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Behind the Headlines: Jews Adopt Wait-and-see Approach in Wake of Ukraine, Belarus Elections

As the newly elected presidents of the Ukraine and Belarus switch from the hyperbole of the campaign trail to the harsh realities of elected office, Jewish community leaders are expressing a wait-and-see attitude toward their new government chiefs.

The leaders are hoping for a continuation of the recent trend toward open and friendly relations between the government and the Jewish communities in both countries.

However, since Jewish topics did not play a role in either campaign, they say the new presidents’ actions will have to be closely scrutinized.

Ukraine’s new president, Leonid Kuchma, a former director of the world’s largest nuclear-missile factory, was inaugurated Tuesday.

Alexander Lukashenko, a fiery populist with little political track record, was sworn in Thursday as the president of Belarus.

In Ukraine, Chief Rabbi Ya’akov Bleich said that under the leadership of the newly independent state’s first president, Leonid Kravchuk, official anti-Semitism virtually disappeared.

After decades of repression during the Soviet era, Ukrainian Jews are now free to become involved in religious or cultural life or to emigrate to Israel.

In Ukraine, the Jewish community of about half a million is currently home to more than 50 Jewish congregations and nearly 20 Jewish schools.

“Kravchuk had a very positive relationship with the Jews, and we hope this will continue with Kuchma,” Bleich said.

He noted that one member of Kuchma’s campaign staff visited him a day after the July 10 election to hear about Jewish concerns and to invite him to join the Humanitarian Alliance, a non-governmental organization that will be advising the new president on health, education, welfare and religious policy.

“The only thing that rings some bells is that Kuchma said he would like to restructure some of the structures that deal with religion,” said Bleich.

“We’ll have to see how this will affect the Jews. He’s said he wants to change the freedom-of-religion law to make it more democratic,” he said, but added: “The road to hell can be paved with good intentions.”

Bleich said the Jewish community has been invited to send a representative to the commission revising the laws on religion.

Experts here said that the general issues propelling the Ukrainian presidential campaign –the failing economy and relations with Russia –could have an impact on the Jewish community.

Kuchma’s moderate, pro-market approach is helpful for the Jewish community, they said, as are renewed connections with Russia, which Kuchma has supported. Many Ukrainian Jews speak Russian and not Ukrainian.

“None of the candidates running in the elections spoke about Jews and Jewish problems, but we think Kuchma will implement tolerant policies,” said Leonid Feinberg, director of a social science research center run by the Ukraine’s Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities.

The situation in Belarus is less clear — and potentially less rosy for the small Jewish community of about 150,000.

‘THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT’

The newly independent state of 10 million has been labeled “the land that time forgot” because much of life remains as it was during the period of Soviet domination. Economic reforms are proceeding slowly, and a Lenin statue still stands in the capital’s central square.

Meanwhile, Belarus is in the midst of a huge economic crisis as inflation gallops along at about 50 percent a month.

Economic woes are frequently cited as the reason that Lukashenko, 39, won more than 80 percent of the July 10 vote, beating Conservative Prime Minister Vyacheslav Kebich, 59, to become the first elected president of Belarus.

A former collective farm boss who came into the spotlight with an anti-corruption campaign, Lukashenko has promised to halt the republic’s fledgling privatization program.

Lukashenko has been compared to Russian ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky because of his populist style and his promises of resolute action against his enemies. But Jewish leaders say that so far the comparison is unfair.

“He is a populist, but of no specific color; an unknown personality who rode the wave of discontent to get into power,” said Binyamin Meltzer, the vice president of the Association of Jewish Communities in Belarus.

“By no means can he be called a Zhirinovsky,” added Yitzchok Wolpin, the chief rabbi of Belarus. “But his positions are very unclear. He’s been making statements left and right. We really don’t know who we’re dealing with.”

Wolpin said that under Kebich’s rule, the Jewish community has been able to begin rebuilding after suffering near-devastation during Soviet times. There are now 14 congregation in Belarus, all but two of them established in the last few years.

Wolpin said he had a very good relationship with the prime minister and several ministers in the Cabinet, but that so far, he has not been sought out by the president-elect’s staff.

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