Ukraine: why we should worry

Economic meltdown could unleash barely hidden anti-semitism

By Anshel Pfeffer, December 18, 2008

There is a little grave in a vast cemetery on the outskirts of Kiev that stands out from its dilapidated and rundown surroundings. It is swept daily and fresh flowers are arranged in a vase. In March, hundreds of Ukrainian nationalists will make their annual pilgrimage there to commemorate the 98th anniversary of the death of 13-year-old Andrei Yushchinsky and the last major blood libel case in Europe — the Beilis Trial.

What for most of us is distant and almost incomprehensible history, for many in Ukraine is still a living symbol of ancient fears and hatreds that — despite the respectable face presented by a nation seeking EU and Nato membership — are never far beneath the surface.

Almost every European country has its own dismal record of Judeophobia, but in no other that I have visited does it feel so much a part of everyday life as it does in Ukraine. This is a country whose pro-western President awards the highest national honours to partisan commanders who murdered thousands of Jews and whose largest university routinely publishes material revisiting the Beilis case and listing other historical calamities that can be blamed upon the Jews.

That is why we should be taking seriously the warnings of a wave of antisemitism in Ukraine over the coming months, as the local economy is expected to implode and hundreds of thousands are laid off once the festive season is over.

So far, aside from the usual suspects on the lunatic fringes of the neo-Nazi and radical Islamic blogosphere --- and of course the rantings on some internet forums — there has been little serious anti-Jewish backlash in the wake of economic crisis. But when the Ukrainian bubble finally bursts, in what most analysts believe is a matter of weeks, things might turn uglier. Many of the industrial plants that are already working two-day weeks and will almost certainly be shut down are owned by Jewish oligarchs. If past experience is anything to go by, the embattled Yushchenko administration will do little to rein in those looking for a convenient scapegoat.

The western media romanticised the 2004 Orange Revolution and its brave figurehead, Victor Yushchenko, who survived a poisoning blamed on his Russian rivals. Yushchenko’s efforts to liberate his country from the Kremlin’s orbit and align it with America have been praised by the west. What has been largely overlooked, however, is how he and others in his government, including his rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, have routinely pandered to ultra-nationalist elements in their battle against the pro-Russian half of Ukraine.

The national heroes most revered in Ukraine have a bloody history of pogrom-fomenting. The Communist-era statues in Kiev and other cities have frequently been replaced by others depicting a horse-riding Symon Petliura, the Cossack politician widely believed to have had a central role in the killing of at least 100,000 Ukrainian Jews during the Russian Civil War.

Last year, Yushchenko bestowed the country’s highest national honour on Roman Shukhevych, leader of a unit of Ukrainian partisans who killed 4,000 Jews in 1941. As Yushchenko fights for his political life, few believe that standing up for Ukraine’s estimated 200,000 Jews will figure high on his agenda.

Local Jews are afraid to speak out; raising the spectre of antisemitism can have major implications. Russia and Ukraine have both tried to tar each other with this brush. Vladimir Putin has routinely accused Yushchenko of condoning antisemitism and the two leaders have Jewish proxies quick to level similar charges at each other’s administration.

Jewish leaders in the young and fragile democracies of Eastern Europe understandably remain quiet. Most of them rely on their governments for their positions and careers. The last thing they need is to be portrayed as disloyal citizens. With last summer’s war in the South Caucasus in mind, the local Jewish communities will do everything in their power not to get caught between the Russian bear and its fractious cubs.

So what, if anything, can Ukraine’s Jews do, short of battening down the hatches or leaving?

Ukraine might have given up for now on its attempts to join Nato and the EU but it is still relying on the International Monetary Fund to keep its economy from total collapse. This is surely the moment to lobby the organisation to convey to Ukraine the message that an antisemitic outbreak could seriously endanger the $16.5 (£10.7) billion loan promised to the country last month.

Some might fear this would only foster the idea that the Jews control the world’s money. Possibly. But in Ukraine they believe that anyway.

Last updated: 12:32pm, December 18 2008