KIEV, Ukraine (Sep. 23)
The choice for Ukrainian Jews in elections slated for next month basically boils down to two men. On one hand is Prime Minister Victor Yanukovych, a protege of the authoritarian and reputedly venal incumbent president, Leonid Kuchma.
Yanukovych, 54, the former governor of the eastern Ukrainian industrial region of Donetsk, is widely reported to be a member in good standing of a mafia-like “clan” of apparatchiks and businessmen that owns and operates everything that isn’t tied down in that region.
Yanukovych echoes Kuchma’s line of favoring closer ties with Russia than the United States and, if elected president, is believed likely to appoint Kuchma as prime minister; thereby leaving operational control of the country in Kuchma’s hands.
Yanukovych’s principal rival in the Oct. 31 election is a charismatic former prime minister named Victor Yuschenko, who advocates greater privatization of the nation’s economy and transparency in business practices to prevent corruption.
Yuschenko calls for an end to government censorship of the media and respect for human rights, and advocates a foreign policy that focuses on decisively grounding Ukraine in the West by joining NATO and the European Union.
Given that rather stark choice and the inclination of most of the estimated 500,000 Jews in this strategically important country of 48 million to favor democracy and westernization, one might expect a decisive majority of them to lean toward Yuschenko.
Yet in a series of interviews conducted during the month of July, JTA found a preponderance of Jews either favoring Yanukovych or declaring a “pox upon both your houses” kind of neutrality on the two main candidates.
Mikhail Gurvitz, chairman of the Reform movement in the central Ukrainian city of Zhitomor, remarked, “I am for Yanukovych, who is a centrist. Yes, there have been undemocratic things done during Kuchma’s reign, but much of the opposition isn’t democratic either. What they really stand for is Ukrainian nationalism and anti-Semitism.”
Tatyana Levy, a 20-year-old student from Odessa interviewed in the Crimean resort town of Alushta, remarked, “In recent months there has been a noticeable resurgence of anti-Semitism in the media and in the streets. I like Yuschenko personally, but am fearful that if the opposition wins, anti-Semitism may come back with a vengeance.”
The preference for Yanukovych by many Jews appears to be due to the fact that Jewish organizational life grew exponentially during the 10-year reign of Kuchma.
In addition, anti-Semitism, a staple of Ukrainian life since the 17th century, largely went into hiatus — at least until the past 12 months.
Kuchma developed close business and personal relationships with such Jewish business “oligarchs” as Vadim Rabinovich, Grigori Surkis, who owns Kiev Dynamo, the country’s most successful soccer team, and Viktor Pinchuk, an industrialist and media magnate who several years ago married Kuchma’s daughter, Olena.
There is a widespread expectation among political observers that if Yuschenko is elected, he may put Kuchma on trial for multiple forms of corruption, and might launch legal action against some pro-Kuchma oligarchs as well.
Ukranian Jews express fear of unnamed shadowy figures in the opposition coalition backing Yuschenko who were said to be ultranationalists and anti-Semites.
Last January, Yuschenko sought to demonstrate to the Jewish community that he is clean of bigotry; he called on a leading newspaper, Silski Visti, or Village News, a 500,000-circulation newspaper serving the nation’s rural population, to apologize for an article asserting that 400,000 Jews served in the S.S. during the Nazi invasion of Ukraine in 1941.
Yet prior to requesting the apology, Yuschenko was among several top opposition politicians who signed a statement expressing staunch opposition to a threat by the government to close Silski Visti for inciting anti-Semitism.
Beyond their take on Yuschenko, Jews here continue to fear that the opposition coalition — an unlikely amalgam of pro-capitalist and pro-socialist parties brought together by their common detestation of Kuchma — strongly leans toward a brand of Ukrainian nationalism and anti-Semitism suffused with anger at Jewish oligarchs.
