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Ukraine Sees Political Instability, but for the Jews, It’s Not So Bad

November 5, 2002
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When life returned to normal in Ukraine this fall, following the summer holidays, the country’s political opposition returned to the streets of the capital.

But life has gone on for the city’s Jewish community — or as usual as it can be in a country undergoing a painful political and economic transition.

In a much-publicized campaign, the opposition parties renewed a series of public demonstrations directed against President Leonid Kuchma and the slim pro-presidential government majority.

The opposition is centered around the former reformist prime minister, Viktor Yushchenko and his Our Ukraine bloc; Yulia Timoshenko and her Fatherland Party; and Oleksandr Moroz and his Socialists.

They are demanding Kuchma’s resignation, impeachment or removal. Among the allegations leveled against him are his involvement in the unsolved 2000 murder of opposition journalist Georgy Gongadze and, most recently, sales of Ukrainian-made Kolchuga radar systems to Iraq in violation of U.N. sanctions.

Still, it is possible to live life in the capital unaffected by the current turmoil.

The majority of the population is more focused on survival and adapting to changing economic conditions — while a minority flourish.

But the unrest has yet to harm Kiev’s Jewish community.

“Of course, social-political conflict in any country is not for the best, but I can’t say that the current tension has any direct effect on the life of the Jewish community,” said Leonid Finberg, director of the Institute of Jewish Studies in Kiev.

Finberg’s sentiment was echoed by businessman Michael Don, co-founder along with partner Beni Golani of the Kiev-based Uncles Sam’s Group of restaurants.

“It used to be very bad here — with limits on Jews even in the universities,” he said. “Now, everything has changed.”

Golani had only good things to say about Kuchma’s relations with the Jewish community — and the president’s reaction to a relatively isolated incident last April when a gang of soccer hooligans targeted the Brodsky Synagogue with bottles and stones.

“I consider the present government to be pro-democratic; no matter what people think,” said Golani. “Kuchma has very good relations with the Jewish community and attends many of our events — and when hooligans ran through the streets, he put police in the synagogue for its protection.”

That said, both Don and Golani say they have confidence in Ukraine’s political leadership in general, including that of the opposition.

Golani said that should Kuchma be forced to step down before his current term ends in 2004, the Jewish community could rest assured of continued stability.

“No matter who would come in, relations would remain good,” he said. “These are very worldly people; very democratic and very positive.”

Marina Dorian, a 27-year-old Jewish graduate student at the University of Illinois, recently completed a year in Kiev on a Fulbright scholarship.

Ukrainians are beginning to understand the loss they have incurred through the hundreds of thousands of Jews who have moved to Israel — both before and since 1991, Dorian said.

“Most Ukrainians grew up with Jews, and so almost everyone knows a Jewish family or neighbor in their apartment building who has left,” she said. “And they feel that loss — it’s like a brain drain.”

In fact, the ongoing conflict in the Middle East is encouraging many Jews to remain in Ukraine, according to Alex Katz, head of the Jewish Agency for Israel in Ukraine.

He cited the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a slight improvement in the Ukrainian economy as the core reasons movement to Israel has slowed — to 15,000 in 2001 from a total of 300,000 through the 1990s.

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