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Around the Jewish World: Ukraine’s Jews See President As Safest Bet in Elections This Month

October 18, 1999
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

As Ukraine approaches its presidential elections at the end of this month, the country’s Jews appear to be supporting the status quo.

The roughly half-million Jews are joining the majority of Ukrainians in supporting the re-election of the country’s current president, Leonid Kuchma, who is ahead of the dozen other contenders in the polls leading up to the Oct. 31 elections.

Kuchma’s support among Ukrainian Jews derives from a view that Kuchma, although uncharismatic and unable so far to jump-start the Ukrainian economy, represents the safest bet. He personifies the relative political and social stability that has reigned here in recent years, and is not tainted with the anti-Semitism that marks some other, mostly populist, leaders.

“Today there are no bright national leaders in Ukraine. So, despite the bad economic and social situation, poverty and mass unemployment, Leonid Kuchma has no real rivals,” said Rudolph Mirsky, the leader of the 7,000-strong Jewish community in the city of Lvov.

As it generally does, the Jewish community is taking a low-key approach to the elections.

“We are not advising our community members to vote for any concrete candidate. We are just calling on them to participate in the elections,” said Yosef Zissels, the vice president of the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine, an umbrella organization.

But Jews know whom to support in this country where the average wage is $25 a month: Kuchma.

Running second in the polls is Natalya Vitrenko, who heads the Progressive Socialist Party and is considered a radical and a populist.

The presidential race turned violent in the beginning of October, when two grenades were hurled at her at a rally, leaving nearly 20 people injured, some of them in serious condition. Vitrenko escaped with light injuries.

She says that among the false allegations that her enemies are currently spreading about her is that she is of Jewish origin.

The third and the fourth leading places in the race are occupied by the Communist leader, Pyotr Simonenko, and Socialist Party head Oleksandr Moroz.

Ukrainian Jews associate the Communist label with the state-sponsored anti- Semitism of the Soviet era.

While such state-sponsored anti-Semitism is now absent, according to Jewish sources, there are grass-roots anti-Semitic incidents, particularly in central and western Ukraine.

A newspaper in Lvov recently called Kuchma “the president of all the Jews,” according to Mirsky, a retired professor who heads the local B’nai B’rith chapter there.

On Yom Kippur, police had to intervene after a group of neo-Nazis in Lvov, considered to be the center of Ukranian anti-Semitism, recently tried to stage a clash with a group of visiting Bratslav Chasidim.

But police intervened and halted the incident — a fact that is not lost on Ukraine’s Jews.

As Anatoly Gendin, a Jewish leader in the Crimea, which is rife with ethnic controversy and unrest, put it, “True, the economy is in a very bad condition, but the social and political situation has been under control.

“For example, when a Jewish cemetery in Simferopol was desecrated this May, necessary police measures were taken and the perpetrators were detained. I don’t see any alternative to Kuchma.”

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