Ukraine leader seeks recognition for WW2 guerrillas
09 May 2007 13:50:05 GMT

KIEV, May 9 (Reuters) - President Viktor Yushchenko urged Ukrainians on Wednesday to overcome their divisions to help fighters of a World War Two guerrilla movement that fought both the Red army and Nazi invaders to win recognition as combatants.

Post-Soviet attempts to extend recognition to the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), which had 100,000 men in its ranks at its peak in 1943, have foundered on fierce resistance from Red Army veterans and pro-Russian groups.

The very mention of UPA and its main leader Stepan Bandera was virtually a criminal offence after the war as its fighters were ruthlessly hunted down, while resisting Soviet rule long into the 1950s.

"I believe the endeavour to settle the legal status of those who fought for Ukraine and its independence through the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s, will at last be resolved and embodied as the truth, historical justice," Yushchenko told veterans marking the 62nd anniversary of victory in the war.

Yushchenko vowed never to "adopt a position liable to divide our people". But the time had come "to say to one another in brotherly fashion that anyone who fought for Ukraine deserves recognition and gratitude".

His address, next to Kiev's war memorial, referred to heroes from both sides, including Roman Shukhevych, UPA's commander, killed in a skirmish in western Ukraine in 1950. Bandera was poisoned by a Soviet agent in Germany nine years later.

Ukraine suffered colossal losses in the war, with Yushchenko putting the number of dead at nearly 10 million, plus a further two million sent off to Nazi Germany as labourers.

But unlike in Russia, where victory commemorations unite most of the country, anniversaries in Ukraine expose unhealed divisions, pitting nationalist western regions against the Russian-speaking east, more sympathetic to Moscow.

Nationalists in western Ukraine, who suffered repression when the Soviet Union seized their region from Poland in 1939, joined the UPA en masse in a bid to secure an independent state.

Tens of thousands of other Ukrainians donned Nazi uniforms and fought the Red Army in a unit known as the SS Galicia.
Post-Soviet governments have granted limited recognition to UPA fighters. Nationalists have long lobbied for parliament to recognise them as combatants, both for historical justice and to win veterans' pensions for their dwindling numbers.

Attempts to persuade veterans from both sides to stage joint commemorations have failed and fistfights have sometimes erupted during marches in Kiev by the few remaining guerrillas.