Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Journey To Jewish Population Centers In Ukraine

April, May, 1999

This report reviews a journey to Jewish population centers in Kyiv and eastern Ukraine during a three-week period in late April and early May of 1999. The eastern Ukraine centers included the large industrial cities of Dnipropetrovsk, Dniprodzerzhinsk, Kharkiv, Zaporizhya, and Donetsk, as well as the smaller urban area of Novomoskovsk.1

Ukraine is the second largest new state to have emerged from the former Soviet Union, following only Russia in size. It is approximately equal in both territorial expanse and population to France. Reflecting economic decline and emigration, its population has diminished from over 52 million at the time of Ukrainian independence in 1991 to 49.98 million in 1999.2

The Ukrainian economy, which had been in recession even before the August 1998 devaluation of the ruble in neighboring Russia, remains deeply troubled. Its real growth rate is negative, declining 4.2 percent during the first quarter of 1999. Inflation increased 2.3 percent in April 1999 and is likely to grow substantially as the government finds it desirable to print money to pay wage arrears of approximately three billion dollars before Presidential elections in October 1999. Pension payments, which average about $15 monthly, also are in arrears and may become a government priority before the October 31 voting. Unemployment, though difficult to measure, is high and growing.3 The gross domestic product per capita is about $2,500, and the average monthly salary is about $40.

According to the Ukrainian Ministry of Finance, the country owes foreign creditors $12.4 billion. State bank reserves in mid-May 1999 were $896 million. The International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and several Western countries continue to finance the current government of Prime Minister Leonid Kuchma, which is considered market-oriented despite major flaws and repeated failures to meet Western conditions. Kuchma has been in constant conflict with the majority leftist Rada (lower house of Parliament), which has repeatedly blocked reform measures introduced by the President and his allies. Western lenders are demanding reforms in agriculture, manufacturing, energy, and banking. Among the specific appeals are: accelerated privatization of farmland and numerous industrial sectors; deregulation of government-controlled natural gas and electricity distribution monopolies; better bank depositor protection; and reform of the court system. Great apprehension is voiced about the possible victory of Communists and Socialists, backed by disgruntled workers and pensioners, in the forthcoming Presidential election.

Western observers also are troubled by continuing erosion of freedom of the press. Almost all national daily newspapers are controlled by the government or by political interest groups and oligarchs friendly to the government. The opposition press faces harassment through such measures as intimidation of potential advertisers and consequent loss of revenue, inconsistently applied tax and libel laws, and physical attacks upon key writers and editors.

Some of the large ethnic Russian minority, which constitutes about one-quarter of the total population and is concentrated in the eastern and more industrialized part of Ukraine, is nostalgic for the Soviet Union and supportive of efforts by Russia to increase its influence in Ukraine. The Russian National Unity (Русское национальное единство; known by its Russian initials, RNE) party, a fascist group led by veteran racist Alexander Barkashov, is increasingly active in Ukraine and is contributing to a growing sense of insecurity among the 300,000 to 400,000 Jews who live in the country.

The Jewish population is concentrated in four cities: Kyiv (70,000 to 100,000 Jews), Dnipropetrovsk (45,000), and Kharkiv and Odessa (35,000 to 40,000 each). Ukrainian Jewry is losing about 40,000 individuals annually due to heavy emigration and a high mortality rate. The average age of Ukrainian Jewry is about 56 and the death to birth ratio is believed to be about 13:1.4 In view of the demographic decline, some groups working with Ukrainian Jews now prefer to lease premises, rather than purchase real estate, fearing that a diminishing population (and the organizations that serve them) will be burdened by unnecessarily large property holdings within a few years.

Antisemitism is perceived by observers to be increasing in Ukraine, spurred by the need among some elements of the population to find scapegoats for continuing economic distress. Provocative actions by such groups as Russian National Unity and occasional antisemitic statements by some individuals associated with Rukh, a Ukrainian national party, are thought to be secondary in generating anti-Jewish bigotry. Although growing antisemitism is causing some unease among Ukrainian Jews, it is less serious than in neighboring Russia and is not yet a significant factor in generating Jewish emigration. Observers note that President Kuchma is “well connected” with local Jews. However, the 1999 campaign of a Jewish candidate for mayor of Kyiv was attacked in antisemitic posters and leaflets.

Map of Ukraine. Available:

As in Russia, a disproportionately large number of Jews are deemed oligarchs, i.e., among those in a small group who exercise control over important sectors of the government, often for selfish and/or corrupt purposes. Three of the five men most closely associated with Prime Minister Kuchma are strongly identified with the Jewish community: Grigory Surkis of Kyiv, Viktor Pinchuk of Dnipropetrovsk, and Vadim Rabinovich, who commutes between Kyiv and Israel.5 Other Jewish businessmen with national influence are: Yehven Chervonenko, Eduard Shifrin, and Vadim Shulman of Kyiv; Gennady Bogolyubov of Dnipropetrovsk; and Efim Zvyagilsky of Donetsk. All of these men are active in Jewish communal life in their home cities and on a national level.

