KIEV, Ukraine – Veteran Ukrainian nationalist fighters who fought both Soviet and Nazi forces in World War II rallied in the Ukrainian capital Saturday, demanding the same recognition as the Red Army veterans.
The nationalists briefly scuffled with opposing socialists, who were holding a counter-rally, but police were largely successful in blocking protesters from clashing. They detained about 20 socialist and nationalist activists who attempted to break through police cordons.
Some 2,000 veteran nationalist fighters and their supporters gathered in front of St. Sophia Cathedral to honor victims of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, which marked the 64th anniversary of its founding today.
During Soviet times, schoolchildren were taught that members of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army were enemies of the people who committed atrocities alongside Nazi troops. After the 1991 Soviet collapse, the former guerrillas have sought to win financial and moral recognition similar to what Red Army veterans have long enjoyed.
The "best sons of Ukraine gave up their lives for our Motherland. Unfortunately we have not been recognized yet. It is a shame," ex-partisan Orest Vaskul said.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko on Saturday hailed the guerrillas for fighting for Ukraine's independence and signed a decree calling for more studies of the partisans' history and for drafting a law that would extend them official recognition.
Since Western-leaning Yushchenko came to power last year, his government has been striving to win recognition for some 100,000 partisans as Ukrainian patriots who struggled to create an independent homeland. His efforts, however, have met a stiff resistance of Communists and Red Army veterans.
On Saturday, about 1,000 supporters of communist and socialist progressive party held competing rallies in Kiev to denounce the former guerrilla fighters as enemies of Ukraine, waving red flags as Soviet war songs played over loudspeakers.
"They are our enemies, they shot our soldiers in the back," said 69-year-old teacher Volodymyr Protstenko, noting that he tells his students "about crimes of partisans."
Hostility toward the partisans runs deep in Ukraine. During the early years of the war, the anti-Soviet partisans aligned themselves with the Nazis, seeing the invasion as a way to get rid of the Soviet regime. But after the Nazis rejected their calls for an independent Ukraine, they started fighting against both the Nazis and the Soviets. The Red Army drove out the Nazis in 1944, and the partisans continued their struggle until 1951.
About 10,000 partisans are believed to still be alive, while there are 3.8 million World War II veterans still living.
The issue has divided Ukraine, with the more nationalistic west supporting recognition of the partisans, and the Russian-speaking east — the support base for Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych — opposing it.
A pro-partisans rally was held in the western city of Lviv, and supporters and opponents of the partisans held competing rallies in the southern city of Simferopol.
An estimated 7 million Ukrainians died in the fighting against the Nazis, and 2.4 million people were sent to Nazi concentration camps. Yushchenko's father was a Soviet Red Army soldier who spent four years in a Nazi camp.