Around the Jewish World: Ukraine’s Jews Back President, Some Nervous About Nationalism

Ukraine’s Jewish voters have overwhelmingly supported President Leonid Kuchma’s bid to expand his control over Parliament, according to local Jewish officials.

But Jewish leaders are split over their backing for Kuchma, with the religious community apparently more behind the president’s efforts.

Jewish activists, meanwhile, appear to be more worried about economic issues and the government’s reaction to anti-Semitic incidents.

Kuchma won more than 80 percent of the overall vote in Sunday’s referendum, according to the nation’s Central Election Commission.

“I think the referendum will improve the work of the parliament and enhance the real democratic process in Ukraine, which is very important to the Jewish Diaspora here,” said Ya’akov Bleich, Ukraine’s chief rabbi.

Yosef Zissels, a secular leader of Ukraine’s roughly half-million Jews, was less enthusiastic.

“The referendum will not bring any drastic changes,” he said. “More important to the Jewish community is that Kuchma’s newly formed government is more nationalistic and Ukrainian-state-minded, which inevitably will bring negative changes in its relations with the Diaspora minorities, including Jews.”

It is unclear whether the questions approved in the referendum — which included a provision allowing Kuchma to disband the Parliament under certain conditions — would become law, since Parliament must approve each of the questions as a constitutional amendment.

The referendum came after a long struggle between Kuchma and the Parliament that has paralyzed the country.

Kuchma says he needs the new laws to pass needed market reforms, while his critics say he is attempting to create an authoritarian regime.

“Though people here dislike the present Parliament, said Shimon Shmulevitch, a Hebrew instructor at Kiev’s Jewish University, “what really gets to them is not the high politics, but the inflation, the rising prices, the unemployment, miserable wages and pensions, and the endless economic recession.”

Added Arkady Monastirsky, director of Kiev’s Jewish community center: “The government stays loyal to Jews, but we are worried by the number of fascist and anti-Semitic editions and outbursts which are not properly dealt with by the state.”

Opposition parties and European groups are criticizing Kuchma’s attempt to gain control over Parliament.

The Council of Europe has threatened to suspend Ukraine’s membership in the human rights organization if he uses non-constitutional methods to implement the referendum’s results.

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