Ukraine distances itself from statement by its ambassador Melnyk

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Andriy Melnyk is currently the best-known foreign diplomat in Germany. With controversial statements on fascism in Ukrainian history, he is now causing irritation and opposition.

< p>As ambassador, Andriy Melnyk is the official representative of Ukraine in Berlin. And yet the government in Kyiv is now clearly distancing itself from him on one point. “The opinion” that Melnyk expressed in an interview with a German journalist “is his own and does not reflect the position of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine”. For any country such a distancing would be a very unusual step. This is especially true for a person like Melnyk, who impresses many people in Germany, but also outrages many others.

The reason for the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry's step was a video interview with Melnyk by the German journalist Tilo Jung. Jung brought up Melnyk's assessment of the Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera (1909-1959). The Ambassador denied that there was any evidence of the mass murder of Jews by Bandera supporters.

“Not a mass murderer”

“Bandera was not a mass murderer of Jews and Poles,” said Melnyk. Bandera was merely trying to exploit the struggle between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union for Ukrainian independence, he stressed. Jung recalled that Melnyk visited the Bandera grave in Munich in 2015 and “adores” it. The Ambassador compared Bandera to Robin Hood as a “freedom fighter”; but with the allegations of the past decades, “everything is blamed on him”. Monument to Stepan Bandera in Lviv.

But Bandera was no Robin Hood. Various scientific works have recently dealt with his person. He led and shaped the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), and his followers were notorious for their anti-Semitism. The OUN fighters from western Ukraine fought at times alongside the Nazis and were responsible for ethnically motivated expulsions in 1943, in which tens of thousands of Polish civilians, including many Jews, were murdered. From 1941 until his release in 1944, Bandera himself was imprisoned in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin; Incidentally, the memorial does not comment on his person on its website. After World War II, Bandera fled to Germany and lived in Munich. There he was murdered in 1959 by an agent of the Soviet secret service KGB. Ukrainian nationalists still worship him to this day.

A Bandera picture at a nationalist parade in Kyiv in early 2021

Poland's Deputy Foreign Minister Marcin Przydacz called Melnyk's comments “completely unacceptable” on Friday. “We know exactly how Polish-Ukrainian relations were and what happened in 1943 and later in Volhynia and eastern Galicia,” he added, referring to the massacres committed by Ukrainian ultranationalists. However, Warsaw is “interested in the position of the Ukrainian government, not in that of individuals”.

Sharp criticism came from the Israeli side. Melnyk's statements are “a distortion of historical facts, a trivialization of the Holocaust and an insult to those who were murdered by Bandera and his people”. The Israeli embassy in Germany further stated: “You are also undermining the courageous struggle of the Ukrainian people to live according to democratic values ​​and in peace.”

“He was a central figure”

In Germany, representatives of science in particular were critical or dismayed. Munich-based Eastern Europe historian Franziska Davies called Melnyk's statements “hard to bear.” Davies verbatim: “To say 'Bandera was not a mass murderer' is quibbling of Melnyk. Bandera cannot be personally proven to have been involved in the mass murders, he was imprisoned by the Germans shortly after the start of the war. But he was a central figure of the OUN. How many Nazis have not personally murdered? They're still mass murderers.” A number of other scientists made similar statements with reference to more recent studies.

The pianist Igor Levit

The Jewish pianist Igor Levit accused the diplomat of playing “the ignorant” on Twitter. “What a denial of history. What a tampering with history. What hypocrisy. Shame on you.” The author Alice Bota called Melnyk's explanations “unacceptable” with reference to historical references. At the same time, the process escalated – as is often the case in social media – quite detached from the factual debate.

The debate is already fierce in view of the historical context with many thousands of murders and displacement. But it is exacerbated by the figure and appearance of Melnyk. The diplomat, who speaks almost perfect German, has been a committed critic of the German government in Berlin, and not just since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. When at the beginning of May he called Chancellor Olaf Scholz an “insulted liverwurst” because of his no to a trip to Kyiv at the time, it sparked widespread discussion. Now thoughtful voices like the historian Davies warn. “Criticizing the worship of Bandera and at the same time showing solidarity with Ukraine belongs together,” she wrote Melnyks. The deputy government spokeswoman Christiane Hoffmann retweeted Tilo Jung's official tweet about the interview early on with the prefix “Worth seeing!”. Such tweet recommendations from the spokesman team of the federal government are rare.

For seven years Kiev's man in Berlin: Andrij Melnyk

The Foreign Office, which is primarily responsible in the federal government for contact with ambassadors from all over the world, was more diplomatic. Spokesman Christian Wagner said they had the Statement noted. The government in Kyiv “made it clear that this is the ambassador's personal opinion and not an official position of Ukraine”.