KIEV (Sep. 15)
Orange is out of fashion in Ukraine these days. “My business has virtually come to an end,” laments Larisa, a middle-aged woman selling orange baseball hats, button pins and scarves with President Viktor Yuschenko’s name on Kiev’s central street who gave only her first name. “No one wants to buy this stuff anymore, even foreigners.”
The Orange Revolution — which took its name from the color of Yuschenko’s party and swept him to power in Ukraine in January — was welcomed by millions of Ukrainians, including Jews, as putting an end to the widespread corruption associated with the country’s former president, Leonid Kuchma.
Recently, corruption accusations by some of Yuschenko’s closest aides led to the ouster of several top officials and ultimately forced the beleaguered president to fire his entire Cabinet.
According to Ukrainian law, the president has three months to form a new government, though observers agree he is likely to complete shaping his new Cabinet much sooner.
“What is happening in Ukraine is quite messy, and such messiness is quite normal in young democratic societies,” John Hrebst, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, told a group of Jewish leaders from Eastern and Central European countries and Australia who were attending a session of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress General Council in Kiev earlier this month.
Do Ukrainian Jews feel safe at this time of uncertainty and crisis?
The short answer is yes.
But many members of Ukraine’s Jewish community, which some estimate at 500,000, say they are confused about the current crisis, as are many non-Jews in this former Soviet republic of 48 million.
Yuschenko’s rise to power was fueled by promises to eradicate corruption and introduce liberal economic reforms to ensure the well-being of Ukrainians.
Instead, the country’s economy seemed to have lost much of its potential to grow during Yuschenko’s first half-year in office. In August, Ukraine had zero economic growth for the first time in years.
“I don’t know what is going on with us,” said Mila Haikina, a Jewish woman from the town of Poltava. “All we saw so far was the prices going up.”
She was referring to several crises that hit the consumer market this year — the prices of sugar and meat rose dramatically, for example.
Jews are also confused when it comes to discussing Yuschenko’s record on issues of specific concern to the them, such as the problem of anti-Semitism and of restitution of former Jewish communal property that remains in the hands of the state.
Yuschenko spoke strongly in favor of the Jewish community on many occasions and condemned a recent act of anti-Semitism when a yeshiva student was severely beaten in Kiev in late August.
But some Jews feel this is not enough. Anti-Semitism has been on the rise in Ukraine in the past year. Most recently, Rabbi Michael Menis and his son, 14, both citizens of Israel, were attacked and beaten near the National Expo Center in Kiev. The police detained eight of the attackers, reportedly members of a neo-Nazi skinhead gang who said they attacked the “Jews to purify the nation.”
“Many Jews still trust Yuschenko, but we want to see real results,” said Arkady Korbeletzky from the Jewish community of the Crimea in southwest Ukraine. “He and other top officials have made very good statements, but so far these were only words.”
In fact, many believe that despite the current political uncertainty and additional anxiety over the parliamentary elections to be held next spring, Yuschenko has the best chance of all politicians to guarantee relative stability and calm in Ukrainian society.
“I’m sure that as long as Yuschenko remains the president, Jews should feel safe,” Yevgeniy Chervonenko, the former minister of transportation and communications and the only Jewish member of the ousted Cabinet, told JTA.
“To me, it is clear that we are not going to see any revolts or excesses,” said Alexander Paskhaver, a Jewish economic aide to Yuschenko.
Similarly, Ukraine’s acting foreign minister, Boris Tarasyuk, tried to dispel fears held by some Jewish observers in the West that Jews are being put at risk in Ukraine’s current climate of political difficulties.
Yuschenko is the main guarantor that the government’s course of protecting minorities and fighting anti-Semitism will not change, Tarasyuk said at the briefing for leaders of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress earlier this month.
While there were Jews in the former Cabinet and among Yuschenko’s top aides, there are no Jewish politicians in the new government. Yet this should not be seen as a result of some special policy, a leading Jewish figure said.
“Some Jews may lose they position of power but not because they are Jewish,” Josef Zissels, the leader of Ukrainian Va’ad, an umbrella group of Ukrainian Jewish organizations and communities, said.
“People in the old team did not manage to keep their business and political interests apart.”
Zissels said the new Cabinet would still be likely to deal more vigorously with such issues as fighting anti-Semitism and returning synagogues to the community.
“The old team was not dealing much with real issues, being mostly consumed by the political tug of war. Those who will replace them will be more apt to deal with practical issues.”