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JEWISH COMMUNITY LIFE

 

IN

 

POST-KUCHMA UKRAINE

 

Report of a Visit

 

March 20 to April 8, 2005

 

 

This report reviews a visit to Ukraine in spring of 2005 shortly afterthe election of Victor Yushchenko as President of Ukraine. Mr. Yushchenkoreplaced the retiring Leonid Kuchma, who had attempted to rig a November 2004election in favor of another candidate, Victor Yanukovych. So blatant were theelection irregularities leading to Mr. Yanukovych's purported victory that tensof thousands of Ukrainian citizens took to the streets in demonstrations, occupyingthe main thoroughfare and city square in Kyiv for several weeks and disruptingtraffic in other cities across Ukraine as well. Hailed as the "Orange Revolution" in recognition of Mr.Yushchenko's campaign color, the mass citizen action forced Ukrainian authoritiesto invalidate the November results and call a new election in late December.Under the observation of both domestic and international moni-tors, theDecember 26 election proceeded according to democratic standards, de-terminingMr. Yushchenko as the new leader of Ukraine with 55 percent of the vote.

 

The Kreshchatik, a prominent boulevard in the centerof Kyiv, pulses with traffic on ordinary business days. Its wide lanes wereoccupied by thousands of demonstrators during the Orange Revolution of late 2004.

 

 

The OrangeRevolution has two directions. One is toward a civil society, that is,development of a government of law, a free press, a transparent and competitivemarket economy, an end to corruption, and an end to the abuse of governmentpower. It calls for a basic moral code that informs the daily life ofauthorities and common citizens alike. The second direction is toward aseparate Ukrainian identity and an orientation toward western Europe, ratherthan toward Russia. Bothconcepts are revolutionary in the contexts of Ukrainian history andUkrainian-Russian relations.

 

Individuals withwhom the writer spoke were optimistic about the future of Ukraine, encouraged by the leading role ofUkrainian students and young adults in the Orange Revolution and the restraintshown by government authorities in responding to the civil disobedience thatwould remove many of these authorities from their positions of influence andprivilege. Further, although hostility toward the small group of oligarchs whoexercised enormous economic power and enjoyed government favor under the Kuchmaregime was widespread, President Yushchenko and his associates thus far hadrefrained from retribution, realizing that acts of vengeance against successfulbusiness interests could cause severe economic dislocation that would bringhardship to ordinary Ukrainians as well as to the targeted wealthy class.

 

Nonetheless, the list of issues to be addressed by thenew government is lengthy. On a superficial level, the economy appearsstrong, the gross domestic product having attained a growth rate of 12 percentin 2004. Kyiv and other major cities have seen a boom in real estate development;building cranes spike the skyline, marking the construction of new elite officetowers and apartment complexes. Smart new shops and restaurants attractcustomers with discretionary income and expensive tastes. Yet, althoughcommerce grows at a rapid pace, real production remains limited and is concentratedin heavily industrialized eastern Ukraine where highcommodity prices have led to a surge in exports of steel products, machinery,and chemicals. Much of western Ukraine remains mired in poverty; its citizenscontinue to leave the country for employment in central and eastern Europe,their remittances to family members still in Ukraine contributing substantially to the economic well-being of entireregions.[1]

 

The Ukrainian economic infrastructure isastonishingly weak for a country aspiring to join the European Union; a numberof national highways are poorly paved two-lane roads, and some major populationcenters lack a dependable water supply. Telephone lines cannot supporthigh-speed access to the Internet in all districts of major cities, and homeuse of the Internet remains beyond the economic means of the majority ofUkrainian citizens. International investment in Ukraine is low, potential investors intimidated by layers of bureaucracy, anuncertain legal environment, and massive corruption in government and society.

 

Inflation in Ukraine is expected to reach 12 percent in 2005,that is, a rate equivalent to the 2004 growth in gross domestic product.Several causes for inflation are cited: increasing oil prices tied to the internationaloil market; significant increases in both salaries and pensions in 2004 mandatedby then Prime Minister Yanukovych as part of his election campaign; heavy campaignexpenditures by both sides in the 2004 Presidential election and forthcomingparliamentary election; and the impact on exchange rates of the declining valueof the U.S. dollar. The cost of processed food products rose 15 to 20 percentin the first quarter of 2005 and the cost of petrol for cars jumped 45 percentin some areas in 2004. The price of central heating and electricity alsoincreased appreciably in 2004.

 

Unemployment in Kyiv affected 9.2 percent of the labor force in2004 and is expected to reach 10 to 11 percent in 2005. In smaller populationcenters, unemployment is significantly higher. Additionally, salaries for manyemployed individuals are inadequate for the support of their families.Notwithstanding the election-related pension increases in 2004, most elderlyUkrainians live in poverty.[2]Although definitions of upper, middle, and lower classes remain imprecise, mostindividuals with whom the author spoke estimated that at least 70 percent ofthe Ukrainian population can be classified as poor; estimates of the middleclass were in the 25 to 30 percent range, and only one to two percent wereconsidered sufficiently wealthy to be identified as upper class. Ahigh-ranking foreign diplomat in Kyiv spoke of a "psychological middle class,"that is, individuals with strong professional credentials who identify asmiddle class but receive such low remuneration that they are impoverished;university professors, said the diplomat, should be included in thepsychological middle class.[3]

 

Health care and consciousness remain well below westernstandards. Substance abuse (tobacco, alcohol, narcotics) is widespread. Twopercent of the population is believed to be HIV-positive. A school principalobserved to the writer that many parents do not understand the need for theirchildren to play outside. Knowledge of sound dietary practice is deficient,and economic hardship deters purchase of nutritious foods, such as fruits andvegetables. Epidemics of influenza forced the closure of entire school systemstwice during the first three months of 2005.

