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Across the Former Soviet Union Trade, Property Restitution on Table As President of Ukraine Visits U

April 6, 2005
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The Soviet Union may be a historical relic, but issues dating from that era still haunt Ukraine’s new president. As Viktor Yuschenko visited the United States this week, two longstanding Jewish issues were on the agenda: the restitution of Jewish communal property and Ukraine’s “graduation” from the 1974 Jackson-Vanik Agreement, which linked trade restrictions to Ukraine’s treatment of its Jews.

In both Ukraine and the United States, Jewish officials said the two issues are intertwined.

“The Jewish community is certainly interested in a speedy repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment for Ukraine, but it is no less interested in restitution of communal property,” said Josef Zissels, a prominent Jewish leader and head of the Va’ad of Ukraine, an umbrella Jewish organization.

On Wednesday, Yuschenko was scheduled to visit the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Yuschenko, whose father was a prisoner of war in Auschwitz during World War II, first visited the museum several years ago.

He was slated next to meet with U.S. Jewish officials, with the issues of anti-Semitism, property restitution and Jackson-Vanik on the agenda.

“We have great hopes and expectations that President Yuschenko will move forward” on issues that affect the Jewish minority in Ukraine, said Mark Levin, executive director of NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia.

When the Soviet Union broke apart, its former republics inherited the strictures of the Jackson-Vanik accord. For his part, President Bush appears ready to allow Ukraine to graduate from Jackson-Vanik, which was used as leverage to force the Soviet Union to relax emigration restrictions. Bush met Monday in Washington with Yuschenko, and said he believes the trade restrictions should be lifted, noting they were from a “different era.”

The decision is up to Congress, however.

Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, Georgia and the Baltic states already have graduated out of the agreement. A few years ago there was momentum for Russia to graduate as well, until a dispute over U.S. poultry imports to Russia turned some U.S. business interests into defenders of an agreement they long had opposed.

Jewish leaders in Kiev say they realize how important lifting Jackson-Vanik could be for Ukraine’s economic development. Yet they insist that the Jewish community must press the issue of restitution.

In the 1920s and 1930s, hundreds of pieces of Jewish community property were nationalized by Ukraine’s Soviet government. The properties, including schools, theaters and warehouses, often were passed from one state-run entity to another.

In March 1992, then-President Leonid Kravchuk signed a law on the restitution of former religious property. Local authorities should have returned the property to religious communities by the end of 1997, but the law was never fully implemented.

Only 10 percent of Jewish properties have been returned to their original owners, Jewish leaders say.

Aside from any political dimension to the issue, large-scale restitution may play a crucial role for Jewish life in Ukraine, which still largely depends on overseas donors and a tight circle of wealthy domestic sponsors.

If they got the properties back, cash-strapped Jewish organizations could use them for their own activities, or sell or lease them to fund programs.

Jewish leaders in Ukraine argue that the debate over Jackson-Vanik should address how Ukrainian leaders are combating anti-Semitism.

Accusations of links to anti-Semitic groups dogged Yuschenko during his campaign. Yuschenko was among several top opposition politicians who signed a statement opposing a government threat to close the Silski Visti newspaper for publishing an article asserting that 400,000 Jews joined the S.S. during World War II.

Yuschenko called on the newspaper to apologize, but it never complied.

More recently, Yuschenko honored Silski Visti with an award seen as gratitude for the paper’s role in opposing Kuchma.

Zissels said it would be wrong if discussion of Jackson-Vanik focuses narrowly on emigration. Jewish leaders say the concept of minority rights should be handled in a broad manner and should include the restitution issue.

Jewish leaders in Ukraine say their support for Yuschenko on Jackson-Vanik largely will depend on his ability to cope with anti-Semitism and make progress on restitution.

“We ask for the legal framework of the implementation of the issue of restitution. The Jewish community supports canceling the Jackson-Vanik amendment. I’ve lobbied for it in the United States. But the authorities must combat anti-Semitism in the country,” said Rabbi Yakov Dov Bleich, one of Ukraine’s chief rabbis.

While visiting a Kiev synagogue in December 2004, Yuschenko was asked by JTA about the prospects of restitution of former Jewish communal property. He said he would follow the law.

“Justice should be the dominant question in the issue of restitution of Jewish property,” he said then. “The property must be returned to the owner.”

Yuschenko has an additional incentive to move on the property restitution issue — his goal of integrating Ukraine into NATO and the European Union.

But one Yuschenko adviser said resolving the issue might not be simple.

“The issue of the restitution of Jewish religious property is very important but it is not so easy. We also should think about where to move museums and other organizations from the buildings,” Alexander Sagan told JTA.

“We should first convene a meeting of leaders of religious organizations to discuss church-state relations, partnership with religious organizations in the social sphere and church land use. Then we can bring a comprehensive program to a meeting between Yuschenko and religious leaders,” he said.

(JTA Foreign Editor Peter Ephross in New York and JTA Staff Writer Matthew E. Berger in Washington contributed to this report.)

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