Victory Day, Red Flags, and the Beginning of the End for Yanukovych

By Orest Zakydalsky, Toronto-based Researcher and Analyst

In late April, the Verkhovna Rada passed a law entitled “Memorializing the Victory in the Great Patriotic War, 1941-1945.” This law decrees that for the May 9 Victory Day celebrations, the Soviet flag is to be flown together with the Ukrainian flag on government buildings throughout the country. The law seems to have had the desired effect – it has succeeded in once again stirring up controversy over the memory and meaning of the war in Ukraine, as segments of Ukrainian society have been mobilized either in support of or in opposition to the new law.

There is little point in arguing the law’s merits – there are none. If the red “victory” flag is a symbol of any victory, it is that of one murderous, tyrannical regime over another. The idiocy of an independent Ukraine flying the flag of a regime that murdered, imprisoned and deported millions of its titular people from buildings that house state institutions is obvious. That it is an insult to the memory of the Ukrainians who fought against the Soviet regime is also obvious. None of this, however, is the point. Once again, the regime is using Ukraine’s complex history for political ends.

This law brings three political advantages for Yanukovych. First, it rallies support in his (rapidly shrinking) base; second, it rallies support for the extreme nationalist “opposition” (All-Ukrainian Union “Svoboda”) in western Ukraine, thus marginalizing the legitimate opposition; and third, and perhaps most importantly, it creates a welcome distraction from the year-long string of disastrous policy under his administration. Put another way, if people are arguing about red flags and victory days, they’re less likely to be talking about low pensions, rising prices, expensive gas, political repressions and awful tax codes.

Lost in all of this is the plight of the veterans whom Yanukovych routinely trots out to score political points. The extraordinary bravery and sacrifice of Ukrainians who fought is remembered when it’s convenient for politicians – but then it’s forgotten, at least until the next Victory Day. That many veterans live in poverty doesn’t seem have bothered successive Ukrainian presidents. Nor does it seem to bother Yanukovych. If it did, he would do something about it.

In the end, this new law is a good indication of how desperate the Yanukovych regime has become. His and the Party of Regions’ approval ratings are plummeting dramatically. “Divide-and-conquer” is one of the oldest tricks in the political handbook. If Ukrainian memory of the war continues to be divided, Ukrainian attitudes towards Yanukovych are becoming increasingly united. And cynically manipulating historical memory to stem this tide simply won’t work.

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