Fragile hope for Ukraine

February 27, 2014

With breathtaking speed last weekend, the embattled Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s agreement to enter a national unity government with the opposition was swept aside by his country’s Parliament. The legislative body then quickly dismissed Yanukovych from office, ending, at least temporarily, the popular uprising set in motion by the president’s rejection of a trade deal with the European Union.

The world watched with bated breath as the latest political moves took place without violence. That was universally viewed as a positive sign, since it came after four months of street demonstrations and bloody reprisals by government troops. But make no mistake — Ukraine remains a deeply divided country: between a Ukrainian-speaking population in the country’s west and midsection that looks to Europe and a Russian-speaking population in the east and south that looks to Moscow. There is also a generational tug in the mix, with many younger Ukrainians looking to the openness of Europe; older citizens, who lived in Soviet times, are drawn to the more familiar culture of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Yanukovych’s actions aggravated these divisions, but his removal will not make them go away. And while we applaud the quick transfer of power that took place in Kiev, we are deeply concerned about chatter within the press, fueled by apparent posturing by Russia, of an impending Ukrainian civil war. Just days ago, violence in the Ukrainian capital reached levels unseen since World War II. Renewed hostilities between supporters of the former president and those backing the opposition-cum-governing faction will do no one well, especially Ukraine’s growing Jewish population.

Nearly wiped out by the Holocaust, Ukraine’s historic Jewish communities — with roots dating to the 17th century and earlier — have been rebounding ever since the fall of the Iron Curtain. Scarcely a month goes by without news of some Jewish celebration taking place in cities such as Donetsk, Odessa or Zhitomir. And what is rumored to be the largest Jewish community center in the world is under construction in Dnepropetrovsk. The Jewish Agency for Israel estimates Ukraine’s total Jewish population at 200,000; other sources, meanwhile, say that between 67,000 and 70,000 is a more accurate figure.

Many younger Jews supported the opposition, leading to some strange alliances, such as the group of Jews who demonstrated against the government in Independence Square alongside members of the ultranationalist and anti-Semitic Svoboda Party. These strange juxtapositions remind us that nationalist movements and those opposing them — especially in that part of the world — frequently blame the Jews whenever they feel it supports their interest. We hope to see none of that scapegoating.

Instead, now that power has been transferred, what is needed is time — so that cooler heads may prevail. We are anxious to see what newly appointed parliamentary speaker Oleksandr Turchinov will do. And we hope, of course, that Russia won’t meddle in what should now be regarded as a purely Ukrainian affair.

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