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Notes On Jewish Community Life In Ukraine

May, 2001


This report reviews a visit to Ukraine from April 30 to May 17, 2001. The author traveled to Jewish communities in Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhya, and Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, and to Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, in the central part of the country. The Jewish population centers in Kyiv, Dnipropetrovsk, and Kharkiv are three of the four largest in the country.1

Even in the best of times, post-Soviet Ukraine has been a country in crisis, its society blighted by pervasive corruption and a severely dysfunctional government. Its President has vast and unrestrained powers, including the authority to appoint a prime minister, other ministers, regional (oblast)2 governors, and numerous judges. He also is empowered to issue various economic regulations. The Ukrain-ian parliament (Rada), is split into three blocs of approximately equal strength and often ap-pears paralyzed, unable to enact the reforms so critical to modernization of the country.3

In September 2000, an online investigative jour-nalist who had dared criticize corruption in the highest levels of the Ukrainian government, disappeared. Two months later, the headless corpse of Heorhiy Gongadze, the journalist, was found in a field near Kyiv. Scarcely a few weeks later, the scandal assumed extraordinary proportions when it was announced that audiotapes of conversations in President Kuchma’s office suggested the complicity of Mr. Kuchma and additional key government officials in the disappearance and death of Mr. Gongadze. The tapes also referred to government kickbacks to politicians and businessmen, government plans to intimidate the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the U.S.-funded Radio Liberty, and Presidential intentions to interfere in several ongoing criminal investigations. The head of the government tax administration is heard reporting that he is concealing a multi-million dollar tax fraud case of a friendly oligarch. The contents of the tapes generated significant popular opposition to President Kuchma, expressed in public demonstrations in Kyiv, but the demonstrations soon sputtered under government harassment and media suppression. Mr. Kuchma has retained the support of key oligarchs, including several strongly identified with the Jewish community, throughout this period.

In October, President Kuchma abruptly dismissed Borys Tarasyuk, the pro-Western foreign minister, and replaced him with an individual more kindly disposed toward Moscow. Mr. Kuchma declared that Ukraine required a more balanced approach in its foreign relations, i.e., a stronger association with Russia. Russian companies have proceeded to purchase Ukrainian firms in privatization auctions, some of them rigged. Among the corporations coming under Russian control are oil refineries, aluminum plants, banks, and Ukrainian broadcast media. Ukraine is dependent on Russia for its entire supply of oil and gas.

In April, Ukrainian oligarchs joined with Communists to form a majority in the Rada that forced the ouster of Victor Yushchenko, the liberal Prime Minister. A popular figure perceived as honest, Mr. Yushchenko had supported various government reforms that would have curbed the power of oligarchs and encouraged the free markets that are anathema to Communists. In the 16 months of his tenure as Prime Minister, Mr. Yushchenko had restructured Ukraine’s foreign debt, eased its domestic debt, eliminated arrears in wages and pensions, reduced the role of barter in the economy, presided over the first solid growth in the Ukrainian economy since independence in 1991, trimmed tax breaks for favored companies, and encouraged transparency in financial reporting, especially in the enormously corrupt energy industry.4

On May 10, Russia announced that its new Ambassador to Ukraine and concurrent “plenipotentiary envoy for trade and cooperation” would be Victor Chernomyrdin, the former Russian Prime Minister (1992-1998). Prior to becoming Prime Minister of Russia, Mr. Chernomyrdin had been the head of Gazprom, the Russian natural gas monopoly. He has close ties to Mr. Kuchma and to prominent oligarchs. Among his priorities will be the management of Ukrainian debt, estimated at between $1.4 and $2 billion, to Russia for natural gas. Russia also is concerned about Ukrainian tapping of gas from Gazprom pipelines to Europe that pass through Ukraine.

On a broader scale, the aims of Russia appear to be: control of the Ukrainian gas transit system, which transports Russian gas to Europe; linkage of the Ukrainian electrical power system with that of Russia, thus enabling Russian control of Ukrainian energy-generating capacity; and acceleration of privatization of Ukrainian industry by Russian capital. Russia will be able to control the Ukrainian economy without engaging in the politically inexpedient actual absorption of Ukraine.

Leading Jewish oligarchs are perceived as favoring greater Russian influence. Several control influential Ukrainian media, which have supported the Russian moves and have suppressed critical reporting. Most have major economic interests in Russia.

