KYIV -- Across social media, Ukrainian police and law enforcement officials are apologizing for one officer's slur aimed at far-right ultranationalists and making it known: They, too, are "#Banderites." Or, to be clear, supporters of militant Ukrainian nationalists who collaborated with the Nazis during World War II.
From the top on down, cops and their bosses are lining up to air their admiration for Stepan Bandera, a hero to many Ukrainians whose Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and its military arm, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), fought both Soviet and Nazi forces during World War II but is also accused of carrying out murderous campaigns against Poles and Jews.*
The #IamaBanderite (#ЯБандерівець in Ukrainian) hashtag appeared on February 10, a day after a riot-police officer used the derogatory play on Bandera's name during a violent confrontation with dozens of ultranationalists at a campaign event in Kyiv for presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko.
The interlopers had come to the event to demand justice for an acid attack that killed civic activist Kateryna Handzyuk amid a rash of violence against activists. Carrying signs that asked, "Who ordered the attack on Handzyuk?" they called for Kherson regional-council head Vladyslav Manher, a recently suspended member of Tymoshenko's party, to be arrested for his alleged role as its organizer.
On February 11, two days after the clash, Manher received an official notice of suspicion from Prosecutor-General Yuriy Lutsenko.
Videos of the violence that circulated online showed police in riot gear scuffling with the group, which included members of the far-right C14 organization. Some members of the group, which is said to take its name from a 14-word phrase used by White supremacists and has openly offered its members out as paid thugs, were behind violent attacks on Romany camps in Kyiv last year.
In one video, officers are seen throwing some of the far-right protesters to the ground, and one is heard shouting, "On the ground, Banderite!"
Police detained but later reportedly released 18 people, citing a lack of evidence that would justify their continued detention.
But prosecutors on February 11 said they had opened criminal proceedings against the far-right group for hooliganism, causing bodily harm, and the seizure of a public building. Meanwhile, an investigation was opened against police officers involved for excessive use of force.
But it wasn't the violence or the message that caught the public's attention. It was the "Banderite" slur that sparked an outpouring of criticism from Ukrainians on social media.
"I personally, as the chief of police in Kyiv, want to apologize to society for the actions of this officer," Andriy Kryshchenko said in a video statement posted to the Interior Ministry Facebook account on January 10. "Out of conviction and because of my understanding of the historical situation in Ukraine, I consider it unacceptable."
"Undoubtedly, this employee will be punished," the Kyiv chief of police vowed. "In addition, some obscene vocabulary was used. We have to do something about this."
Within hours, the country's most senior law enforcement officials and countless police officers had embarked on a sort of social-media apology tour that saw them aligning themselves with the late Nazi collaborator.
"I apologize. I am a Banderite, too! Glory to Ukraine!" wrote Knyazev, the chief of the Ukrainian National Police, in a post on his Facebook page that has been shared nearly 400 times.
When asked to clarify whether the hashtag was meant in earnest or was ironic, Shevchenko, the police spokesman, told RFE/RL by phone that it was "both." He said Shkyryak, the Interior Ministry adviser, was the man behind the campaign. Shkyryak could not immediately be reached for comment.
But Shkyryak posted to Facebook around the same time as Knyazev a photograph of himself sitting beneath a painting of Bandera. "I work in the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine. This is my office," he wrote in the caption. "I am also a Banderite and I am proud of it! Bandera, my hero!"
He said invoking the derogatory version of Bandera's name by an officer in ordering a suspect to the ground was "shameful and unacceptable!" At the same time, he said he did not support "violent actions" or "attempts to seize state buildings" by groups who want to "destabilize, stoke panic and despair in society."
The three officials and many more officers, as well as civilian supporters, joined in the campaign using the hashtag.
But not everyone appreciated the sentiment.
In a post on Facebook on February 10, Eduard Dolinsky, head of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, a leading Jewish advocacy group, pointed out that the dust-up that spawned the hashtag occurred on the anniversary of a mass killing of Poles by Bandera's UPA.
"Yesterday, February 9, was the anniversary of the first massacre of Poles by Banderites," he wrote. "In the village of Parosl, the UPA cut down more than 150 children, women, and men."
He added: "Today, the police are holding an 'I am a Banderite!' flash mob. Maybe you're better off holding an 'I am a Pole!' flash mob."