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Wiesenthal slams Ukraine award to nationalist

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, left, gives Stepan Bandera an award, the Hero of Ukraine, which was presented to his late grandfather Stepan Bandera, founder of a rebel movement that fought against the Soviet regime, in Kiev, Ukraine, Friday, Jan. 22, 2010. Bandera, who was assassinated by the KGB in 1959 in Munich, was a leader of Ukraine's nationalist movement and its insurgent army that sided with the Nazis before fighting against Hitler's forces and the Red Army for the formation of an independent Ukrainian State. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, left, gives Stepan Bandera an award, the Hero of Ukraine, which was presented to his late grandfather Stepan Bandera, founder of a rebel movement that fought against the Soviet regime, in Kiev, Ukraine, Friday, Jan. 22, 2010. Bandera, who was assassinated by the KGB in 1959 in Munich, was a leader of Ukraine's nationalist movement and its insurgent army that sided with the Nazis before fighting against Hitler's forces and the Red Army for the formation of an independent Ukrainian State. (AP Photo / Mykola Lazarenko, Pool)
By Yuras Karmanau
Associated Press Writer / January 29, 2010

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KIEV, Ukraine—Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko once commanded such respect that hundreds of thousands of protesters poured into the streets of Kiev when he lost a fraudulent election.

But the former hero of the Orange Revolution could hardly have sunk any lower. In his bid for re-election this month, he drew just 5 percent of the vote. And now his posthumous honor for a nationalist leader -- who was also, according to some, a Nazi collaborator -- has led many to say Yushchenko has disgraced himself in his last weeks in office.

On Friday, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a leading Jewish human rights group, denounced the Hero of Ukraine award Yushchenko bestowed on Stepan Bandera last week. Bandera was a leader of Ukraine's nationalist movement, which included an insurgent army that sided with Nazi Germany during part of World War II.

The Wiesenthal Center said Bandera's followers were linked to the deaths of thousands of Jews. It also noted that the award came shortly before International Holocaust Memorial Day, which was observed Wednesday.

"It is surely a travesty when such an honor is granted right at the period when the world pauses to remember the victims of the Holocaust on Jan. 27," Mark Weitzman, the Wiesenthal Center's director of government affairs, wrote in a letter to Ukraine's Ambassador to the United States.

The award drew sharp criticism from Russia, as well, where Bandera is viewed as a traitor for fighting against Soviet troops in World War II. Russia's Foreign Ministry called the decision "odious."

In Moscow, the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi said more than 50 of its activists picketed the Ukrainian embassy Friday.

"We have sent him things that he will be need when has retired: a hot water bottle, an enema, valerian, history books, photos of Stepan Bandera and videos featuring recollections from World War II veterans," the group said on its Web site. Valerian is an herb used as a sedative.

Bandera was assassinated by the KGB in 1959 in Munich.

Yushchenko was unrepentant Friday, decreeing further that the groups affiliated with Bandera be recognized as "fighters for Ukrainian independence."

Yushchenko made establishing strong Ukrainian identity, and pulling away from Russia's influence, a focus of his five years in office -- at the expense, some say, of addressing corruption and economic problems.

It has been a long fall for a man once revered at home and abroad. After his supporters protested the vote he lost in 2004, Yushchenko won the presidency in a court-ordered rerun. He drew strong support from the West, which saw him as progressive and democratic.

But he squandered his political capital on infighting and he leaves office to an awkward silence from the West and cold denunciations from Moscow.

And, for some Jewish leaders in Ukraine, the award to Bandera was the last straw.

"Six generations of my ancestors lived in Ukraine, and Yushchenko simply crossed out the memory of them," said David Milman, assistant to the chief Rabbi of Ukraine. "This decision has turned many people away from Yushchenko, while earlier we were loyal to him."