Ukraine’s President-elect Appeals to a Higher Authority

By Josef Zisels

Published December 31, 2004, issue of December 31, 2004.
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In order to really understand what Viktor Yushchenko’s election as president means for my fellow Ukrainian Jews, it is necessary to first understand a thing or two about how authority works here.

For the better part of the last 500 years, Ukrainians lived under colonial rule. Like most feudal states, Ukraine was ruled not by law, but by those — the president, the regional governor, the mayor — representing the real authorities in Poland or Russia. For centuries, power in Ukrainian society was dependent on one’s proximity to the powers that be.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, this feudal system was re-created by the emergence of so-called oligarchs, modern aristocrats who became very rich very quickly. In post-Communist Ukraine, money became the currency of power, but, as in years past, it was oligarchs’ access to authority that provided them their riches.

Among the oligarchs, as many in Ukraine and abroad have pointed out, there are quite a few Jews. In part, this can be attributed to Jews’ well-earned fame for being able to adapt to changing situations. But there is no question that the oligarchs’ success owes at least as much to their understanding that in Ukraine, becoming rich has been nearly impossible without unquestioning loyalty to the president.

Since independence, it has been simply inconceivable to imagine a rich Ukrainian being publicly opposed to the president’s policies. An oligarch who was perceived to be anything less than 100% loyal to the president — or who, God forbid, joined the opposition — immediately became a target for the instruments of the repressive state: the police, the federal prosecutor, the security service and the tax authorities, among others. And because nearly all large fortunes made since the collapse of the Soviet Union have involved some less-than-kosher activities, the government has always had enough “lawful” grounds for persecution. Just ask Ukrainian Jewish oligarch Boris Feldman, or Russian Jewish oligarchs Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky.

Much was written before the election about the negative effect a Yushchenko victory would have on Ukraine’s Jewish oligarchs, given the close ties many of them had to outgoing President Leonid Kuchma and his appointed successor, Viktor Yanukovych. But most commentary outside of Ukraine failed to take into account that the oligarchs supported Yanukovych’s candidacy primarily because he was the presumed heir to the authority wielded by Kuchma. Many of the oligarchs held a deep dislike for Yanukovych, but backed him nonetheless because their wealth and power were dependent on presidential patronage.

There also happen to be a fair number of newly rich Ukrainians in Yuschenko’s inner circle. Their fortunes are far smaller than those of the oligarchs, having been made for the most part without the benefit of Kuchma’s cronyism. These “petit oligarchs” are mostly men who made their money by being savvy capitalists, and as such they were looking for a president who would ensure fair competition and reduce corruption.

Among this group, too, there are Jews. They have been close to Yuschenko for years, having stood by his side during the hardships he faced as head of the opposition. They include Yevhen Chervonenko, a member of the Ukrainian parliament who serves as honorary president of the Orlan conglomerate and was, incidentally, the first professional race-care driver in the Soviet Union; Eduard Gurvits, a former mayor of Odessa; and Mykhail Brodsky, a former parliament member who himself ran for president in the first round of this year’s elections.

In Yanukovych’s camp, by contrast, no Jews were close to the candidate. True, Jewish oligarchs Hryhoriy Surkis, Oleksandr Feldman and Viktor Pinchuk supported Yanukovych, but they did so purely out of respect, if that is the right word, for the authority that he was expected to inherit from Kuchma.

Yuschenko’s victory might have, as some predicted before the election, a slight negative effect on the oligarchs who supported Yanukovych, including some of the Jewish oligarchs. In particular, Surkis — who is a business partner with Kuchma’s chief of staff, Viktor Medvedchuk — might be forced to spend some time in Russia and pay a financial penalty for his illegally privatized enterprises. But the problems he may face are extremely small in comparison to those faced by the opposition during Kuchma’s rule. Most of the oligarchs, especially the Jewish ones, will all but certainly come to terms with the new authority in Ukraine.

The same can be said for the rest of Ukraine’s roughly 300,000 Jews. To judge by Yuschenko’s stint as prime minister from 1999 to 2001 — and by the Western-oriented agenda on which he campaigned this year — his presidency will be no less favorable for Jews than Kuchma’s.

Yuschenko is seeking to maintain normal economic relations with Moscow, presumably because it will clearly take time before Ukraine gains independence in all spheres from Russia. But he is clearly turning Kiev politically toward the West, in particular toward neighboring Poland, which is already Ukraine’s closest ally.

The history between Ukraine and Poland, of course, has not always been kind to Jews. Along with leading Ukraine to independence from Poland in the 17th century, Bogdan Khmelnytsky instigated widespread pogroms against Jews. But while he has long been revered as one of our country’s founding fathers, he is also remembered as the man who gave Ukraine away to Russia — an achievement that, particularly since the fall of the Soviet Union, is viewed as anything but heroic.

As Ukrainian society again turns away from Russia, toward a European-oriented Poland and the West beyond, antisemitism is all but certain to go down, not up. To begin with, there is much more antisemitism in Russia than there is in Ukraine. But more importantly, if Yuschenko’s victory this week showed the world anything, it is that in today’s Ukraine, the rule of law is the highest authority.

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