Across the Former Soviet Union in Election, Some Ukrainian Jews Prefer to Select None of the Above

Gilariy Lapitzky looked bewildered when he got a ballot sheet with the names of 24 contenders who wanted to become Ukraine’s president. “I’m satisfied neither with the number nor with the quality of the candidates,” the 72-year-old retired Jewish engineer from Kiev said Sunday, echoing a feeling of disillusionment that has become widespread among voters in this former Soviet republic. “So I voted against all” candidates, he said.

None of the candidates received a majority in the Oct. 31 ballot, sending the race into a runoff slated for Nov. 21.

The main battle took place between two candidates — Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, who received 40 percent, and the opposition leader Viktor Yuschenko, who got 39 percent of the vote in this nation of 48 million people.

International observers, representing the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Council of Europe, the European Union and NATO, said the campaign was marked by multiple irregularities.

These groups blamed the administration of incumbent President Leonid Kuchma — which backed Yanukovich — for the problems, citing overwhelming bias in state-controlled media, the blurring of state and campaign resources on Yanukovich’s behalf, and evidence of official interference in his opponents’ campaigns.

For many of Ukraine’s 500,000 Jews, the election posed a difficult choice: between a Western-oriented liberal, Yuschenko, who had at times allied himself with people not shy of expressing anti-Semitic views; and Yanukovich, who favors an authoritarian leadership style but promises stability based on his role in the previous regime.

Jews were among the supporters and activists in both campaigns.

“I am for continuity of the policy of President Kuchma and stability in our country,” said lawmaker Aleksandr Feldman, a businessman and president of the Jewish Foundation of Ukraine, who worked for Yanukovich’s campaign.

But a prominent Jewish leader said his sympathy for Yuschenko was dictated by his experience as a dissident and political prisoner during the Soviet Union.

“The years I spent in prison do not allow me to act differently,” Josef Zissels said.

“Yuschenko is not ideal. He has ill-matched company but it is changing, getting rid of the odious figures” in his entourage, said Zissels, chairman of the Va’ad, the oldest Jewish community group in Ukraine.

In 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.

Before requesting the apology, however, 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.

Some of the Jews who voted Sunday were afraid of talking openly about their choice even after they cast their vote.

“There is a fear deep under my skin because I was brought up and lived under the Soviet regime. Jews still don’t speak openly because they are afraid of repression,” said Rudolf Mirsky, a Holocaust researcher from Lvov in western Ukraine.

Though many Ukrainian Jews seem from interviews to have divided their support between the leading candidates, there were some Jews who voted against all candidates, an option allowed under Ukrainian election law.

“I can’t vote for Yanukovich. Today I voted for Yuschenko, because he is the one who suffered the most in this campaign from the authorities,” said Semyon Gluzman, a political prisoner in the Soviet era who currently heads the Ukrainian Bureau for Protection of Human Rights. “In the runoff I will vote against all. We don’t have a real opposition in Ukraine.”

Some elderly Jews who were impoverished by the economic upheaval that swept post-Communist Ukraine supported the Communist candidate.

Musiy Shimonovsky, a pensioner in Kiev, voted for Petro Simonenko, the Communist leader, whom he called a “true internationalist” and someone who “cares about the elderly people.”

Simonenko came in fourth with only 5 percent of the vote, The New York Times reported.

Some observers now predict that Jews are likely to support Yanukovich in the runoff, mainly due to the fact that the Jewish community has enjoyed stability and felt generally safe during the reign of Kuchma, Yanukovich’s patron.

“Probably most Jews will vote for Yanukovich because he supports stability in society,” said Rabbi Yakov Dov Bleich, one of two Ukraine’s two chief rabbis.

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