Jews divided but safe as Ukraine crisis unfolds

Some observers fear that anti-Semitism and xenophobia could rise if the crisis continues.

Ukraine's intensifying political crisis is worrying the nation's Jews, whose sympathies are split between President Viktor Yuschenko and Prime Minster Viktor Yanukovich. Some observers fear that anti-Semitism and xenophobia could rise if the crisis continues, but no anti-Semitic slogans were seen this week as thousands of protesters filled Kiev's central square to protest Yuschenko's decision to dissolve Parliament and move to early elections. Observers say the Jewish community is likely to remain unharmed no matter what solution emerges. Josef Zissels, leader of theVa'ad of Ukraine, a community umbrella group, told JTA that Jews are represented in both political camps. As in the 2004 Orange Revolution - which elevated Yuschenko to the presidency after a fraud-tainted race against Yanukovich - Jews are divided in their opinions about the unfolding crisis. A Yuschenko supporter since 2004, Zissels said the Va'ad believes that in the current crisis Jews ultimately "support common sense," and that the community would not welcome an escalation of the political battle. On Monday, Yuschenko - who has had difficult relations with the opposition-dominated Parliament - disbanded the legislature. As thousands of supporters of Yanukovich, the pro-Russian prime minister, streamed into Kiev from across the country, Yuschenko warned against resorting to force. Thousands of Yanukovich supporters marched to Parliament on April 5 to protest Yuschenko's call for elections May 27, which the opposition describes as a violation of the Constitution. The opposition holds a majority in Parliament, with 250 of 450 seats. According to Kiev police, over 10,000 Yanukovich supporters gathered Thursday in Independence Square waving flags of his Party of Regions and those of the Socialists and Communists, members of his coalition. The standoff arose after 11 lawmakers allied with Yuschenko, the pro-Western president, defected last month to Yanukovich's coalition. Yuschenko accused the coalition of seeking to expand its power base in violation of the Constitution by recruiting members from pro-Yuschenko factions. Ukrainian law says a coalition can be expanded only by the addition of entire factions, not individual lawmakers. "Because of this step the balance in Parliament was violated, which shouldn't have taken place," said Aleksandr Paskhaver, a Jewish political analyst from Kiev. The Constitutional Court has yet to decide whether Yuschenko had the power to disband Parliament. Some Ukrainian Jews said the opposition gave Yuschenko no choice by continuously refusing to cooperate with him and blocking moves toward reform. "Yuschenko's decree is an example of democracy, which was oriented against the usurpation of power," said Mila Milner, a Jewish human rights activist from Kiev. The rival parties "should try to find a compromise." "We are looking forward to a new election in May and support the dissolution of the Parliament" by Yuschenko, said Alexader Feldman, a Jewish lawmaker and member of the Yulia Timoshenko Bloc, which sided with Yuschenko. In 2004, Feldman was among Jewish politicians who supported Yanukovich. But many Jews, like other Ukrainians, simply appear tired by the ongoing power struggle, which many believe creates instability and chaos. "Most members of our community hold a negative attitude toward Yuschenko's decree" to disband Parliament, said Gennady Faerman, leader of the Jewish community in the town of Rovno in western Ukraine. "We don't want any more chaos in the country, don't want a new election and don't think that anything would change for the better" afterward. Some Jewish leaders say many or even most Jews support the slogan of "stability" proposed by Yanukovich's coalition. That's mainly because "most of the members of the Jewish community in Ukraine are elderly and support left-wing ideas," said Zhanna Burgina, chairwoman of the Kiev Reform congregation. In post-Soviet Ukraine, "left-wing" means supporting the Communist, Socialist or Yanukovich parties in the opposition coalition. If the crisis is not resolved in the next several days, some experts say, it could lead Yuschenko to declare direct presidential rule, which would certainly not calm the situation. Moreover, there's little indication that new elections would significantly change the balance of power. Most Russian-speaking citizens of eastern and southern Ukraine continue to support the Yanukovich coalition, while most Ukrainian-speaking voters, primarily in central and western parts of the country, back presidential parties that support Yuschenko. Leaders of the Chabad-led Federation of the Jewish Communities of Ukraine, the country's main Jewish group, refused to comment on the situation. But Ya'akov Dov Bleich, one of Ukraine's chief rabbis, said that while much is at stake for various political forces, there's no reason to be concerned about the future of the Jewish community or democracy in Ukraine. "Both sides, Yuschenko and the Yanukovich-led coalition, are rather democratic," Bleich said.