Ultra-nationalist Svoboda party may narrowly fail to stay in parliament

As this article from The Jerusalem Post suggests, the possible failure of the “Svoboda” (Freedom) Party to retain its presence in the Ukrainian parliament (Verkhovna Rada) after elections on 26 October may be attributable to its anti-Semitic overtones at various times, both in and out of the Verkhovna Rada, over the past couple of years. But as matters stand, whatever one thinks of Svoboda, its projected percentage (somewhere around 4.7%) seems suspiciously close to the barrier for a party with such a high profile (not all ballots have been counted, but so far the party appears not to have crossed the 5% threshold). Svoboda has consistently shown an ability to rally a big crowd in the capital, Kyiv, and one must suppose that its support in western Ukraine is still high. With anti-Russian sentiments running much higher than usual in Ukraine at the moment in light of the annexation of Crimea and Russian-backed proxy war in eastern Ukraine, it seems odd that the most vocally anti-Kremlin, established Ukrainian party would fail to do well. The party’s leader, Oleh Tyahnibok, has already cried foul. However, some Jewish groups both in Ukraine and abroad are apparently relieved…

27 October 2014

Russian propaganda describing the Ukrainian government as fascist took a hit on Monday when the far-right Svoboda party apparently failed to maintain its place in national politics by receiving less than the five percent threshold required to enter the legislature. Senior figures among the various Jewish communities and organizations there expressed pleasure at the widespread support for the pro-western blocs of President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk, which together took just over 43 percent of the vote as of Monday evening, with 63 percent of the ballots counted.

Svoboda came in seventh, following the Self Help and other nationalist and pro-European factions riding the wave of discontent with the corruption and tilt toward Moscow that characterized the regime of ousted President Vladimir Yanukovich. While corruption remains a major problem and the role of oligarchs and business interests in politics remains, Poroshenko, a billionaire chocolate magnate, has staked his fortunes on increasing transparency and accountability in government.

The only outlier among the top performing parties is the Opposition Bloc, a coalition of holdovers from the Yankovich administration who generally maintain a much more favorable attitude towards Moscow than their political rivals.

Svoboda, known as the Social-National Party of Ukraine until 2004, has been accused of being a neo-Nazi party by Ukrainian Jews and while party leaders have a history of making anti-Semitic remarks, their rhetoric has toned down considerably over the past years as they attempted to go mainstream.

Svoboda is “back where it should have been,” Ukraine’s American born Chief Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich told the Jerusalem Post on Monday, alleging that it had succeeded in the 2012 parliamentary elections because Yanukovich “wanted the opposition to look bad so he boosted their popularity.”

Svoboda and the small militant Pravy Sektor organization have been favorite subjects in the Russian media, which has portrayed Ukraine as a state taken over by fascists and anti-Semites.

Svoboda is “back in its natural place now,” Bleich stated.

Reuven Stamov, the leader of Kiev’s Conservative community, agreed, telling the Post that “they don’t have so much support as they say in Russia. Its simply not like that.”

According to Eduard Dolinksy, the executive director of the Kiev based Ukrainian Jewish Committee, the election results are good for the Jewish community.

“I think these elections will be good for the country because there will be a pro-European coalition and therefore it will be good for the country and this will be good for the Jews,” he asserted, pointing to Jews in among both the reformers and the opposition.

Among the Jews in parliament is MP Oleksandr Feldman, an oligarch and the founder of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee. Parliamentary seats are apportioned through both a proportional representative system and by direct election of candidates by region. Feldman has long represented his native Kharkov and while an independent, was politically associated with the Yankovich regime.

During the height of the Maidan revolution in January, when a series of attacks against Jews created worries about antisemitism, Feldman accused the pro-western protest movement of being taken over by Svoboda and retired his call for a negotiated solution to the political crisis. Feldman has been consistent in his calls for Jewish non-involvement in both the protests and the civil war gripping eastern Ukraine.

Another Jewish oligarch, Vadim Rabinovich, the head of the All Ukrainian Jewish Congress and a former Presidential candidate, was elected to parliament as part of the Opposition Bloc.

Initially a supporter of Jewish non-involvement like Feldman, Rabinovich’s decision to join the opposition was a shock to Ukrainian Jews, said a source familiar with the matter who asked to remain anonymous.

This turnaround led to a split with his longtime collaborator Igor Kolomoisky, the regional governor of Dnepropetrovsk and the benefactor of the local Jewish community. Kolomoisky, who also runs the United Jewish Communities of Ukraine organization, had previously worked closely with Rabinovich, jointly founding the European Jewish Parliament and collaborating on various projects.

As Dnepropetrosvk regional governor, Kolomoisky has outfitted and equipped volunteer military units out of his own money to prosecute the war against Russian-backed rebels in Donbas and has emerged as a leading nationalist figure, representing the increase in Ukrainian patriotism evinced in both his community and others throughout the country.

Last week the opposition bloc called on the government to can Kolomoisky, stating that “Open attacks have been arranged on opposition leaders,” according to the Kiev Post.

Both Rabinovich and Kolomoisky’s organizations were closely linked, with the source describing the two as really constituting one body, but recent management changes serve as proof that this no longer holds true.

Asked about the split, Shmuel Kaminezki, the Rabbi of Dnepropetrovsk said that while Rabinovich is free to follow his political beliefs as an individual, “we hope that he will not make the Jewish community look like we are in opposition.”

The general consensus among community figures seems to be that many Jews voted for the reformists candidates in the election.

According to Bleich, the split between the two oligarchs came during 2013 due to disagreements over projects that the two were running together and that there is no cause to worry about possible resentment by reform minded voters that such a prominent Jew as Rabinovich decided to cast his lot with the opposition Bloc.

Ukrainian voters, the rabbi explained, can see that there are Jews in many of the factions, including Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Groisman and many others.

Joel Rubinfeld, who ran the European Jewish Parliament for the oligarchs until resigning in June, said the organization had been plagued by funding issues since November 2013, the same month that the Maidan protests began in Kiev.

“I don’t know what is the link between this and that but it didn’t help at all,” he said, explaining that he stayed on until it was clear that he could not get the necessary funding to continue operating as before.

Neither Bleich nor Jossef Zissels, the Vaad Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine, believe that there will be any significant ramifications for Ukrainian Jewish life because of the split.

“For 25 years, the process of transformation of Soviet Jews to another identity – Ukrainian Jews” has taken place slowly, Zissels said. “The events of the last year on the Maidan, the Crimea and the Donbas slightly sped up the process and it is well illustrated by the results of elections in which the majority of Jews, in my opinion, have voted for pro-European parties.”

Such developments, he continued, are more significant than any internal political maneuvering within the community.

Whatever representation of the far right remains in parliament, he continued, will direct their attention “exclusively against Russian aggression in the coming years, and in this regard will not be distracted by the migrants, black, yellow, and even more so – the Jews.”


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