Dear Ukraine: Please Don’t Shoot Yourself in the Foot

A controversial new law sends the wrong signals about the past and threatens free speech.

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Despite the unceasing flare-ups of separatist violence in the Donbass, Ukraine’s new government has managed to take some steps to move the country forward: it has passed legislation to combat corruption, secured funding to stabilize the economy, and reined in its oligarchs.

But the country’s national parliament, the Supreme Rada, has just taken a much more dangerous step. Lawmakers recently passed a controversial law that honors dozens of nationalist organizations — including far-left socialists, monarchists, and neo-fascists — as “fighters for Ukrainian statehood.” The law states that those who “publicly exhibit a disrespectful attitude” toward these groups, or “deny the legitimacy” of Ukraine’s twentieth century struggle for independence, will be prosecuted (currently no punishment is specified). While most of the groups on the list are harmless enough, among them are two — the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) — that were involved in the Holocaust and the ethnic cleansing of Poles in western Ukraine during and after World War II. The inclusion of these organizations among those that are exempt from criticism is deeply disturbing.

The OUN was founded in 1929 as a revolutionary, nationalist organization, designed to throw off Soviet rule and create an independent Ukraine. Much of its leadership had spent time in Nazi Germany, and the group embraced the notion of an ethnically pure Ukrainian nation. OUN literature argued that “Ukrainians are those who are blood of our blood and bone of our bone. Only Ukrainians have the right to Ukrainian lands, Ukrainian names, and Ukrainian ideas.”

While the OUN engaged in partisan warfare against both the Soviet Union and the Germans, it also engaged in the mass ethnic cleansing of Ukrainian Jews, starting with a pogrom in Lviv that killed 5,000 Jews in the summer of 1941. The OUN also infiltrated the Ukrainian Auxiliary Police in German service, collaborating with the Nazi Einsatzgruppen carrying out the Holocaust in Western Ukraine in 1941-1942. After the OUN violently seized control of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) — a guerilla group established to support the fight for Ukrainian independence — in 1943, the two groups engaged in another round of ethnic cleansing in western Ukraine, this time directed primarily against Poles.

While the Rada has taken an ill-timed step, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has not signed the bill yet, and Ukraine’s friends in the West should urge him to veto it. First and foremost, it is difficult to see how a law making it illegal to criticize groups involved in the Holocaust can be reconciled with Ukraine’s supposedly Western ambitions. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is widely accused of using his version of history to prop up his rule, and indeed, Moscow has passed a very similar law that criminalizes questioning of the Russian view of World War II. Is this really the model democratic Ukraine wants to follow? It is understandable that Ukraine seeks to break from its Soviet legacy — but the attempt by nationalists to honor the OUN and UPA by encompassing them within the history of Ukraine’s fight for independence is both foolish and wrong.

The Rada’s action also risks damaging Ukraine’s international reputation – something the beleaguered country can ill afford. The Simon Wiesenthal Center has already condemned the new law, stating that “to honor local Nazi collaborators and grant them special benefits turns Hitler’s henchmen into heroes.” Ukraine’s allies — particularly Poland — will also have a difficult time accepting this law. Ukraine has been down this road once before. Shortly before leaving office in 2010, former President Yushchenko granted Stepan Bandera, a controversial World War II-era nationalist leader, the status of “Hero of Ukraine,” an action condemned by the European Union and the President of Poland. The Rada should have learned from Yushchenko’s mistake. (In the photo, nationalists hold a torchlight parade in honor of Stepan Bandera in Kiev.)

The law not only offends and discourages Ukraine’s friends — it also helps the country’s enemies. The Rada has, at one stroke, given the Kremlin and its proxies in the Donbass all the ammunition they need to support their longstanding and inaccurate claim that post-revolutionary Ukraine is overrun by fascists and neo-Nazis. Not surprisingly, Kremlin mouthpieces such as RT and Sputnik News have already condemned the law, and Russia’s social media troll factories now have an authentic cudgel with which to smear Ukraine’s reputation.

Finally, a law that bans criticism of any organizations — particularly ones associated with the Holocaust and ethnic cleansing — raises important free speech issues. It is a clear violation of Ukraine’s constitution, which guarantees everyone “the right to freedom of thought and speech, and to the free expression of his or her views and beliefs.” In addition, as numerous scholars from around the world noted in an open letter to Poroshenko, the law’s adoption would raise serious questions about Ukraine’s commitment to the democratic principles demanded by its membership in the Council of Europe and the OSCE.

To understand why this law was passed despite its obvious negative consequences, it is important to realize that it reflects a broader split in Ukraine along both regional and ideological lines. According to Per-Anders Rudling, a historian specializing in Ukrainian history, what he described as the “OUN-UPA cult” is primarily of western Ukrainian origin, the region where the organizations were most active. “In the east and south, by contrast, the situation is the opposite,” said Rudling. “In Luhansk and Crimea they erected monuments to the victims of the OUN and UPA.”

The law’s defenders are those for whom Bandera and the OUN are heroes of Ukrainian independence who fought heroically against the Red Army well into the 1950s. Its primary drafter, Volodymyr Viatrovych, is a historian at the Institute of National Memory in Kiev who has argued that without Bandera and the OUN-UPA, there would be no independent Ukraine. Viatrovych has been accused by a number of scholars of denying OUN’s involvement in the 1941 pogroms as well as dismissing the collaboration of the Ukrainian Waffen-SS Galizien unit with Nazi Germany as “Soviet propaganda.” The Rada deputy who sponsored the bill is the son of Roman Shukhevych, a politician and military leader who was trained by the Germans and served in a Nazi-supervised auxiliary police unit before becoming head of the OUN-UPA in 1943-1944.

But while the glorification of the OUN-UPA may be most strongly supported by the nationalists, it is troubling that even the Minister of Culture from the pro-European party of Prime Minister Arsenyi Yatseniuk has described the new law as “actually European, really free and unbiased.” Such views by senior government officials represent a historical blind spot about Ukrainian history that, unfortunately, has currency among some Euromaidan activists.

If Kiev hopes to win the battle for hearts and minds among the Russian speakers of eastern Ukraine, embracing the narrative of western Ukrainian nationalists is the wrong way to go about it. “[The two factions’] respective symbols of national identity are mutually exclusive,” argues Nicolai Petro, professor of international politics at the University of Rhode Island, so “imposing one group’s symbols requires eradicating the other’s identity.” How can these two different versions of Ukrainian history be reconciled? “The only way out of this conundrum,” Petro argues, “is by separating national identity from citizenship, and focusing on the promotion of a Ukrainian civic culture.”

Thanks to the Rada’s decision to pass a law honoring organizations associated with the Holocaust, Ukraine is close to scoring an “own goal” – and Ukraine’s friends should encourage President Poroshenko to kick the ball away before it’s too late.

Photo Credit: GENYA SAVILOV/AFP/Getty Images

Josh Cohen is a former USAID project officer involved in managing economic reform projects in the former Soviet Union. He contributes to a number of foreign policy-focused media outlets and tweets at @jkc_in_dc.