Several Western governments have withdrawn support for Mr. Kuchma and have restricted high-level contacts with Ukrainian political figures. Fearing instability, Western investors are inactive. The critical reforms that Western governments and international economic organizations have been urging Ukraine to adopt seem more unlikely with each passing month. These are: encouragement of independent media and civic groups; reduction in Presidential power; judicial independence; increased authority of investigative bodies; development of a system of checks and balances; and promotion of transparency in all financial transactions.

For many Ukrainians, such concepts are incomprehensible. They remain provincial in their thinking, prisoners of their long history of subservience to rule by others. It is mainly the intellectual elite and those with access to unbiased news on the Internet who seem to understand the crisis in which their country is mired.

The audiotapes that implicate President Kuchma and other government officials in the disappearance and murder of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze are laced with antisemitism, as is much of Ukrainian daily conversation, even in intellectual circles. Whereas most intellectuals in Moscow are too sophisticated to be openly antisemitic, those in Kyiv and other major Ukrainian cities seem less constrained. Should the current Ukrainian crisis worsen, the prominence of several Jewish oligarchs as supporters of President Kuchma may only exacerbate anti-Jewish bigotry.5

Dnipropetrovsk

1. The Jewish community of Dnipropetrovsk is reviewed in all of the writer’s previous reports about Ukrainian Jewry. Dnipropetrovsk (formerly Ekaterinoslav, in honor of Catherine the Great) is the third largest city in Ukraine, following Kyiv and Kharkiv; its current population is about 1.1 million. It was a closed city until mid-1990 due to its extensive military industry, particularly Yuzhmash, an enormous installation manufacturing intercontinental ballistic missiles, booster rockets, and related products. Historically, the city has been an important source of leadership for the former Soviet Union and for post-Soviet Ukraine. Leonid Brezhnev, former Ukrainian Prime Minister Valery Pustovoitenko, and current Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma all spent significant portions of their careers in important leadership positions in the city.

Jews have lived in the area, part of the old Pale of Settlement, since the late eighteenth century. By 1897, the Jewish population of Ekaterinoslav had reached 41,240, more than one-third of the entire city at that time. Pogroms occurred in 1881, 1882, and 1905; the last was the most devastating, killing 67 and wounding more than 100 people. Prior to the consolidation of Soviet authority in the 1920s, the Jewish community was highly organized, maintaining a diverse network of Jewish religious, educational, and cultural institutions. It was an important center of both Zionism and the Chabad movement. A small Karaite community had its own prayer house.

2. Contemporary Jewish communal activity in Dnipropetrovsk is led by Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki, the Chief Rabbi of Dnipropetrovsk and the central Jewish figure in eastern Ukraine. Rabbi Kaminezki is one of the most respected rabbis in all of the post-Soviet successor states. Politically astute and exceptionally successful in major local fundraising, he has built an unparalleled network of local Jewish institutions. Rabbi Kaminezki also is developing local Jewish leadership in the Philanthropic Fund of the Dnipropetrovsk Jewish Com-munity (Благотворительный фонд Днепропетровского еврейского общины). The Jewish population of the city is probably about 35,000.



1. Ukrainian orthography is used in the spelling of Ukrainian place-names.
2. An oblast (область) is an administrative region in Ukraine (and Russia) with authority between that of a county and a state in the United States. Ukraine contains 26 oblasts, two of which are cities with oblast status; these are the capital city of Kyiv and the military district/seaport of Sevastopol. Kyiv oblast refers to territory surrounding Kyiv, not the city itself. (Crimea has the status of a republic within Ukraine.)
3. The three blocs are (1) a reformist group openly hostile to President Kuchma, (2) a group of wealthy individuals, often referred to as oligarchs, who support President Kuchma, and (3) Communists and other anti-Western leftists. N.B., an oligarch is a member of a small group of wealthy individuals who exercise control over a government, usually for corrupt or selfish purposes. In Ukraine, oligarchs control critical industries, such as energy and news media.
4. See the interview with U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual, pp. 75 to 77.
5. Those Jewish oligarchs most often mentioned as close allies of President Kuchma are Victor Pinchuk, who is the common-law husband of Mr. Kuchma’s daughter, and Hrihory Surkis. Mr. Pinchuk owns Interpipe, which manufactures seamless steel pipes, and also deals in gas. Additionally, he controls several important news outlets. Mr. Surkis is best known as the owner of the Kyiv Dynamo soccer team. He also controls the Slavutych holding company (oil, electricity, metals) and has interests in Ukrainian media. Both men are strongly identified with the Jewish community.

 
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