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Across the Former Soviet Union Jewish Voters in Ukraine Could Back Party Headed by Former Communist

March 15, 2006
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Fifteen months after pro-democracy protests in Ukraine reversed a rigged presidential election, the political party that eventually lost that battle appears likely to make a comeback — and Jewish voters may help the party do so. A record 45 political parties and blocs are running in Ukraine’s parliamentary election on March 26 amid the country’s economic decline and disillusionment in the wake of the “Orange Revolution” that propelled President Viktor Yuschenko to power.

But only six to eight parties are expected to pass the 3 percent threshold required to win representation in the 450-seat unicameral Rada, or Parliament.

The election will have a major impact on Ukraine’s future because of constitutional changes that went into effect earlier this year: The new Rada will be the first in post-Communist Ukraine to name the prime minister and appoint key Cabinet members — both previously prerogatives of the president.

In a broader sense, the choice Ukrainians will make this month is between the pro-Western course of Yuschenko, who wants to see his country as part of NATO and the European Union, and the more Russia-oriented course of former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, an ex-Communist who lost to Yuschenko in last year’s presidential election.

Ukrainian Jews are always sensitive to issues of civil society and democracy that are associated with Yuschenko and his coalition of parties. But Jews — similar to other Ukrainians — are unhappy with the lack of economic improvement and soaring prices during the Yuschenko era.

“Like other citizens, Jews will vote for those who can make their life really better,” says Georgy Tseitlin, a Jewish scientist from Kiev.

Jews have an additional reason that may compel them to vote against the Orange parties: the dramatic rise of anti-Semitic attacks and publications that have taken place since Yuschenko came to power.

“The situation with xenophobia and anti-Semitism has become worse, and Jews feel this very strongly,” said Mikhail Frenkel, chairman of the Association of Jewish Media in Ukraine.

But no matter which party wins the election, Jewish leaders say the community will feel safe.

“No matter who wins, there will not be big changes” for the Jewish community, said Rabbi Meir Stambler, a leader of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine, a Chabad-led group.

Jews are among the supporters and activists in all leading blocs, and there are Jewish candidates on virtually every party slate.

And despite specific Jewish concerns, the choices of Jewish voters mostly mirror those of the general population.

Many Jews in western and central Ukraine — Kiev included — are likely to support the pro-Western Orange parties. And similar to what occurred during the presidential vote of 2004, those living in eastern Ukraine are likely to support the opposition and its leader, Yanukovich.

“Jews and non-Jews in the East prefer” Yanukovich’s Party of Regions. And in Kiev most of the Jews support Yuschenko, Stambler said.

The Orange forces centered around Yuschenko include the president’s own party, Our Ukraine; the party of Yulia Timoshenko, the president’s charismatic former ally and ex-prime minister; Pora-Reforms and Order headed by the former boxing champion Vitali Klitschko; and the Socialists.

According to the recent opinion polls, the Party of Regions is expected to receive about 30 percent of the vote, the Timoshenko bloc will receive 19 percent, Yuschenko’s about 18 percent, the centrists of the current Parliament speaker Vladimir Litvin at 7 percent, and the Socialists with 6 percent.

Since no party is expected to have enough votes to form a majority in Parliament and elect a Cabinet, analysts predict that Ukrainians will witness a major political battle after the election when parties will vie to form coalitions.

Aside from Yuschenko’s Orange coalition and Yanukovich’s Party of Regions, some of Ukraine’s estimated 200,000 to 300,000 Jews will vote for a third force, the centrists.

Josef Zissels, a longtime Jewish leader who supported Yuschenko during the days of the Orange Revolution, says that some Jews may vote for parties like the bloc of Litvin, the parliamentary speaker, or the Socialists.

Many Jews believe Yuschenko has not shown enough willingness or ability to stop anti-Semitic incitement associated with the Interregional Academy of Personnel Management, or MAUP, a Kiev-based university that regularly publishes anti-Jewish articles and organizes anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist activities.

“President Yuschenko has lost his credibility. It is rather difficult to say who really supports him now,” said Rabbi Ya’akov Dov Bleich, one of Ukraine’s three chief rabbis.

Frenkel of the Association of Jewish Media echoed the widespread Jewish disappointment in Yuschenko.

“The authorities have only been making declarations” but not acted to combat anti-Semitism in the country, he said.

And yet, Zissels said, many Jews will support Our Ukraine, simply because “life in the Diaspora has taught Jews to be loyal to the authorities.”

The last option left for voters is none of the above — and a Kiev Jewish pensioner said he is going to check this box on his ballot.

“Like many other people I’m so tired of all this,” Gilariy Lyapitsky said of Ukraine’s political and economic turmoil of the last year. “I don’t believe these leading parties, I will vote against all.”

By various estimates, there are between 25-35 Jewish members in the Rada, and observers agree that number will not change dramatically after the elections.

No political party is specifically courting Jewish votes, although Klitchko, the boxer, attended this week a Purim celebration in the Kiev community.

But what worried Jewish observers more is the fact that none of the parties included combating anti-Semitism in their platforms.

“This upsets the Jewish community very much,” Stambler said.

Apparently to dispel these feelings and to show a better face of Ukraine in the West, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Boris Tarasyuk said earlier this month in a meeting in the Washington that “any attempts to destroy the harmonious co-existence in Ukraine of numerous minorities and faiths will be strongly prosecuted.”

Despite that promise, parties with history of anti-Semitism have been allowed to run in the election.

Two of the parties have officials known as leaders in anti-Semitic propaganda. Yet, neither the Conservative Party of Georgy Schokin, head of the MAUP school, nor the Freedom Party of Oleg Tyagnibok, a fomer lawmaker expelled from his parliamentary group over anti-Semitic statements he made, are expected to win any seats.

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