National Jewish communal activity in Ukraine is complex and subject to some disdain for a public feud that has erupted between two newly-organized umbrella groups claiming to represent Ukrainian Jewry. Each held rival inaugural congresses in Kyiv during the first part of April 1999. Although casual observers may find the rivalry ludicrous, participants and even foreign governments are concerned about the competing claims to legitimacy and see little humor in the conflict. The first group, United Jewish Community of Ukraine (Обеднана єврейська община Украіни) held its organizing conference April 5-6; it is backed by Vadim Rabinovich and succeeds his All-Ukraine Jewish Congress (Всеукраінський єврейський конгресс), which he had founded in 1997. The inaugural meeting of the new Rabinovich group was hastily called, designed to upstage the long-scheduled initial session of the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine (Єврейська конфедерація украіни), which met April 12-14. The latter organization is backed by Chief Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich and a number of wealthy businessmen.

Mr. 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 with rogue states, money laundering, and other criminal pursuits. He also is barred from Britain and Austria.6 Rabinovich appears to be the only significant backer of United Jewish Community, spending large sums to attract paid “rent-a-crowd” delegates to attend a lavish organizing conference. His leadership style is said to be dictatorial and mercurial, and his actual achievements in the philanthropic world are capricious and meager relative to his means, consisting mainly of support for restoration of the well-known Brodsky synagogue and development of a fledgling Jewish community center in Kyiv. His only prominent local Jewish associates are Rabbi Moshe Asman, an independent Chabad rabbi in Kyiv7 , and Arkady Monastirsky, a former ally of Ilya Levitas, now affiliated with the Jewish Confederation. Mr. Rabinovich abruptly terminated for petty political reasons an earlier grant in support of soup kitchens in six cities, leaving 258 elderly Jews without food.8 Once one of President Kuchma’s major backers, Mr. Rabinovich is widely perceived as initiating his Jewish communal activity to enhance his image, which has been badly damaged by the various reports of his numerous criminal activities. Should rehabilitation prove elusive, it is thought that Mr. Rabinovich will attempt to use his philanthropic activity as protection against an eventual bid by the Ukrainian government, under American and other Western pressure, to deport him for his criminal conduct. At that time, it is predicted, Mr. Rabinovich will claim that antisemites are persecuting him for his Jewish philanthropic efforts and will appeal to foreign leaders for support.9

1. Ukrainian orthography is used in the spelling of all place-names and all Ukrainian Jewish organizations in this report that use Ukrainian in their own documentation.
2Reuters, June 9, 1999.
3. As in neighboring Russia, unemployment often is concealed by the practice of placing workers on “extended leave” without pay.
4. Interview with Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, Chief Rabbi of Kyiv and Ukraine, May 13, 1999.
5. Mr. Surkis is best known as the owner of the Kyiv Dynamo soccer team. He also controls the Slavutych holding company (oil, electricity, metals), has a stake in the television station Inter, and publishes the business magazine Zakon Í Biznes (Law and Business). Viktor Pinchuk, is the owner of Interpipe, which manufactures seamless steel pipes, and also deals in gas. He controls Fakty, the highest-circulation daily newspaper in Ukraine, and Channel 11, an important Dnipropetrovsk television station. The controversial Vadim Rabinovich, probably the wealthiest of all of the oligarchs, operates the Swiss-based holding company Rico Capital Group and owns two Kyiv publications, the newspaper Stolichniye Novosti (Capital News) and the business magazine Delovaya Nedelya (Business Week). Mr. Rabinovich also controls significant time slots on both the major state television channel and the major state radio station. Prime Minister Kuchma ceased taking contributions from Rabinovich in 1998 and arranged for his deportation to Israel as this report was being completed. See below.
6. His unlawful activity attracted attention in the Israeli press in August 1998 when then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to attend a dinner at which Rabinovich was to have been honored. The organization sponsoring the dinner revoked the award.
7. Mr. Rabinovich has provided financial assistance to Rabbi Asman and to the Brodsky Synagogue with which Rabbi Asman is associated. See pages 7-9.
8. The Joint Distribution Committee is now funding three of these soup kitchens.
9. Mr. Rabinovich has placed numerous “advertorials” in the English-language Kyiv Post and in other newspapers promoting United Jewish Community of Ukraine and his own defining role in it

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