Sam Sokol

With two Jews in the country's top jobs, what is next for Ukraine?

First country outside Israel where the president and prime minister are both Jewish

April 24, 2019 11:51

The election on Sunday of Volodymyr Zelensky as Ukrainian president helps demolish years of Russian propaganda portraying contemporary Ukraine as a hotbed of fascists and antisemites.

This was always a sweeping generalisation: in 2016, another Jew, Volodymyr Groysman, was appointed as prime minister and now, three years later, a Jewish candidate has won the presidency.

It makes Ukraine the only country outside of Israel where both positions are currently held by Jews.

However, it does not mean that there is no truth to the claims of the former Soviet republic’s critics. Ukraine is a complicated place that defies stereotypes.

It is a country tolerant enough for both of its top leaders to be Jews but intolerant enough that racist thugs can remain under the patronage of the interior ministry. Both are true at the same time.

As to how Ukrainians will navigate between these two diametrically opposed facets of their national character — that is now up to Mr Zelensky, a Jewish comedian who used to play the president on TV.

The question many Ukrainian Jews will be asking is: will the comic address our concerns?

For much of the organised Jewish community there are two big issues. The first is the Ukrainian effort, in response to Russian aggression, to rehabilitate nationalist figures who fought against Moscow.

Many of them collaborated with the Nazis and participated in the Holocaust and the white-washing of their collective wartime record has been discomfiting.

The second concern are the increasingly close ties between government officials and members of racist and violent gangs which have used violence against Ukraine’s LGBT and Roma minorities.

It remains to be seen what, if any, action Mr Zelensky will take against Ukraine’s state-sponsored glorification of Holocaust collaborators but there are some positive initial signs.

The president-elect has made public statements about cleaning out government and trying “to do something with new people.”

A change in administrations could very well mean the sidelining of Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, who maintains close ties to far-right groups such as the Azov Movement and its vigilante affiliate, the National Corps.

Although Mr Avakov has started working to ingratiate himself with the president-elect, that is unlikely to help. Mr Zelensky’s law enforcement advisor Denys Monastyrskyi has called for the prosecution of Azov members and related groups, and seems bent on curbing their influence on Ukrainian politics.

And while Mr Zelensky has not stated outright that he will dump Ukraine’s official “memory” policies — described by critics as an attempt to rewrite Ukrainians’ role in the Second World War — it does appears he wants to soft-peddle them.

He recently said violent ultra-nationalist Stepan Bandera was “a hero for a certain part of Ukrainians, and this is a normal and cool thing”, but added: “I think that when we name so many streets, bridges by the same name, this is not quite right.”

It would seem that a majority of Ukrainians agree with him.

The only district in which incumbent President Petro Poroshenko won a commanding victory was in the Lviv Oblast, the cradle of Ukrainian nationalism.

This indicates that his patriotic-national approach based on identity politics failed to resonate with most voters.

Mr Zelensky has another reason to repudiate Mr Poroshenko’s memory politics. After his victory, Poroshenko appointee Volodymyr Viatrovych, the head of the Ukrainian Institute for National Memory, tweeted the famous photograph of a man standing with his arms crossed while all around him people are doing the Nazi salute.

“The majority is not a proof of righteousness,” he wrote, tacitly comparing himself to the antifascist in the photograph and Mr Zelensky to Hitler.

It is not clear if the president-elect will take a hard public stand against Mr Viatrovych, but he is unlikely to continue in government service for very long.

Sam Sokol is the author of the upcoming book “Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews”, which tells the story of the Jewish communities displaced in the current Russo-Ukrainian War.

April 24, 2019 11:51

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