisions.


Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, far left, and Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko visit the ‘Bykivnia Graves,’ commemorating victims of Soviet-era repression, near Kiev on Thursday.

Lawmakers voted 254-0 in favor of the bill, which outlawed any “public rejection of the criminal nature” of the Soviet or Nazi regimes in Ukraine, a former Soviet republic that was overrun by the Germans in World War II.

It also prohibited flags, symbols, imagery, anthems and street or city names affiliated with the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany, according to an version of the text posted on the parliament’s website. 

“Symbols including five-pointed stars and hammers and sickles will disappear from the streets of Ukrainian cities,” said Yuriy Lutsenko, a senior lawmaker in President Petro Poroshenko’s party, referring to the Soviet Union’s quintessential iconography.

“This is equivalent to the swastika,” he said.

“Symbols of those who tortured Ukraine will no longer be used, and offenders will be held to account.”

The bill’s passage came shortly after the president visited a mass gravesite for the victims of Soviet repression on the outskirts of Kiev on Thursday.

These “graves are an echo of the black September of 1939, when Hitler and Stalin together unleashed the bloody Second World War and attempted to divide Europe,” Mr. Poroshenko said, provoking further controversy by equating the two leaders.

In another move sure to rankle Russia, a draft of Kiev’s new national security strategy, released Thursday, raised again the prospect of Ukraine joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Western capitals have so far shied away from such a step.

The legislation represented a dramatic act of defiance against Russia, where President Vladimir Putin has praised Soviet history as a way to restore wounded national pride and reinstated Soviet traditions, including the annual May 9 parade of weaponry on Red Square.

Five-pointed red stars still top the Kremlin’s towers. 

Ukraine is more divided.

Parts of the Russian-speaking east, where a Russia-backed rebellion continues to fester, share in Moscow’s more positive view of the Soviet past.

But many nationalist-leaning Ukrainians see the need to reject Soviet history forcefully to escape Moscow’s dominance, looking to follow in the footsteps of former communist countries in central and eastern Europe.

The Kremlin denounced Mr. Poroshenko’s statement and expressed regret over the new law, passed a month before the 70th anniversary of Soviet victory over the Nazis.

“It is lamentable that against the backdrop of such decisions, against the backdrop of such statements, many veterans in these weeks ahead of the anniversary will meet the holiday with tears in their eyes,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

He reiterated a recent warning by Putin against “attempts to distort our past.”

On a practical level, it is unclear how the new Ukrainian law will be enforced in a country where the Soviet legacy has left thousands of streets, district names and statues that likely would fall foul of the new regulations.

Mr. Lutsenko said the new law didn’t apply to memorials at cemeteries or Soviet-era awards given to war veterans and heroes of labor.

In the past year, dozens of videos have surfaced showing Ukrainians toppling local statues of Vladimir Lenin across the country, seen as a message of defiance against Moscow.

But such actions have angered more Russia-leaning Ukrainians.

“This is a cynical move which brutally violates the constitutional rights of citizens. It paves the way to new repressions not only against communists, but against any opposition forces in the country,” Petro Symonenko, head of Ukraine’s Communist Party, said.

The Justice Ministry moved to ban the party in July but the issue has yet to be decided in court.

A separate law passed by the Ukrainian parliament Thursday will permit public access to documents classified as secret by Soviet authorities.

Source: The Wall Street Journal

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