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Ukraine: Recognition Of WWII-Era Partisans Sparks Row With Russia

A row has broken out between Russia and Ukraine over a move to officially recognize as "freedom fighters" a Ukrainian partisan group that fought against the Nazis during World War II and against Soviet rule afterward.

Prague, 18 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The Ukrainian Insurgent Army, known by its acronym UPA, fought against the Germans occupying Ukraine during World War II. Its aim was independence for Ukraine. It also fought against Soviet partisans, and after the German retreat it continued the fight against communist forces, which the UPA regarded as a Russian occupying force.

The fighters were vilified by the Soviet regime as nationalist bandits and Nazi collaborators and the group's status has remained a sensitive subject even after independence.

Now, the Ukrainian government is considering legislation to rehabilitate the UPA and provide surviving UPA members the same sorts of pensions and other benefits awarded to Red Army veterans. The move has angered Russia, which on 15 July accused the Ukrainian government of supporting nationalists rather than reining them in.

The UPA was formed in 1942. Figures for its strength vary from 40,000 to 100,000 men and women at its height. It mostly operated in western Ukraine whose hills, forests, and the Carpathian Mountains provided excellent cover for the guerrilla fighters.

It used weapons abandoned by the retreating German forces to continue the war against Soviet forces until the early 1950s. The UPA's commander was killed during an ambush by Soviet forces on his bunker in 1950. Starved of weapons and political support and facing overwhelming odds, UPA guerrillas were exhausted as a fighting force by 1953.

Thousands were captured and were either executed or spent long years in Siberian prison camps. However, their deeds passed into folklore and helped keep alive Ukrainians' desire for independence, especially in the nationally conscious western part of the country where most of the UPA's members came from.

When Ukraine did become independent in 1991 there were calls for the UPA and the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists to be officially acknowledged and for members of those organizations to receive the same pensions and other benefits that their compatriots who fought in the Red Army receive.

Those demands irritated many of Ukraine's ethnic Russian minority, which makes up around 10 percent of the country's population of 49 million. Die-hard Ukrainian communists, still steeped in Soviet-era propaganda, also voiced opposition.

The row resurfaced this week after the Ukrainian government said it was discussing the rehabilitation of the UPA following the completion of an investigation by the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences.

Russian newspapers criticized the decision, calling UPA members "bandits" and warning that recognizing the UPA as national heroes would encourage anti-Russian feeling in Ukraine.

On 15 July, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement about what it called "the negative position of Russia in relation to the plans by nationalist forces in Ukraine to rehabilitate former members of the so-called Ukrainian Insurgent Army."

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Anatoliy Zlenko responded that his country did not need advice on the matter. "This naturally is an internal matter for our country and it will be resolved on the basis of agreements, possibly by consensus, and with the appropriate juridical safeguards to define its legal status."

Markian Bilynsky is the director of the independent Pylyp Orlyk Ukrainian Institute for Democracy. He says the Ukrainian government, led by President Leonid Kuchma, may be addressing the matter now in part for political purposes. "Although this matter should be examined from the legal point of view and from that of historical fairness, I also think that this initiative is being taken in the context of the next presidential elections."

Kuchma is prohibited by the constitution from running for president in the next elections in 2004, but Bilynsky says the Kuchma camp has recognized the UPA issue as a vote-winner, especially in western Ukraine.

Bilynsky says many Ukrainians still do not know the UPA's history, which remained what he called a "taboo subject" even after Soviet rule ended. He said where open discussion has taken place much of the hostility toward the UPA has diminished and the group has even won new sympathizers.

But Bilynsky says passing the rehabilitation into law will require parliamentary approval and he thinks it may be difficult to muster enough support for the measure. He does not think the issue will harm Ukrainian-Russian relations.

"Even if this issue passes into law, I would be very surprised if it led to misunderstanding or drove a wedge between Russia and Ukraine. I think that this [Russian] position is merely for show and there are enough pragmatic politicians in Russia and Ukraine who recognize and work on matters that are of real importance for both sides."

The exact number of UPA veterans alive in Ukraine and elsewhere is unknown, although they may number in the thousands.

The veterans will be grateful for any financial benefits if they gain official status, but many say the most important thing is to give a place in history to thousands who died in defense of their country and whose story is still unknown to many of their fellow countrymen.