KHARKOV, Ukraine (Dec. 20)
Rabbi Moshe Moskowitz sees firsthand the political divisions of Jews in Eastern Ukraine in the run-up to the country’s new presidential vote. “We have no monolithic opinion in our community,” said Moskowitz, a U.S.-born Chabad rabbi who is chief rabbi of the city of Kharkov. People who disagree about who should be president, he noted, often can be found sitting “on the same bench in our shul.”
As Ukraine prepares to end its protracted presidential campaign with a revote Sunday, Jews, like other voters in this former Soviet republic, continue to be divided between Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, whose victory in last month’s election was declared invalid because of fraud, and the opposition candidate, Viktor Yuschenko.
The division was visible last Friday when the two candidates’ campaign routes intersected in Kharkov, the second largest city in Ukraine, a country of 48 million people.
In the capital of Kiev or in cities in Western Ukraine, Yuschenko is more popular, but Yanukovich drew much larger crowds in Kharkov. Yuschenko spoke to a smaller audience and spent the day meeting with the business and intellectual communities.
Yanukovich won a significantly larger share of the vote in last month’s balloting in Kharkov and across Eastern Ukraine, while Kiev and the Western part of the country overwhelmingly supported Yuschenko.
There are an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 Ukrainian Jews. Members of the community split their support in last month’s vote, and are likely to do so again Sunday.
Many observers here say ethnicity and faith have little effect on the way people vote — unlike education, age, social status or the level of attachment to Russian culture and language, which are seen as decisive factors.
Many of those who value stability — as represented by Yanukovich — are older voters and those whose financial security lies in the hands of the state, such as pensioners and government workers.
“Our clients are clearly afraid of any changes,” said an employee of the local Hesed charity center, part of a network that provides services to thousands of elderly and needy Jews across the former Soviet Union.
But the prospect of change is precisely what attracts many younger Jews to the challenger and his pro-democracy platform.
“Many young Jews want to change their life here for the better; that is why many of us support Yuschenko,” said Kira Karlina, a college student who celebrated Shabbat last week with a group at the local Beit Dan Jewish community center.
In what is generally seen as a maturation of Ukrainian society, Jewish life is likely to remain unharmed no matter which candidate wins Sunday, Jewish leaders say.
In another sign of that maturation, at least one candidate appears to be courting the Jewish vote.
Last week the mayor of Kharkov, Vladimir Shumilkin — an outspoken Yuschenko supporter — visited Moskowitz’s synagogue to light Chanukah candles. Yuschenko lit Chanukah candles in Kiev.
Despite the efforts of Yuschenko and his supporters, Jews in Eastern Ukraine are likely to support Yanukovich because of their desire for stability.
“I believe that with Yanukovich, Jewish life in Ukraine will be stable. And I’m not sure what to expect from Yuschenko’s presidency,” said Naum Volpe, executive director of the Kharkov United Jewish Community.
Yanukovich backers emphasize their fear of the Ukrainian nationalism associated with Yuschenko and their affiliation with the Russian culture and language that Yanukovich seems to represent.
“My parents and I vote for Yanukovich because he promised dual citizenship,” said Altona Marazudina, a student visiting the local Hillel center. She was referring to Yanukovich’s idea to introduce dual-citizen status for those who share Ukrainian and Russian nationalities.
Supporters of Yuschenko, who is leading in nationwide polls a week before the election, cite their desire to make Ukraine an open, corruption-free, Western-style democracy, something the country has not achieved in its 13 years of post-Communist independence.
“I believe in democracy,” said Aleksandr Stanislavsky, who owns a chain of restaurants in Kharkov. “To me, this means choosing Yuschenko.”
The events of the “Orange Revolution,” as the popular movement in support of Yuschenko has been dubbed, hasve led many Ukrainian Jews to rethink their attachment to the country they live in, another local Jew said.
“These events gave a rise to civil thinking in Ukrainians, including Jews,” financier Yevgeniy Chernyak said. “As a Ukrainian Jew, I understand today better that I have my motherland here, and it is very important that people, poor and rich alike, stood up to defend their right to choose.”
While the meetings and rallies the two presidential candidates held in Kharkov last week stimulated Jews to discuss the issues, most of those who spoke to JTA appeared to be fed up with the campaign.
“People don’t have much trust left” in any of the leaders, Rabbi Moskowitz said. “They are simply tired.”