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Across the Former Soviet Union Ukrainian Jews Share Dismay a Year After Yuschenko Took Office

A huge stage and soup kitchens were set up in downtown Kiev this week to make the city’s central square look the way it did a year ago. Part of official festivities as Ukraine marks the anniversary of the “Orange Revolution,” the props are intended to remind Ukrainians of the days when tens of thousands of them braved freezing temperatures in a two-week protest over rigged presidential elections in which Viktor Yuschenko was deprived of victory.

Wearing orange, the color of Yuschenko’s campaign, the protesters helped force new elections that brought him to power.

But a year later, the official celebrations are doing little to improve the mood of most Ukrainians — including Jews — who now believe the revolution made little difference in their lives.

Regardless of whom they backed in last year’s elections, local Jews today seem to agree that Yuschenko’s government has not shown enough political will or ability to implement economic and political reforms and combat anti-Semitism.

This has been a year of “grand but useless declarations,” sighed Yevsey Kotlyar, 70, a Kiev retiree, as he visited a Kiev Jewish community center one recent morning. “How can I trust this government if it only makes declarations?”

Yuschenko’s rise to power was built on promises of rapid economic improvement and measures to root out corruption that permeated Ukraine under his predecessor, Leonid Kuchma. But in September Yuschenko fired his own government in response to allegations of corruption in his inner circle.

On the economic front, his government has been blamed for scaring off investors and prompting an increase in food and gas prices.

A year ago, the country’s estimated 250,000 to 450,000 Jews, like other Ukrainians, found themselves split between supporters and opponents of the Orange Revolution.

Today people from both camps seem to share the disappointment over the lack of achievement in Yuschenko’s first year. Yet some still believe the revolution was the right thing for Ukraine.

Reaction in the Jewish community is mixed, said Rabbi Azriel Haikin, one of Ukraine’s three chief rabbis.

“Some Jews say it’s too early and we should give the government more time, but others say that the government has no direction,” he said.

“It would be wrong to talk about the failure of the Orange Revolution,” said Georgy Tseitlin, a professor from Kiev.

It’s quite normal in human history “when a revolution devours its own children,” he added, referring to the failure of Yuschenko’s first Cabinet, which was replaced this fall by a more moderate government of technocrats.

To Yuschenko’s credit, many agree that Ukraine has more free speech and other political freedoms as a result of the Orange Revolution.

Some in Washington believe so as well. Over the weekend, the U.S. Senate passed a bill to graduate Ukraine from the 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment, a piece of Soviet-era legislation that linked trade with the United States to a country’s willingness to let Jews emigrate.

The sour mood of Ukrainians, including Jews, stems from the country’s lack of economic progress.

Yuschenko promised to introduce liberal economic reforms, but the country’s economic growth has slowed during his first year in office.

The economy has grown by less than 4 percent this year, a drastic decline from last year’s 12 percent growth.

“Revolution does not mean changes, but the beginning of changes,” said Aleksandr Pashver, a Jewish economic aide to Yuschenko, though he acknowledged that economic improvement has yet to occur.

A government source told JTA on condition of anonymity that the current government “has lost the positive dynamic of the Orange Revolution. There are no deep positive changes, and probably the situation will become even worse” for the Ukrainian economy.

U.S. philanthropist George Soros, long a supporter of post-Communist life in Eastern Europe, agreed.

“Ukraine faces a very difficult transition from what might be called ‘robber capitalism’ to ‘legitimate capitalism,’ ” Soros said on a visit to Kiev earlier this month.

At least the Jewish community feels as safe today as it did before the revolution.

“There are no changes for the worse for the Jewish community,” said Mikhail Frenkel, head of the Association of Jewish Media in Ukraine.

But some believe Yuschenko should do more on this front as well. He has made several strongly worded statements against anti-Semitism, but anti-Semitic propaganda continues to emanate from MAUP, a business management school in Kiev that is believed to be the country’s largest private college but which also has become the major purveyor of anti-Semitic ideology and publications in Ukraine.

“There is no strong reaction to xenophobia and anti-Semitism in the country,” Haikin said.

Despite their disappointment in the results of the revolution, many Jews, like human-rights activist Mila Milner, still prefer Yuschenko to Kuchma.

Yet Milner calls the past year “a year of wasted opportunities” for Yuschenko.

“He failed to make use of the colossal degree of trust that Ukrainians had put into the Orange team,” she said.

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