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New Stalin Statue Fuels Tension in Ukraine

World War II veterans unveiling a monument of Josef Stalin in the Ukrainian city of Zaporizhye, 500 kilometers southeast of Kiev, on May 5. Gleb Garanich

ZAPORIZHYA, Ukraine — Ukrainian Communists have unveiled the first monument in Ukraine's modern history to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, fueling tension between the country's pro-Russian east and nationalist west.

World War II veterans wearing medals and waving red flags sang patriotic songs as the 2 1/2-meter monument, showing Stalin from the waist up on a granite block, was unveiled this week near the regional Communist Party office in the mainly Russian-speaking city of Zaporizhya in eastern Ukraine.

Stalin is a symbol of Russian oppression, particularly in the Ukrainian-speaking west and center of the country because of his role in a 1933 famine that killed millions of Ukrainians — including in Zaporizhya.

But he is feted by some older people in the mainly Russian-speaking east and south as the heroic leader of Soviet forces in World War II. The 65th anniversary of that victory will be celebrated Sunday.

The statue, the first public monument to Stalin to be unveiled in decades, was cast at the initiative of local Communists, financed by donations from war veterans and set up on private land.

Its creation has gained added resonance since the election in February of President Viktor Yanukovych, who last month gave in to a key Russian demand by extending the lease on a Russian naval base until 2042.

The unveiling of the statue is likely to deepen the east-west divide in Ukrainian politics, said Volodymyr Fesenko, an analyst with the Penta think tank.

"We have immortalized a figure linked with many tragic pages of Ukrainian history," he said. "It's a reason for further political confrontation."

Ukraine's new leaders have tried to distance themselves from the erection of the statue of Stalin, who remains a highly divisive figure even among Ukraine's Russian speakers.

"We should not establish monuments for tyrants," said Justice Minister Oleksander Lavrynovich. "We must know about them and know about them very well. We have to learn from the lessons of history to avoid its repetition."

Former President Viktor Yushchenko sparked the ire of east Ukrainians earlier this year by posthumously declaring wartime nationalist leader Stepan Bandera a hero of Ukraine.

The decree has been declared illegal by a court in the east, but Yanukovych has not yet taken steps to undo it.

Fesenko said the Stalin statue could spark a new "war of monuments."

"As an answer to the Stalin monument, new monuments to Bandera could appear in western Ukraine," he said.

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