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After Yuschenko Takes Over, Mood Optimistic Among Ukrainian Jews

January 31, 2005
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Ukrainian Jews have high hopes that their nation’s new president will bring real changes to this former Communist republic. Like other Ukrainians, many of the country’s estimated 200,000 to 500,000 Jews are banking on the promises of democracy, wealth and increased participation in international bodies made by Viktor Yuschenko in the days after he was sworn in earlier this month.

On Jan. 25, Yuschenko spoke at the Council of Europe session in Strasbourg, France, and declared his firm intention to see Ukraine part of the European Union.

Ukraine, a nation of roughly 48 million, is eager to start the application process as soon as this winter, although it may take years to complete, analysts say.

“Yuschenko showed his direction toward turning Ukraine into a democratic European nation with full respect for freedom of speech and a fair judicial system,” said Eduard Gurvitz, a Jewish member of Parliament and a longtime Yuschenko supporter.

“This is a total contrast to Kuchma’s corrupt regime,” he said, referring to outgoing president Leonid Kuchma, who held office for 10 years.

Many of the country’s Jews — perhaps a majority — backed Yuschenko’s opponent, Viktor Yanukovich, in last fall’s the heated election campaign.

Some of these Jews are fearful of a possible rise in anti-Semitism coming from radical nationalist groups and individual politicians who were part of Yuschenko’s election coalition, but others are speaking the language of reconciliation.

“The new president stretches out his hand of collaboration to all who want to shake it,” said Alexander Feldman, a Jewish lawmaker and a prominent community leader who backed Yanukovich. “I do believe that Yuschenko’s politics will be aimed at protecting the interethnic peace and concord in Ukraine. Otherwise we shall correct him. But today I have more hopes than fears.”

Those Jews who share Yuschenko’s Euro-focused vision of Ukraine have faith in his ability to make Ukraine a more prosperous nation.

“I believe in the transparency of his politics,” said Mila Milner, a Jewish activist in Kiev, a city that overwhelmingly backed Yuschenko. “This was something we totally lacked during the previous regime,” she said. “Today, Yuschenko has a historic chance to forge better ties between Ukraine and the West. To his credit, he has a good starting capital, as Ukraine’s current economic situation is generally seen as promising.”

Alex Dukhovny, a Reform rabbi in Kiev and the only Jewish religious leader who spoke at pro-Yuschenko rallies during last year’s street protests, which eventually helped Yuschenko become president, says people in his congregation hope for simple things. “People talk about bigger salaries and pensions,” he said.

Josef Ostashinsky, a 56-year-old member of Kiev’s Jewish community, agreed. “I hope to see in new Ukraine the same standards of life as in Europe,” he said.

He added that a recent spate of anti-Semitic incidents in neighboring Russia, including an anti-Semitic letter signed by a group of Russian lawmakers, showed what Ukraine may have averted by defeating Yanukovich, who was backed by pro-Russian voters and the Kremlin.

“Today, we can better understand what Putin’s Russia, which backed Yanukovich, really means,” he said.

Some Jews say the key to Yuschenko’s success at home will depend on his ability to win the support of the regions that voted overwhelmingly for his competitor and to spread Kiev’s standard of living to other parts of the country.

“It is very important to spread the positive changes from Kiev to the regions,” said Rudolf Mirsky, a Jewish activist in the city of Lvov.

But some Jews are less optimistic.

“I have both hopes and fears,” said Grigory Shoikhet, the Jewish community president and director of a Chabad day school in Kharkov, an eastern city where both non-Jews and Jews supported Yanukovich.

Shoikhet fears the anti-Semitism that has often developed in Ukraine during times of instability and change.

Yuschenko has tried to alleviate these fears. On Jan. 27, addressing an audience in Krakow, Poland, where he traveled to participate in commemorations of the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Yuschenko said, “I publicly swear that the so-called Jewish question will never be raised in Ukraine.”

Meanwhile, some of the first appointments in Yuschenko’s administration suggests that politicians of Jewish descent may be as powerful during his presidency as others were during Kuchma’s reign.

Yevgeny Chervonenko, another Jewish lawmaker and a close aide to Yuschenko, is expected to be appointed to a key post in the new government. Chervonenko, 45, is also vice president of the United Jewish Community of Ukraine, an umbrella group.

Another public personality with Jewish ancestry already has been appointed secretary of the Council for National Security and Defense. Pyotr Poroshenko, a member of the Parliament, a financier and media magnate, has never publicized his Jewish background but it is known to many in the Jewish community.

There is a possible pitfall, however. Now that expectations have been raised, they can be dashed if improvements do not follow.

“Now people will simply not allow the authorities to treat them as before,” said Semyon Gluzman, head of the Ukrainian-American Bureau for Human Rights in Kiev. “The only thing I’m afraid of is the disappointment of people.”

But for now, optimism seems to be prevailing.

“We ourselves must help Yuschenko and his team to change our lives for the better,” Gluzman said.

One of Kiev’s chief rabbis, Moshe Reuven Azman, echoed this sentiment.

“What I hear from the members of the Jewish community is that it should be us who will help Yuschenko build a flourishing democratic society.”

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