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Ukraine vote brings few expectations

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Gilariy Lyapitzky, a Jewish retiree, casts  his ballot at a Kiev polling station,  Sept. 30, 2007. (Vladimir Matveyev)

Gilariy Lyapitzky, a Jewish retiree, casts his ballot at a Kiev polling station, Sept. 30, 2007. (Vladimir Matveyev)

KIEV, Ukraine (JTA) – Ukraine’s third national ballot in three years may do little to resolve its political instability or the disappointment many Ukrainian Jews feel in the political process.

Nevertheless, the Jews in this former Soviet republic generally say they do not fear for their safety.

“I am disillusioned with politics and I’m tired, but I’m voting in favor of democracy,” Georgy Tzeitlin, a Jewish programmer, said Sunday, echoing the twin feelings of hope and hopelessness shared by many voters taking part in the Sept. 30 parliamentary elections.

“The new coalition also will not be stable, but I’m casting my vote for European standards of life and morality,” he said.

Twenty political parties ran in the elections, which were called early by President Viktor Yuschenko to put an end to the long-running power struggle between himself and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, his major rival.

Yanukovich is seen as more sympathetic to Russia, while Yuschenko is viewed as a Western-style reformer.

Two days after the election, it was still unclear who would be able to form the new ruling coalition.

Yanukovich’s Party of Regions was slightly ahead of the bloc of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, a hero of the 2004 Orange Revolution and a former Yuschenko ally.

Even if Yanukovich ultimately proves the largest vote-getter, Tymoshenko vowed that her bloc would be able to form the new government by aligning with Yuschenko’s Our Ukraine-People’s Self-Defense Party, which trailed well behind the other two parties.

Two other parties passed the 3 percent threshold required to win representation in the 450-seat Ukrainian parliament: the Communists and a centrist bloc headed by former parliamentary speaker Vladimir Lytvyn.

Some Jewish observers and leaders say the election is unlikely to shift the balance of power drastically or resolve the key issue of who is in charge of this nation of 47 million.

“The elections are an extension of the battle for power between the president and the prime minister and the various groups they represent,” said Rabbi Yakov Dov Bleich, one of Ukraine’s chief rabbis. “The situation won’t be essentially different in the parliament.”

Society as a whole – the Jewish community included – is growing increasingly apathetic and disillusioned as promises made during the Orange Revolution that propelled Yuschenko to power in 2004 appear to have faded.

“I don’t trust any of them,” said Aleksandr Muravyov, 19. “They just talk, talk and talk, but do not keep their promises.”

No political party specifically courted the Jewish vote, which tended to mirror the general population in each region.

As the campaign moved into its final days, it appeared that as in the ’04 and ’06 elections, the Ukrainian-speaking Jews in western and central Ukraine favored Timoshenko’s BYuT bloc and Yuschenko’s Our Ukraine, while the Russian-speaking eastern part of the country supported Yanukovich and the Communists.

“Ukrainians, including Jews, historically are divided between European and Eurasian identities,” said Josef Zissels, the leader of Va’ad Ukraine, a Jewish umbrella group that openly backed Yuschenko during the Orange Revolution. “This division of civilizations is at the core of the political conflict.”

Other Jewish leaders blame Yuschenko for the current political crisis, saying he failed to follow through on promised reforms.

“The core of the crisis is Yuschenko’s weakness,” Bleich said.

Despite the continued influence of the country’s geographic and linguistic division, Sunday’s contest focused primarily on bread-and-butter issues: poverty, corruption and potholes.

Ukrainian Jews are suffering from rising tariffs on electricity, gas and heating utility services. Despite a booming economy – 7 percent growth is forecast for this year – many Ukrainians struggle to make ends meet.

That leads many Jewish voters, especially the elderly, to vote for what they see as the “stability” of the Party of Regions and other left-wing, or pro-Russian, candidates, who favor a return to the planned economy and centralized control of the past.

“People of my generation live poorly, and many Jews like me will vote for Regions or other left-wing parties,” said Gilyariy Lyapitzky, a Jewish activist and pensioner from Kiev.

Some Jews, however, told JTA last week they planned to stay away from the polls, choosing not to participate in elections they felt would bring little change.

“The choice is between apples and apples. I’m going to vote against all of them,” said Igor Desner, an activist in the Vinnitzkaya Jewish community. “The Jewish community continues to flourish in Ukraine irrespective of who is president or premier.”

Violent attacks on Jews are frequent in Ukraine, and few investigations lead to arrests or successful prosecutions. The perceived lack of adequate reaction worries some.

“Ukrainian authorities and society in general are too accepting of interethnic intolerance and hatred,” said Rabbi Meir Stambler, head of the Board of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Ukraine.

In the latest incident on Sept. 28, Sevastopol’s chief rabbi, Benjamin Wolf, was attacked and badly beaten on his way to Friday-night prayers by a group of middle-aged assailants who shouted anti-Semitic threats.

Still, Jewish leaders believe overall that the community will remain mostly safe and still grow.

“The election is unlikely to shift the balance of power in the country,” Stambler said, “and the Jewish community will continue to develop.”

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