Across the Former Soviet Union at Conference of Ukrainian Jews, Politician Courts the Jewish Vote

Viktor Yuschenko, the front-runner in Ukraine’s upcoming presidential elections, made no attempt to hide his motive for attending the founding congress of a Ukrainian Jewish group. "I am sure that contacts with the Jewish community of Ukraine will help me win the presidential elections this year," Yuschenko, leader of the parliamentary faction called Our Ukraine, told JTA.

Yuschenko promised last month’s conference of the United Jewish Community of Ukraine, held in Kiev, that if elected he will fight anti-Semitism.

The conference, attended by nearly 2,000 delegates and several Ukrainian politicians, made one thing clear: Ukraine’s elections, scheduled for Oct. 31, will have a bearing on Ukrainian Jewish affairs.

According to recent opinion polls, Yuschenko, a moderate liberal, has the best chances of winning. His main competitor is the current prime minister, Victor Yanukovich.

Yanukovich has close ties to the incumbe! nt president, Leonid Kuchma, who is completing his second five-year term and will not run for re-election.

Kuchma, who has maintained friendly ties with Ukraine’s Jews — his only daughter is married to a leading Jewish banker — is a supporter of Vadim Rabinovich, who organized the May 18-19 congress.

Kuchma and Yanukovich both sent greetings to the conference.

Some observers believe that Rabinovich, a Ukrainian-Israeli business magnate and president of the umbrella group the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress, convened the conference in order to secure his own political future.

One attendee suggested that when Kuchma retires, Rabinovich and some other prominent Jewish business leaders would suffer, implying that Rabinovich could suffer a fate similar to several Russian Jewish tycoons who have been charged with crimes once they fell out of political favor.

But other Jews said the main concern for the Jewish community this election cycle is the uncertainty of a ! new president. Most believe that Ukraine’s Jews, estimated at between 250,000 and 500,000 persons, have no reason to fear Kuchma’s successor.

"Ukrainian Jews are not worried because both Yuschenko and Yanukovich have a positive attitude toward Ukrainian Jewry," said Alexander Nayman, a community activist.

Leonid Derman, another Jewish activist from Kiev, said, "I think there will be no major changes for the community after the presidential elections."

Nevertheless, some Jewish leaders are concerned that Yuschenko’s political bloc, Our Ukraine, includes a number of politicians with a history of anti-Semitic remarks.

While backroom talk about the general political situation was prevalent at the conference, the sessions themselves focused on ways to consolidate the Jewish community and ensure its progress. Among the topics discussed at the conference were the current state of anti-Semitism in Ukraine, issues of Jewish self-identification and the situation in Israel.

"Today we have a real congress of all Jews of Ukraine and it wo! uld be hard to imagine a more legitimate congress of Jews of Ukraine than this one," Rabinovich said at the May 18 opening.

A Jewish lawmaker and community leader agreed with him.

"This congress is a step toward overcoming the split which has appeared in the Jewish community of Ukraine in recent years," said Alexander Feldman, a member of Parliament and president of the Jewish Foundation of Ukraine.

Despite these statements, the conference failed to attract leaders of some key Jewish organizations working in Ukraine — evidence of ongoing tension between Ukrainian Jewish groups.

Two of the community’s umbrella groups, the Jewish Council and the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine, withdrew from the event’s organizing committee two months before the conference.

Likewise, no leaders of the Ukrainian Va’ad, another umbrella group, and Chabad-Lubavitch, whose rabbis hold leadership positions in virtually every local community, were in attendance.

That puzzled ! some delegates who said it was hard to understand how the Jewish commu nity would benefit from a conference that excluded some of the country’s major Jewish players and instead appeared aimed merely to boost the political capital of its organizer, Rabinovich.

"This is a congress for Rabinovich. It is being used to enhance his political influence," said Alexandra Mestetzkaya, a participant from Lvov, a city in western Ukraine.

In any case, the conference’s attendees elected Rabinovich the leader of the new Unified Jewish Community of Ukraine.

But dissent was still in the air.

Michail Litvak, a delegate from Kiev, said the conference simply was a forum to lavish praise on Rabinovich.

When contacted by JTA, Rabinovich refused to comment on the accusations.

Some Jewish officials who did not attend the conference said they are planning to convene their own forum this summer. These officials believe the much-discussed consolidation of Jewish leaders in Ukraine is still far off.

"The time for the merger of different Jewish or! ganizations under the same roof has not come yet," said Yakov Dov Bleich, the chief rabbi of Kiev and Ukraine.

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