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Wartime ghosts haunt Ukraine as crisis deepens

Tuesday, 11 March 2014 - 4:05pm IST | Agency: Reuters

Seven decades after the end of World War Two, the ghosts of that conflict are being evoked in an ideological as well as geopolitical battle over the future of Ukraine.

In a country that was occupied by Nazi Germany and suffered decades of repressive Soviet rule, the words "communist" and "fascist" can still conjure up horror and terror. Fascism in particular is not usually a word that is used lightly.

This has changed during three months of crisis in Ukraine and as it tries to hold on to the Crimea region, where power now lies in the hands of Russian separatists and Russian forces.

The label "fascist" is being bandied about so often, by politicians and protesters, that it risks becoming an everyday part of the political lexicon deprived of its original meaning.

It has mainly been used by Russia, against the new pro-Western leadership in Kiev and the Ukrainians who protested for three months until they deposed Moscow-backed Viktor Yanukovich as president on Feb. 22.

Russia's aim is to discredit Kiev's new rulers and provide a justification for possible military intervention. The logic goes that in the process Moscow might be able to take control of parts of a country it has long regarded as part of its sphere of influence.

But some critics of Vladimir Putin have made comparisons between the Russian president and Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had to explain her choice of words when she likened Russia's action in Crimea now and Germany's in Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1938.

In Ukraine itself, opinions differ about how to interpret World War Two. For many Ukrainians it was a choice between two evils - Hitler's Germany or Josef Stalin's Soviet Union.

"There is within Ukraine a real divide about the meaning of the war, which was sometimes used for political advantage within the country. What Russia is doing now is attempting to exploit this for its own purposes," said Timothy Snyder, a historian and author on Stalin and Hitler.

It is impossible now to avoid talk or images of what the Soviet Union called the Great Patriotic War in Ukraine.

In the Crimean port city of Simferopol, home of Russia's Black Sea Fleet and Ukraine's navy, huge billboards have appeared urging people to vote in a referendum on Sunday on unification with Russia.

One shows two maps of Crimea, the first covered in a Russian flag, the other with a giant black Swastika emblazoned across it, telling voters that the choice is between those two visions of the peninsula.

Another urged people to vote to stop fascism, suggesting the vote was a way of stopping Ukraine's ultra-nationalist Right Sector movement coming to power.

Yet another suggested the referendum was a way of staving off the UPA, a reference to the Ukrainian Insurgent Army that fought in and after World War Two against the Soviet Union and at times collaborated with the Nazis.

The language echoes that of Yanukovich, who said in a television interview after being deposed: "We are witnessing the return of the Nazis, the time when in the 1930s the Nazis came to power in Germany and Austria. It is the same now."

It is comments such as this that ensure the war is rarely far from people's minds.

In Soviet times, state television often showed war films and footage of great victories to stir patriotism and loyalty, if not to communism then against a common enemy.

But it is less the glory of great battles that is being evoked now than the ignominy of betrayal and defeat.

The worst insult of all is to call a rival a "Banderovets", a reference to Stepan Bandera, leader of the Ukrainian nationalist movement that was built in western Ukraine and is accused by Russians of siding with the Nazis.

"According to the Russian version of events, a battle is under way between good and fascism-Banderovism. So 'Banderovets' will enter the English language," said Taras Berezovets of the Berta communications political consultancy in Kiev.

The rise in the use of such language dates back to a parliamentary election of 2012, when Yanukovich's Party of Regions branded its nationalist rivals fascists during the election campaign, sociologists and political analysts say.

But it has become particularly marked since the start of the crisis caused by Yanukovich's decision last November to spurn closer ties with the European Union with a turn back towards former Soviet master Moscow.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described the events in Kiev as a pogrom. Putin warned of the danger of ultra-nationalism, neo-fascism and anti-Semitism in Ukraine.

Dunja Mijatovic, a senior official at the OSCE human rights and security body, says the language being used in Ukraine, and the talk of World War Two, are reminiscent of the period before war broke out in her native Bosnia in the 1990s.

"It's terrible, for me it's almost 'deja vu'," she said.

But although the nationalist Svoboda party has positions in the new government, Ukrainian political experts say it has become much less radical since winning seats in parliament in 2012. Other right-wing groups not represented in parliament are more radical.

Russia's rhetoric, they say, could backfire.

"The term 'fascism' is now being used actively by Russia but it is also being used against Russia - many analogies are being made in the Western media with the pre-war period and Putin is being compared to the leader of fascist Germany," said Volodymyr Fesenko of the Penta think tank in Kiev.

Communism has also, to a lesser extent, become a nasty word for some in Ukraine, although still respected by others.

Statues to Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin have been demolished by protesters in many parts of the country, antagonising older Ukrainians who look back to the Soviet era with nostalgia, partly because of the victory over Hitler.

It is little surprise, then, that Ukraine's new leaders, seemingly under fire at every turn, are promising to build a new Ukraine that buries the past. Some observers say it needs to do so quickly because of the dangers it faces. (editing by Janet McBride)

(Additional reporting by Andrew Osborn in Sevastopol)




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