Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ukraine Nationalists Will Resist Russian Links

LVIV, Ukraine -- If Leonid Kuchma, who won an upset victory in the presidential election Sunday, wants to hold a victory rally this week, he would be well advised to avoid this capital of West Ukraine.

Despite his overall win of 52 percent of votes nationwide, Kuchma attracted only 3.9 percent of the votes in the Lviv electoral district and 3.75 in the neighboring Ternopil district.

The reason for the remarkably poor showing stems from the strong nationalist sentiment in the region. During the campaign, nationalists expressed strong concern that Kuchma would sell out Ukraine's newly won independence by establishing closer ties to Russia.

The region, known historically as Galicia, is Ukraine's hotbed of nationalism even though it was transferred from Poland to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic only in 1945.

How, then, did the region become the stronghold of Ukrainian nationalism when it previously belonged to Poland and the Austro-Hungarian Empire before that?

Historians say it is the very fact that the Ukrainian population in prewar Lviv and surrounding Galicia lived under more liberal Western rule rather than under the stricter Russian empire.

In the 19th century, "Ukrainian political parties developed in this region, but not in Central and East Ukraine in the Russian Empire," said Hugh Lane, an American scholar here researching nationalism.

That political tradition led to the formation of the short-lived independent West Ukrainian Republic in 1918, and then to continued Ukrainian nationalist activism until World War II, Lane said.

Since it was absorbed by Poland after 1918, West Ukraine was spared the devastation of the 1930s famine in Soviet Ukraine, a tragedy that killed millions, motivated by Stalin's efforts to break the resistance of local peasants. Today the elder generation of Ukrainians in and around Lviv have passed on their recollections of prewar Western life to their children and these sentiments fuel a yearning for the West, not for Moscow. Central Ukraine and the industrialized East, by contrast, have never tasted Western prosperity, and for them electing Kuchma marks a return to the more familiar Russian orbit.

Fear of renewed Russian dominance has sparked the emergence of a small but vocal group of far-right nationalist parties in Lviv and West Ukraine. "I know that the word nationalist is rough for the Western world, but is good for our people," explained Yaroslav Bagai, a member of Socialist Nationalist party.

During the two rounds of elections ending last Sunday, his ultranationalist group and the similar UNA/UNSO achieved modest success, winning five out of 50 city council seats, and six out of 75 oblast council seats. They also won a few seats in Kiev and Rovno.

But for now, even the ultranationalists are not protesting Kuchma's electoral victory.

"We don't see a big difference between Kuchma and Kravchuk," said Taras Gotilo, a member of UNA/ UNSO.

"Kuchma will do everything in the open whereas Kravchuk did everything in hiding, but it is the same thing."

Yet if Kuchma moves too fast in re-establishing Soviet-era links with Russia, he could trigger a storm of nationalist anger.

"There is a possibility that there will be a division between East and West, as we, unfortunately, have not elected a leader who can unite us," said Vecheslav Koval, campaign director for the moderate nationalist party Rukh. Still, "I think no leader will go off the path of independence."

Kuchma for his part has already signaled that he wants to be seen as the president of all Ukrainians, and aides say he will make an effort to broaden his base of support in the coming weeks.