Head of Ukrainian group glorifying Nazi collaborators set to enter parliament
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Head of Ukrainian group glorifying Nazi collaborators set to enter parliament

President reportedly planning on bringing in new head of state-funded Institute of National Memory, which had engaged in rehabilitating anti-Communists who helped Nazis

Activists of various nationalist parties carry torches during a rally in Kiev, Ukraine, January 1, 2018, behind a banner showing Nazi collaborator Stepan Bander.  (AP/Efrem Lukatsky)
Activists of various nationalist parties carry torches during a rally in Kiev, Ukraine, January 1, 2018, behind a banner showing Nazi collaborator Stepan Bander. (AP/Efrem Lukatsky)

A senior Ukrainian official widely reviled by Jewish groups for his rehabilitation of Nazi collaborators is set to enter parliament, marking a potentially significant shift in the former Soviet republic’s approach to Holocaust memory.

Historian Volodymyr Viatrovych, the director of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory, ran as part of former president Petro Poroshenko’s European Solidarity party and, if exit polls are correct, will soon embark on a new career as one of 450 members of the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s unicameral legislature.

Viatrovych is the director of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory, a state-funded body which has spent the past several years overseeing the implementation of the country’s Decommunization program, a wide-ranging set of reforms aimed at creating a new national historiography centered around Ukrainian nationalists’ fight for independence.

Best known for his efforts to rehabilitate historical figures such as Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych, Nazi collaborators whose men killed thousands of Jews during World War II, Viatrovych has displayed public antipathy toward Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s newly elected Jewish comedian turned president.

After Zelensky’s surprise win earlier this year, Viatrovych tweeted that the “majority is not a proof of righteousness” alongside a picture of Germans performing a fascist salute.

According to exit polls, the Servant of the People party — named after the sitcom that Zelensky starred in before his shock presidential win in April — took 43.9 percent of the vote in Sunday’s election. It was the highest score in a parliamentary election for any party since Ukraine gained its independence with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

Vlodymyr Zelensky, the Jewish president of Ukraine, meets with rabbis in Kiev. (Courtesy of the Jewish Community of Dnepro)

The decisive win means Zelensky will have wide latitude to recreate the Ukrainian government largely according to his preferences.

Citing sources with knowledge of the matter, Ukrainian news outlet 112UA has reported that Viatrovych will likely leave the Institute of National Memory after the election, taking most of his leadership team with him. Zelensky will then replace him “with a more neutral figure.”

Viatrovych has stated that he is not holding any talks with Zelensky about remaining in his current position. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Zelensky has already expressed his desire to purge officials who served in the previous administration, proposing — and then withdrawing — a plan to “permanently deprive them all of the opportunities to participate in state governance.”

But its unclear how much effect it will have on deeply ingrained state institutions like the one headed by Viatrovych.

A statue of Stepan Bandera in Lviv, Ukraine, September 2014. (Courtesy Andrey Syasko/via JTA)

“I don’t expect anything to be outright reversed per se but I do think Zelensky and company won’t be as aggressive or assertive in promoting ‘controversial’ characters from Ukraine’s past or in pushing a particular version of the past itself,” journalist Michael Colborne, an expert on the Ukrainian far-right, told The Times of Israel on Monday.

Asked if the new administration would continue to work with extreme nationalist groups that have been receiving funding for so-called “national patriotic education” under the Poroshenko administration, Colborne replied that “that nationalistic, patriotic sentiment — and the personalities that push it — are well enough established in some parts of the state apparatus that a simple wave of the wand from Zelensky won’t make it go away.”

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