The oligarchs are portrayed as having illegally acquired many of the nation’s natural resources on behalf of world Zionism in publications like Silski Visti and Personnel, which is published by the Interregional Academy of Personnel Management, a university-like institution with 35,000 students that has become a center for anti-Semitic expression over the past year.
At the end of July, Yuschenko sought to address the perception of the opposition coalition as being suffused with anti-Semitism by publicly expelling a prominent member of his Our Ukraine Party, Oleg Tiagnybok, for publicly expressing anti-Semitic views.
Yuschenko told JTA: “We will not allow anyone to” make remarks negatively “impacting the national feelings of any national group.”
Officially, most Jewish leaders and organizations are neutral in the leadership contest between Yuschenko and Yanukovych.
Nevertheless, there is little doubt that some, like Rabinovich, president of the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress and United Jewish Community of Ukraine, and Pinchuk, both of whom have substantial holdings in the Ukrainian print and electronic media, are solidly in the Yanukovych camp.
Alexander Feldman, president of the Jewish Fund of Ukraine and a member of Parliament, last month endorsed Yanukovych in his role as president of the Association of National-Cultural Societies of Ukraine, an influential organization representing many of the country’s minority communities.
Other top Jewish leaders, like Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich of the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine and Ilya Levitas of the Jewish Council of Ukraine, while officially neutral, have strong personal ties with Kuchma and key members of his government.
The vast majority of the approximately 25 Jewish members of the Ukrainian Parliament are solidly pro-government; the principal exception is Evhen Chervonenko, a former racing-car champion who is Yuschenko’s closest Jewish adviser.
The only community leader of note who appears sympathetic to the opposition is Yosef Zissels, a Jewish movement and human rights activist during the Soviet era, and presently president of the Va’ad of Ukraine.
Chervonenko, 44, a flamboyant character who owns a variety of businesses, including two large bottling plants, supermarkets and a pharmaceutical firm, believes that the tendency of prominent Jews to support Kuchma’s designated successor, Yanukovych, is not due to genuine affection for either man.
Many Jewish leaders are businessmen and the government can squeeze them, especially through the tax police and denial of credit, Chervonenko told JTA.
Chervonenko estimates that due to the machinations of the government against him in the three years since he joined the opposition, his businesses have lost in the neighborhood of $10 million.
Chervonenko accuses the Kuchma regime of “playing the anti-Semitic card” during the election campaign by surreptitiously encouraging anti-Semitic journals with links to the opposition to publish anti-Semitic material that the regime can then self-righteously denounce.
Yet he acknowledges there are genuine anti-Semites in the opposition coalition, noting that some months ago he accosted one of them, Vassily Chervoni, in a washroom in the Parliament building.
Chervonenko said with a grin, “I put his head in the sink and told him, ‘One more bad word about Israel and I’ll really mess you up.’ “
For his part, Zissels suggested it is inevitable that some Jewish “oligarchs” with close ties to Kuchma will suffer adverse economic and personal consequences if the President is driven from power as a result of an electoral defeat by his protege, Yanukovych.
“I believe Yuschenko would be better for the Ukrainian nation as a whole than Yanukovych, although perhaps a bit worse for the Jewish community,” Zissels said. “Still, the difference for the Jews would be relatively insignificant, and if Yuschenko can bring Ukraine closer to democracy and Europe, I am ready for it to be a bit more complicated” for some Jews.
Edward Dolinsky, executive director of the United Jewish Community of Ukraine, the body founded by Rabinovich last April, is decidedly less ready than Zissels for such complications.
“Our greatest fear is that an opposition victory would bring in those who inflict ethnic hatred,” Dolinsky said, stating that Yuschenko is “a decent man, but we are afraid about the people around him.”
Semyon Belmon chairman of the Jewish community of the Chernigov region northeast of Kiev, argued: “Jews should support the power of the country in which they live, as long as it’s not fascist. All who shout that the power is corrupt and must be changed are just saying that so they can get into power themselves and do the same thing, or worse.”