Betsy Gidwitx Reports

Visit To Jewish Communities
In Ukraine, Moldova
April, 1998

This report is divided into three sections: (1) Ukraine; (2) Moldova; and (3) Hillel Pesach Project in Moldova.


The writer visited Kyiv, Lviv, and Chernovtsy before crossing into Moldova. After leaving Moldova, the writer went to Odessa, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhya, and Kharkiv, all in Ukraine. A second visit to Kyiv occurred at the end of the trip.

Ukraine is the second largest new state to have emerged from the former Soviet Union, following only Russia in size. It is approximately equal to France in both territorial expanse and population. Reflecting economic chaos and emigration, the number of its inhabitants has diminished from over 52 million at independence in 1991 to about 50 million in 1998. About 90,000 more people died in the first three months of 1998 than were born during the same period, a trend that has been visible for several years.1

The gross domestic product of Ukraine has decreased by about 60 percent since 1991 and only recently has begun to show a marginal increase. Commentary on the Ukrainian economic situation in both the international and Ukrainian press has been extensive, pointing to the following factors as critical: excessive government spending; failure to develop and enforce an equitable tax system; massive foreign borrowing; lack of reform in agricultural and energy sectors; widespread corruption; and rampant crime. Such conditions drive off foreign investment, which has diminished substantially in the last several years. About one-half of the economy is in private hands.

The absence of a tax system has led to a near-collapse of the public sector. Wage and pension arrears reached approximately $5 billion in mid-1998. The physical infrastructure of the country is crumbling, public education has deteriorated, and the quality of medical care is declining.

In national elections for the Ukrainian Rada (parliament) in March 1998, Communists won the largest bloc of seats (25 percent) on a platform of reversing the major portion of privatization, a partial re-nationalization of the banking and industrial sectors, and "voluntary reunification" with Russia. Other leftist parties gained another 15 to 20 percent of Rada seats. Business interests attained 40 to 50 percent of Rada positions. The resulting composition of the Rada is likely to obstruct the reform efforts of President Leonid Kuchma. Presidential elections will be held in October 1999.

"Ukrainianization" continues at a rapid pace. Russian remains the working language of almost all large cities, but street and commercial signs are shifting to Ukrainian.2 Television is highly politicized, newspapers somewhat less so.

Independent Ukraine is not without positive aspects. The recent elections were considered clean by independent observers. Ethnic demagoguery is much less visible than Ukrainian history might suggest. Antisemitism persists, but its base is almost entirely at a popular, street level without government support. Ukraine enjoys good relations with its neighbors, although Russia persists in its irritation over Ukrainian control of Crimea, a strategic area with an overwhelmingly Russian population. Ukraine declared itself a non-nuclear weapons state in 1994, accepting international assistance in removing Soviet nuclear arms from its territory. Under United States pressure, Ukraine ceased nuclear cooperation with Iran in 1997.

Ukraine is the fourth largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, beneficiary of $225 million in 1998. English-language skills are highly valued.


1. Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, a Karliner-Stoliner hasid and Chief Rabbi of Kyiv and Ukraine, returned to Kyiv with his family in mid-winter after a prolonged absence due to illness. Rabbi Bleich is considered one of the more effective rabbis in the transition states, a skilled analyst and capable organizer. He has resumed a vigorous schedule, continuing to build various local and national Jewish institutions. Although he would have initiated such endeavors under any circumstances, the strengthening of alternative Jewish organizations assumed a new urgency following the establishment of the All-Ukraine Jewish Congress (Всеукраїнський Еврейський Конгресс) by Vadim Rabinovich in April 1997.

Vadim Rabinovich is on the "watch list" of the United States, denied entry to the U.S. and shunned by senior American officials because of his involvement in narcotics trafficking, weapons trading, money laundering, and other criminal activity. His pretension to Jewish communal leadership is, at minimum, a serious distraction to the tasks of Jewish governance and Jewish community-building in Ukraine. Mr. Rabinovich is a financial supporter of Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, who, in turn encourages Mr. Rabinovich in his Jewish communal endeavors. Mr. Kuchma is said to believe that an active organized Ukrainian Jewish infrastructure may be able to engage the support of the American Jewish lobby, which Mr. Kuchma perceives as influential in shaping U.S. foreign policy. Despite entreaties by the U.S. government, Mr. Kuchma persists in his support of Mr. Rabinovich as a Jewish communal leader.

Rabbi Bleich has embarked upon a two-tiered strategy to cope with Mr. Rabinovich. First, he is working to strengthen local and national Jewish institutions (such as the Kyiv Municipal Jewish Association, an umbrella organization for various local Jewish groups, and the Union of Jewish Religious Organizations of Ukraine) that provide an alternative source of services to Ukrainian Jews. Second, he has accepted a modest role inside the Congress that permits him to monitor and exert some influence over Congress activity.

The scope of All-Ukraine Jewish Congress operations has been circumscribed by the refusal of Chabad rabbis within Ukraine to affiliate with it. Thus, Mr. Rabinovich is denied the support of leading Jewish organizations in such large cities as Dnipropetrovsk and Kharkiv, as well as a host of smaller Ukrainian Jewish communities in which the Chabad movement predominates. However, more than 100 local Jewish groups have associated with the Congress, most in hope of receiving financial stipends from it. Financial grants to member organizations has been minimal. Mr. Rabinovich's dictatorial and mercurial leadership style further limits his effectiveness.

2. The Kyiv Municipal Jewish Association brings together 18 local Jewish organizations under the leadership of Rabbi Yaakov Bleich and Executive Director Anatoliy P. Shengait. These organizations include: Club for Intelligentsia, a Home for Elderly (under development; see below), the Jewish Musical Theater Neshoma (group of elderly singers), Hesed Avot, Chevra Kadisha, Jewish Women's Club, Shadchan Service, the Center for Vocational Retraining, the Jewish Press and Information Center, the monthly Jewish newspaper Vozrozhdeniye (Возрождение; Renaissance), a klezmer ensemble, the nascent Jewish University group Ekonomika (see below), Makor (youth initiatives), Gymnasium #299 (day school under Rabbi Bleich's supervision), the Children's Musical Theater Emuna, Jewish summer camps, and a Jewish sports club.

Rabbi Bleich has secured funding from about 20 local Jewish donors for support of these organizations and for general communal activity. For example, the Association held a farewell party for Zvi Magen, the former Ambassador of the State of Israel, shortly before he departed from Ukraine. Chabad and Progressive groups have not joined this institution.

1Kyiv Post, 4:36 (May 8, 1998), p. 3. The birth rate among the Ukrainian Jewish population, in particular, is even lower. Ukrainian Jewish deaths are believed to exceed Ukrainian Jewish births by about 9:1.
2. Most native speakers of Russian are able to understand 70 to 80 percent of written Ukrainian.

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