 

Common medicines remain beyond the reach of manyfamilies, and necessary surgery imposes multiple burdens -- physical,psychological, financial -- upon patients and their families. Patients mustprovide their own bed linens, medicines, surgical tools, and food. Ukrainianmedical care is plagued by contaminated testing procedures and incompetentlaboratory work, mediocre diagnostic skills, deficient sanitation standards,indifferent medical personnel, and the repeated need to bribe underpaid medicalstaff for basic services. Life expectancy in Ukraine -- 62 years for men and 73 for women -- is only slightly higher thanthat in Russia.

 

The population of Ukraine continues to decline, from approximately 52 million at the time ofindependence in 1991 to 47.7 million in July 2004. The estimated 2004 birthrate was 10.21 births per 1,000 population; the estimated 2004 death rate was16.41 per 1,000 population.[4] Inaddition to the health care and medical factors cited above, causes ofpopulation loss are aging of the population, low fertility, high mortality,emigration of younger age cohorts, impoverishment, and environmentaldegradation.

 

Ukrainehspace=12src="jewish_community_life_in_post_kuchma_ukraine_march_april_2005_files/image002.jpg"Thelargest cities in Ukraine are: Kyiv (2,692,000), Kharkiv(1,480,000), Dnipropetrovsk (1,069,000), Odesa (1,029,000), and Donetsk (985,000). Economic power is concentrated in Kyiv,Dnipropetrovsk, and Donetsk; nonetheless, each of these cities has significantconcentrations of impoverished residents. The gap between rich and poor isparticularly large in Donetsk, which also is viewed as the most corruptcity in the country.

 

(Mapquest)

 

 

 

The Jewishpopulation of Ukraine isestimated at approximately 250,000, although both smaller and substantiallylarger figures may be offered by individuals familiar with Jewish life in thecountry.[5] Thelargest Jewish population centers are: Kyiv (70,000 to 80,000), Dnipropetrovsk(30,000 to 40,000), Kharkiv (25,000 to 30,000), and Odesa and Donetsk (each 12,000 to 20,000). Thenumber of Jews in Ukraine isdeclining at a steeper rate than is the general population. Reasons for the sharpdemographic decline include: aging of the population and a high mortalityrate, a low birth rate, assimilation, extensive intermarriage (believed to be80 to 90 percent in most areas), and emigration of younger age cohorts. Theaverage age of Ukrainian Jews is believed to be in the high 50's, and the deathto birth ratio is 10:1. Jewish population losses have been offset to a modestdegree by a return to Ukraineof some individuals and families who had emigrated to Israel or, to a lesser extent, to Germany. No precise number of such returnees is available, but no one withwhom the writer spoke believed their numbers to be significant or their likelyimpact on Ukrainian Jewry to be important.

 

Although noformal study has been conducted, it appears that Ukrainian Jews voted inthe 2004 presidential elections in patterns similar to those of thegeneral Ukrainian population. In general, Ukrainian Jews appear to believethat Ukraine will be hospitableto Jews under the leadership of new President Victor Yushchenko. Mr.Yushchenko lit a candle on a Chanukah menorah while spending almost two hoursat the Brodsky Synagogue in Kyiv in December 2004 and has made severalstatements in support of Jewish community development in Ukraine. Several Jews hold positions ofinfluence in his government. Nonetheless, many Jews expressed concern aboutincreasing "street" antisemitism, as well as anti-Jewish bigotry emanating froman educational institution in Kyiv; President Yushchenko had been expected tomake a strong statement condemning such prejudice, but had not done so by theend March.

 



[1] About fivemillion Ukrainians work outside Ukraine. Approximately $2 million is sent every day through Western Unionto such cities as Chernivtsi, Ivano-Frankivsk, Khmelnytskyi, Ternopil, andVinnytsia from Ukrainians working abroad in Italy, Portugal, andother countries. See The Kyiv Post, 12:15 (April 14, 2005), p. 1.

[2] Pension increasesfor most elderly, who constitute about 35 percent of the Ukrainian population,were offset by inflation. Higher-rank World War II veterans are an exception;retired colonels and generals receive generous pension bonuses and enjoy highstandards of living.

 

[3] Many universityprofessors are employed in several institutions concurrently, holding one andone-half to two fulltime positions in order to earn income sufficient tosupport their families.

[4] Most statistics inthis section regarding the general Ukrainian population are from the 2004CIA World Factbook, updated February 10, 2005. See information availableon the CIA website at http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/up.html.

 

[5] For example, aJoint Distribution Committee briefing paper prepared in early 2005 states that500,000 Jews live in Ukraine.The document, which was distributed as background material for budgetdeliberations, asserts that the Jewish population of Kyiv is 90,000 and thatboth Dnipropetrovsk and Odesa have Jewish populations of 60,000. The Jewishpopulation of Kharkiv is listed as 50,000.

 
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