KIEV: Thousands of Ukrainian nationalists held a torchlight procession across Kiev on Thursday in honour of a 1940s anti-Soviet insurgent branded by Moscow as a Nazi collaborator whom Europe must reject.
The march on what would have been Stepan Bandera’s 106th birthday moved along the same streets on which hundreds of thousands rallied for three months last winter before ousting a Moscow-backed president.
Some wore World War II-era army uniforms while others draped themselves in the red and black nationalist flags and chanted “Ukraine belongs to Ukrainians” and “Bandera will return and restore order”.
“The Kremlin is afraid of Bandera because he symbolises the very idea of a completely independent Ukraine,” Lidia Ushiy said while holding up a portrait of the far-right icon at the head of the march.
Bandera is a mythical but immensely divisive figure in Ukraine whom some compare to Cuba’s Che Guevara.
His movement’s slogan — “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!” — was also the catchphrase of last year’s pro-European revolt.
Russian President Vladimir Putin in March called that uprising’s leaders “the ideological heirs of Bandera, Hitler’s accomplice during World War II.”
Bandera was the ideological patron of resistance fighters who fought alongside invading German forces during World War II.
The Ukrainian famine of the 1930s that was created by Soviet collective farming had turned many against Moscow and in favour of any foreign presence that could help fend off Kremlin rule.
But Bandera himself was arrested by the Germans for trying to set up a Ukrainian government and spent the war years in a concentration camp.
He was poisoned by a KGB agent in Munich in 1959.
Bandera was posthumously decorated with a Hero of Ukraine medal in January 2010 by the then pro-Western president Viktor Yushchenko.
The decision outraged Russia and was revoked by the Moscow-backed leadership prior to its own ouster in February.
Ukranian President Petro Poroshenko — a billionaire who helped man the Kiev barricades — made a New Year vow to defeat the “cruel-hearted foe” now fighting government forces in the Russian-speaking east.
Poroshenko surrounded himself with soldiers and Kiev protests members for the traditional New Year’s Eve message to the nation that airs in the closing minutes of the outgoing year.
“A cruel-hearted foe has encroached on our lives, territory, freedom and independence,” he said, referring to Russia.
“We will definitely win this patriotic war because for us, it is just. Truth is on our side. God is with us.”
The 49-year-old chocolate baron won a snap election in May on a promise to stamp out the pro-Russian mutiny that erupted in Ukraine’s industrial east in April and has since claimed more than 4,700 lives.
A truce brokered by Russian and European envoys in September has been repeatedly broken and new talks aimed at consolidating that agreement broke up without progress last week.
Relations between Kiev and Moscow — accused by both Poroshenko and NATO of supporting the rebel uprising — are now more hostile than at any point since the 1991 breakup of the USSR.
Poroshenko’s name was notably missing from the dozens of New Year congratulatory messages that Putin sent out to world leaders on Wednesday.
Putin and Poroshenko are tentatively expected to meet in Kazakhstan on January 15 for their first face-to-face talks on the crisis since a brief October encounter in Milan.