The Ukrainian parliament has declared the former Communist regime to be criminal, and honored all those who fought for independence. Critics, however, see a further threat to the country's unity.
After the transition of power in Kyiv in February 2014, the new majority in parliament quashed a controversial language law, which, among other things, permitted Russian to be spoken at government offices. It was like pouring oil on a fire.
Pro-Russian separatists used the law as an argument against the government in Kyiv, and the division into pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian camps became even more entrenched. It's feared that the three new laws passed by the Ukrainian parliament on Thursday could have a similar effect.
Hammer and sickle condemned
One of the laws has condemned "the Communist totalitarian regime" that ruled Ukraine between 1917 and 1991. Communist symbols such as the hammer and sickle, as well as all forms of "Communist propaganda," are now banned.
In a second law, all people and organizations who fought, either politically or with weapons, for an independent Ukraine in the 20th century, have now been officially recognized. That also goes for Ukrainian nationalists who fought against the Soviet Union during World War II, some of whom also collaborated with Nazi Germany. Any such fighters still alive today could soon qualify for state financial assistance and other benefits.
Finally, a third law officially marks May 8 as a day of remembrance and reconciliation to commemorate the victims of World War II, more closely aligning Ukraine with the Western tradition of remembrance. The following day, May 9, will still remain a national holiday commemorating the victory over Nazi Germany.
Threat of a growing split
It didn't take long for criticism of the new laws to begin pouring in, especially from pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. Alexander Zakharchenko, the head of the unrecognized "Donetsk People's Republic," has called it a farce. The Ukrainian government has "set an irreversible process in motion which could lead to the complete collapse of the country," a local news agency reported him as saying.
The Opposition Bloc in the Ukrainian parliament, whose voters mainly come from the eastern and southern parts of the country, also warned against a "split in Ukrainian society." Russian politicians disparaged the decision to equate Communist symbols with those used by the Nazis.
But Ukrainian right-wing populists have applauded the new laws. "Bravo," wrote Iryna Farion of the Freedom Party (no longer represented as a faction in parliament) on her blog. She said she was happy to see Ukraine distancing itself from its Communist past.
Kyiv-based journalist Serhiy Rudenko also welcomed the new laws. "What happened in Ukraine on April 9, 2015 should have happened in 1991," Rudenko told DW. He said that over the past two decades, the Communist Party lead the country back to Soviet times and closer to Russia.
Given the latest events in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, he said it would be absurd to continue to tolerate its influence. Rudenko added that he approved of measures to rename the many "Lenin Streets" across the country, as well as cities named for Soviet-era Communists.
Critics, however, have pointed to the fact that there was no public debate on this sensitive issue. Anton Shekhovtsov, an expert on right-wing extremism, described the new laws as "populist and senseless." He cited surveys showing that the commemoration of Ukrainian nationalists during the World War II era would divide the country in two.
In 2013, 52 percent of Ukrainians polled said they opposed recognizing Ukrainian nationalists as freedom fighters. Less than a third of respondents were in favor. The gap could be narrower today, but the fault line would continue to divide the east and the west.
Example set by Latvia and Lithuania
Ukraine appears to be following in the path of the Baltic states of Latvia and Lithuania, both former Soviet republics and current members of the European Union and NATO. Both countries introduced similar bans on Soviet symbols.
In 2010, the former pro-Western Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko paid tribute to the leaders of the Ukrainian nationalists from the World War II era, describing Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych as heroes. However, his successor - pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych - rescinded the honor.