Election Unrest in Ukraine Sparks Fears of Backlash

Published December 03, 2004, issue of December 03, 2004.
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The relatively small number of Jewish voters living in Ukraine lack any real impact on election results in a country with 50 million inhabitants. But like other places in the world, Jewish strength is measured not only in numbers, but in terms of its economic and political power, as well.

At present, there are 15 Jewish members of the Ukrainian Parliament, a number much greater than their proportion in the population, and Jewish tycoons can be found in the political camps of both opposition challenger Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich.

Leaders of Jewish organizations in Ukraine are trying to stay neutral amid the ongoing wave of civil protests that broke out last week after official results showed that Yanukovich, the government-backed candidate, defeated Yushchenko by 49%-46% in the November 21 vote for president.

“The Jewish community is not taking sides in what’s going on, thank God,” said Josef Zissels, a longtime community leader in Kiev who backs Yushchenko.

Before the vote, leaders of major Jewish organizations agreed that “we should not come out with a unified opinion on the election situation,” said Zissels, who heads the Va’ad, one of the umbrella groups of Ukraine. Jewish population estimates range from 100,000 to 500,000.

Zissels said the neutrality of organized Jewry was vitally important because the “situation remains unpredictable,” and taking sides could alienate whichever candidate becomes the leader.

But according to sources, many Jews supported the liberal Yushchenko not only because of his links to the West, but also out of concern that the re-election of Yanukovich, with his ties to Russia, would force isolation on Ukraine and nudge it closer to the Arab world. However, Yushchenko’s Jewish supporters are not without concerns over the strengthening of the Ukrainian nationalist elements in his party, which they believe could cause an increase in antisemitism in the country.

“The present government, with its ties to Russia, is good for the Jews,” said one Jewish activist in western Ukraine, who asked to remain anonymous. “There were only short periods of independence in Ukraine. Objectively speaking, the struggle here now can be seen in a positive light as the beginning of the flourishing of a civil society. But from the Jewish perspective, I’m not sure it’s good. The freedom heralded by Yushchenko’s party strengthens nationalist elements around him. So far, in western Ukraine [where most of the residents supported Yushchenko], there have been fewer antisemitic incidents than in Western Europe. Swastikas were painted here and there; sometimes tombstones were smashed. The present government is fighting this. So there is fear of change.”

This attitude trickled down to an article published last week in the British daily The Guardian, which noted Yushchenko’s ambivalent position on closing down an opposition paper after it published a stinging antisemitic article.

The article in Selskie Vesti (meaning “Village News”) stated that Jews had joined the German army in invading Ukraine. Senior Ukrainian officials, among them Yanukovich, called for the closing of the paper.

Yushchenko, however, wavered in his response. In the midst of the election campaign, the most widely read opposition paper, which had supported him, was too important to give up easily. Only after initial confusion did Yushchenko criticize the article and join the call to shut down the paper.

“I am convinced the article was commissioned to blacken the name of Yushchenko and sabotage a source of support for him,” said Leonid Finberg, director of The Institute of Judaica in Kiev and chairman of a publishing house. “Presenting him as a person who supports antisemitism is a terrible distortion. His father was in Auschwitz, and it is known that his family saved Jews during the Holocaust. The Ukrainian intelligentsia, including the Jews, supports him completely. He had made a great contribution to constructive dialogue between the Jewish and the Ukrainian intelligentsia.”

Finberg also told of the strong position that Yushchenko took at a conference on antisemitism in Sweden, and about an appearance he made before a group of Ukrainian Jews.

But some cities in western Ukrainian, Yushchenko’s stronghold, saw isolated cases of xenophobia and antisemitism during the past week.

On November 25, vandals drew swastikas and antisemitic and anti-Russian slogans on the building of the Russian Cultural Center in Lvov.

Some Yanukovich supporters who came to Kiev from eastern Ukraine expressed antisemitic views during interviews with a reporter at their camp at Kiev’s Dynamo Stadium. Some of them threatened to “teach a lesson to kikes, ”a Kiev newspaper reported.

Finberg attached little importance to graffiti calling to strike at Jews and Russians that was painted on the walls of clubs associated with Yushchenko.

“There are nationalist and antisemitic elements on the fringes of all political personalities here. I have no doubt that Yushchenko and his people are not connected to this. Such graffiti can be found today all over the world, including Israel.”

The head of the Ukrainian Jewish community, Yosef Zisles, rejected what he called “absurd rumors” connecting Yushchenko to antisemitism.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency contributed to this report.

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