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Ukraine: Parliament Recognizes Soviet-Era Famine As Genocide

(RFE/RL) Ukraine's Verkhovna Rada on November 28 passed a bill branding the 1932-33 Great Famine, or Holodomor, as an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people. The bill, which passed by a narrow margin, underscores the country's ongoing east-west divide, even as it sets the country on the path toward reconciliation with its tragic past.

PRAGUE, November 29, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The man-made famine, orchestrated by Josef Stalin and responsible for as many as 10 million deaths in Ukraine, is a raw nerve in Ukrainian consciousness.

It wasn't surprising, therefore, that debate over the bill was heated and prolonged. It was made all the more complex by the fact that not one, but two, draft bills were submitted.

One, backed by President Viktor Yushchenko, referred to the famine as an "act of genocide against the Ukrainian nation."

The second, submitted by Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and other lawmakers from his Party of Regions, said the event should be referred to simply as a "tragedy."

Historical Nuance

The Party of Regions and the Communists both argued that labeling the famine as genocide against the Ukrainian nation could fuel anti-Russian sentiments in the country. They stressed that ethnic Russians, as well as Ukrainians, died as a result of the famine.

Yushchenko was absent from the parliamentary debate, which coincided with the summit of leaders from the Commonwealth of Independent States in Minsk.
Yushchenko welcomed the adoption of the Holodomor bill as a historic act that would unite the Ukrainian people.

However, the Ukrainian president appeared to anticipate the argument of his opponents. In a public statement two days before the Verkhovna Rada debate, Yushchenko stressed his draft did not designate Russia as the perpetrator of the Holodomor.

"History has already delivered a verdict to the murderers who planned and carried out the famine," Yushchenko said. "It is the totalitarian, communist, Stalinist system -- which has no national identity."

The same rationale was voiced by Ihor Yukhnovskyy, acting director of the National Memory Institute, who presented Yushchenko's bill to parliamentary lawmakers.

"What does Russia have to do with this?" Yukhnovskyy asked. "Although it considers itself the legal successor to the Soviet Union, I do not think Russia today is the successor to the Bolshevik regime that was active in the 1930s."

Lawmakers, Yukhnovskyy suggested, should look at his draft bill as a test of whether Ukrainian politicians have achieved the maturity and perspective necessary to properly appraise their country's history.

"The fact is that the famine did take place, and great numbers of people were destroyed by their isolation from the external world," he said. "We have documents, this is a fact. And not honoring the memory of those innocently killed would be a crime against our own people."

Collectivized Famine

The Holodomor, which was never recognized by the Soviet Union, began to be commemorated only after Ukraine gained independence.

Ukrainian historians have collected horrifying evidence suggesting that millions of people in Soviet Ukraine died as a result of the orchestrated famine.

Oral accounts from Holodomor survivors show that many people resorted to cannibalism in order to survive the forced starvation.

The famine was created through systematic confiscations of grain and livestock. Its goal was to wipe out Ukraine's small landowners -- derisively referred to as "kulaks" -- and to force remaining peasants to give up their land and join collective farms.

Narrow Margin

No one familiar with the Holodomor and its aftermath would consider it anything less than horrific. But was it a tragedy, or was it genocide?

In the end, neither version of the bill secured the 226 votes required for passage in the 450-seat legislature.

The deciding factor was ultimately the Socialist Party, whose lawmakers supported the essence of Yushchenko's bill, but expressed doubts about some of its wording.

Party leader and Parliamentary Speaker Oleksandr Moroz, given the chance to rephrase parts of the bill, was able to make it more palatable to his party colleagues.

In particular, Moroz removed a proposal that would make public denial of the Holodomor punishable under the country's civil law. However, he left untouched the somewhat confusing original provision that public denial of the famine was "prohibited."

Moroz also suggested that the formulation "genocide of the Ukrainian nation" should be replaced with "genocide of the Ukrainian people."

This, he said, would soften the implication that the Holodomor singled out ethnic Ukrainians as the principal victims.

Victory For Our Ukraine

With the newly worded phrases in place, Yushchenko's bill won the 233 votes it needed for formal approval.

Yushchenko's Our Ukraine, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, and the Socialists all backed the bill, as did two lawmakers from the Party of Regions. The Communists and the rest of Party of Regions refused to participate in the vote.

Ivan Vasyunyk, deputy head of the presidential staff, said Yushchenko welcomed the adoption of the Holodomor bill as a historic act that would unite the Ukrainian people.

This may prove true in the long run. For the time being, however, the debate over the dual draft bills once again revealed the deep division between Ukraine's eastern and western -- or pro-Russian and pro-Western -- factions.

Party of Regions lawmaker Volodymyr Zubanov warned the bill, as adopted, may have unpleasant repercussions for Ukraine, saying it will provoke a "crisis in international relations for many, many decades to come."

"If we are going to adopt such political statements to provoke [problems in] interethnic and international relations, I think this is wrong," he added.

The bill also leaves lawmakers uncertain as to whether denial of the Holodomor is a punishable offense.

Our Ukraine lawmaker Vyacheslav Kyrylenko, for his part, believes that it is.

Moroz, he said, "has proposed that public denial be prohibited. And for us, this is a key phrase. The cabinet of ministers has received instructions to change corresponding legal acts within one month."

But legal accountability seems to be a minor issue. What appears to be of far greater importance is the fact that Ukrainian lawmakers have finally come to grips with the nation's worst trauma of the last century -- and are calling it by the name it has long deserved.

(Marianna Dratch from RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service contributed to this report.)

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