KIEV (Reuters) - Nationalists and leftists scuffled on Sunday at commemorations for a World War Two guerrilla group that fought both the Nazis and the Red Army, an issue still dividing post-Soviet Ukraine more than six decades later.
Ukraine’s World War Two legacy is divided by those honouring the Soviet army’s defence of its homeland and those in western Ukraine who founded the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) to secure an independent state.
Several thousand supporters of the UPA and a number of its veterans marked the 65th anniversary of the group’s founding on Sunday outside the 11th century St. Sofia Cathedral.
“We fought for the Ukrainian state on our own land,” said veteran Fotiy Volodymyrsky, dressed in his uniform. Supporters of UPA fighters want veterans to secure official recognition as combatants and to be awarded pensions.
Leftists say such a suggestion is an affront to the memory of the 27 million Soviet lives lost during the war — including 5 to 8 million killed in Ukraine.
President Viktor Yushchenko has tried since taking office in 2005 to reconcile the two sides with only limited success.
He greeted UPA veterans at a reception, saying: “The memory of every hero and every victim in the fight for the liberation, freedom and independence of Ukraine is sacred and indivisible.”
Half a kilometre away from the nationalist rally, several hundred leftists, some with posters of Soviet dictator and wartime leader Josef Stalin, gathered by the only remaining statue in Kiev of Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin.
Hoping to prevent a repeat of violent clashes at a similar gathering two years ago, authorities deployed a large contingent of Interior Ministry officers to confine them to the area.
Scuffles broke out when nationalists threaded their way through heavily guarded barriers that separated the two sides throughout the city centre.
A Reuters reporter saw at least six people detained by the police and a brief fistfight between a nationalist and leftist. There were no arrests.
The division between western Ukraine and the mostly Russian-speaking east was a key factor in the 2004 “Orange Revolution” which brought Yushchenko to power.
It has subsided somewhat, but most voters in the west still supported “orange” parties in last month’s parliamentary election, while those in the east supported the Regions Party of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich. “Orange” parties won a small majority and are expected to form a government.