There are few figures in Ukraine’s history as controversial as Stepan Bandera, and fewer still are capable of influencing such profoundly modern politics more than six decades after his death.
Bandera, who died in 1959 after being poisoned by Soviet agents, is seen as a national hero who fought for Ukraine’s independence during the 1930s and 1940s. For others, he is a war criminal whose nationalist forces carried out atrocities. against Jews and Poles during World War II.
Now authorities in Lviv in western Ukraine have reignited the debate over the wartime militia leader by calling on the government to rename Arena Lviv in honor of Bandera and forcing Ukrainian President Volodimir Zelenskyy to choose a side during a bitter electoral battle.
“They are pressuring Zelenskyy and [Denys] Shmygal, the prime minister, to decide whether they are nationalists or not, “said Alexei Jakubin, a professor of politics at the Kiev Polytechnic Institute.
Zelenskyy, who won the 2019 elections in Ukraine by an overwhelming majority with more than 70% of the votes, is currently voting only 19%.
The Lviv authorities, dominated by right-wing parties like Svoboda and European Solidarity, the party of former President Petro Poroshenko, smell blood.
“Zelenskyy and Poroshenko have a fight over who is the most patriotic [and] Zelenskyy is in a difficult position because his support is much lower and he is moving. [towards] the right wing, which is Poroshenko’s territory, ”said Jakubin.
“This is a test to see if he is a true patriot.”
It is not the first time that a war has been fought over Bandera’s legacy in the highest echelons of Ukrainian politics.
In 2010, Bandera was named “Hero of Ukraine” by outgoing President Viktor Yushchenko, sparking anger in Europe, Poland and Israel.
It was stripped of the title in 2011 under Yushchenko’s replacement, President Viktor Yanukovych, but when Yanukovych was overthrown in 2014, the Kiev City Council renamed Moscow Avenue Stepan Bandera Avenue after the Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine.
There are monuments to Bandera all over western Ukraine and in 2018, authorities in Lviv, just 74 kilometers from the Polish border, announced that 2019 would be the ‘Year of Stepan Bandera’, again sparking protests from the Israeli government and Polish.
Who was Stepan Bandera?
After World War I, Poland and Ukraine fought a short war that resulted in Poland capturing the city of Lviv. Bandera, who studied in Lviv, was a member of several Ukrainian nationalist organizations before joining the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), becoming the second-in-command of the militia group in 1933.
The following year, Bandera orchestrated the assassination of Polish Interior Minister Bronisław Pieracki and was sentenced to death by a Polish court, which was later commuted to life imprisonment. When the Nazis invaded Poland, Bandera and other nationalists escaped from jail.
Bandera was trained by the German Abwehr to do counterintelligence in the Soviet Union, occupied Poland, and Ukraine, which he did until 1941. That year, Bandera and his followers signed a declaration of independence from Ukraine and announced an alliance with Germany.
To their disappointment, Nazi Germany refused to recognize Ukraine’s independence and ordered Bandera to withdraw the declaration. When he refused, he was arrested and later incarcerated in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, which held high-profile political prisoners.
During Bandera’s time in Sachsenhausen, the OUN carried out thousands of murders of Poles, most of them civilians, during an ethnic cleansing campaign in Volhynia and later in eastern Galicia. Up to 100,000 people may have died during the two-year campaign.
While Bandera was not directly involved in ethnic cleansing, as he was in prison, he had openly stated that both Jews and Poles had no place in a sovereign state of Ukraine. During the Holocaust, one sixth of the Jews killed by the Nazis were from Ukraine.
During Bandera’s time in prison, the Nazis began executing other OUN leaders and in the final years of World War II, the organization found itself at war with both Germany and the Soviets, who viewed the country as part of the Soviet Union.
For his supporters, the fact that Bandera fought to prevent the Soviet occupation of Ukraine is more significant than his collaboration with the Nazis. Since the Euromaidan revolution of 2014, Bandera has been a rallying cry for many Ukrainian nationalists, particularly after the Russian annexation of Crimea and the backing of separatist movements in eastern Ukraine.
“The main thing for the people who follow Bandera today is that he fought for an independent Ukraine. They ignore that their organization cooperated with the Nazi regime, that they were anti-Semitic and that Bandera was also anti-Polish, ”said Jakubin.
“After Euromaidan, some people have tried to create a new image of Bandera as a person fighting against the Soviets for the independence of Ukraine.”
_Euronews has reached out to President Zelenskyy’s office for comment. _
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism