MOSCOW (Jun. 29)
Ukraine has banned a Ukrainian Israeli business mogul from entering the former Soviet republic for five years for allegedly causing “considerable damage to Ukraine’s economy” through his business activities.
A Ukrainian native, 46-year-old Vadim Rabinovich is an Israeli citizen and one of the leaders of the 500,000-strong Jewish community of Ukraine.
The tycoon, who is currently in Israel, was quoted this week as saying that the June 24 statement by security officials was a “mistake” that he hoped would soon be rectified.
Most observers and some Jewish leaders in Ukraine are denying that anti- Semitism was behind the move. Instead, they believe that the decision was part of a power struggle taking place in Ukrainian political circles.
Indeed, one of Rabinovich’s most outspoken critics, Ya’akov Bleich, the chief rabbi of Kiev and Ukraine, said in an interview last April that were it not for Rabinovich’s status as a Jewish leader, he would have already been deported from Ukraine.
But Rabinovich hinted at anti-Semitism as a possible motive for the action.
The officials’ statement, which has alarmed many Ukrainian Jews, referred to a similar decision made by security officials last December, banning the entry of Leonid Vulf, a Ukrainian Israeli who is an alleged leader of a gang suspected of contract killings in Ukraine.
“Nobody knows who this Leonid Vulf is,” says Iosif Zissels, one of the leaders of the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine, who has previously criticized Rabinovich. “But such a reference, which was obviously used to justify the move against Rabinovich, creates an impression that Ukrainian Israelis have shaped a Mafia plot to undermine Ukraine’s security.”
Rabinovich is the founder and president of the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress, a Jewish umbrella group. His assets are estimated at $1 billion, making him one of the wealthiest men in the former Soviet republic.
His fortune and political skills led him to become a member of Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma’s inner circle.
But this year Rabinovich has seen his influence wane — both in Ukraine’s political arena and among the country’s Jewish community.
As Ukrainian presidential elections slated for October near, Rabinovich’s business rivals and political foes have succeeded in driving the tycoon out of the entourage of Kuchma, who is seeking re-election.
Meanwhile, Jewish critics of Rabinovich broke away from the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress to set up a new umbrella organization, the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine. In response, Rabinovich created a new group, the United Jewish Community.
Rabinovich, a Ukrainian native who had given up his citizenship for an Israeli passport, took no part in Jewish life until 1997, when he surprised many longtime activists by founding the congress. The group, which sought to unite Ukrainian Jews, raised its money from the emerging Jewish business community.
But two years later, Rabinovich, whose empire includes holdings in finance, trade and the mass media, found himself under fire from critics who charged that the congress was not responding to the needs of the many impoverished Jews in this aging community.
The tycoon’s goal, these critics said, was to win international and domestic recognition for himself as the pre-eminent Jewish leader of Ukraine in a bid to gain more influence with Kuchma.
Rabinovich, in turn, charged that other Jewish leaders failed to cooperate in meeting the community’s needs.
But longtime Jewish leaders parted company with Rabinovich for another reason – – the tycoon’s increasingly tarnished reputation.
For years, Rabinovich has been dogged by rumors about alleged connections to shady businesses, including some involving arms and nuclear materials trade with countries such as Iran and North Korea.
Rabinovich says he has never been involved in illegal business dealings, but the allegations prompted the United States to revoke his visa a few years ago. And he reportedly has been denied visas to Britain and Austria in the past few years for the same reason.
In fact, Rabinovich’s entrepreneurial streak has long been getting him into trouble.
In the late 1970s, he was sentenced to 14 years in prison for “illegal entrepreneurial activities.” He spent 10 years in a penal colony and a KGB psychiatric hospital before he was released by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
Lately he has divided his time between Kiev and Netanya, Israel, where his family now lives.
Few observers believe that Rabinovich will let matters stand. If he is not allowed to return to Ukraine, these experts say, he is likely to use compromising material on some of Kiev’s leading politicians in order to continue playing a role in Ukrainian politics.