Kyiv Post | 26Jan2010 | Reuters

Russia blasts Ukraine leader for 'odious' award to nationalist

MOSCOW, Jan 26, 2010 (Reuters) - Russia lashed out at Ukraine's outgoing president on Jan. 26, 2010 for bestowing national hero status on a wartime leader who is vilified in Moscow.

The criticism of Victor Yushchenko's decree pronouncing late nationalist leader Stepan Bandera a Hero of Ukraine underscored Russia's distaste for the pro-Western president, who pushed his nation toward NATO and sought to shed Moscow's influence.

It also evoked deep-seated tensions between the neighbours that may outlast Yushchenko's departure after a Feb. 7, 2010 runoff between Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych.

Both are seen as more friendly to Russia than Yushchenko, pushed to power in the 2004 Orange Revolution but out of the running for a second term after winning less than 6 percent in the Jan. 17, 2010 presidential election.

But prickly issues ranging from natural gas contracts to national identity could still cause problems in the complex relationship between Moscow and Kyiv. Yushchenko's decree Friday was "an event of such an odious nature that it could not fail to produce an unambiguously negative reaction," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Bandera led Ukrainian nationalist forces that fought against Nazi invaders and Soviet troops in World War Two. He continued to resist Soviet rule well into the 1950s, and was assassinated by a KGB agent in 1959.

Bandera is regarded as a hero by many in western Ukraine, where wariness toward Moscow is strong and where Yushchenko drew much of his support, but he is viewed with suspicion in the Russian-speaking east.

He is widely hated in Russia, where the Soviet victory in the war is an unparalleled source of pride.

The row over Yushchenko's decree came a day after Russia's new ambassador to Ukraine took up a post that had been empty for months.

The Kremlin named former Health Minister Mikhail Zurabov as its new envoy last summer but had refrained from sending him to Kyiv until this week in a pointed statement of its refusal to deal with Yushchenko.

The winner of the presidential runoff is to be inaugurated within 30 days of the official publication of the results.

The Kremlin has made it clear it expects relations to improve no matter who wins.

Moscow has refrained from backing either candidate after Vladimir Putin, then president and now prime minister, openly supported Yanukovich in the campaign that prompted the Orange Revolution street protests.

Yanukovych's power base is the Russian-speaking east, and his Party of Regions has ties to Putin's United Russia party, but he is also connected with Ukrainian tycoons who are wary of too much Russian influence over the country's economy.

Tymoshenko was a heroine of the Orange Revolution and has support in western Ukraine.

She has worked closely with Putin, hammering out deals to avert a repeat of a cutoff of Russian gas supplies to transit nation Ukraine that drastically reduced supplies to European countries in January 2009.

There are already signs that the gas trade could test the strength of ties with Russia under a new president.

Ukranian businessman Sergei Tigipko, whose support could tip the scales in favour of either candidate, said on Monday that an agreement with Russia outlining the volumes and process of Ukraine's gas imports should be reviewed.

Such a move would anger Russia and could trigger another round of argument between the two nations, potentially putting at risk the security of European gas supplies.