Two years after Orange Revolution, Ukraine’s Jews are mixed on leader


KIEV, Ukraine — Ukrainian President Viktor Yuschenko is celebrating the second anniversary of the Orange Revolution, the mass street protests that brought him to power.

And while many Ukrainians are disappointed with a regime that promised them so much, Jews have an additional reason to be displeased: During his short presidency, Yuschenko already has canceled three announced visits to Israel.

The most recent cancellation took place earlier this month. A member of Yuschenko’s administration told JTA that the visit should take place next year, but no date has been set.

In Germany, where he shared a prestigious award with Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres in October, Yuschenko offered Israel Ukraine’s cooperation in developing missiles and satellites. It also was announced that Ukrainian arms sales to some Arab nations would be discussed during what was supposed to be Yuschenko’s first official visit to Israel — until it was canceled.

“I am a great believer in relations with Israel,” Yuschenko declared during a meeting with Peres.

Two other previously scheduled visits also were postponed, due to what the administration said were scheduling conflicts.

Israel was among the first countries to recognize Ukrainian independence after the breakup of the Soviet Union in December 1991.

But the last time a Ukrainian leader visited Israel was in 1996, when then-President Leonid Kuchma paid an official visit. Israeli President Moshe Katsav visited Kiev in September to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre.

Observers say Yuschenko wants to visit Israel, if not for political goals then for personal reasons: He’s a devout Orthodox Christian, and has made several pilgrimages to Christian holy sites in Ukraine.

Josef Zissels, a prominent Ukrainian Jewish leader who backed Yuschenko during the Orange Revolution two years ago this week, said Yuschenko looks forward to visiting Israel.

At the same time, some Jewish leaders and political experts believe Yuschenko has canceled because of the pro-Arab tilt of some foreign policymakers, including Foreign Minister Boris Tarasyuk, an expert on the Arab world.

Some high-ranking Ukrainian diplomats “support the pro-Arab vector that was typical for Soviet diplomacy, while others support the Israeli vector,” Zissels said, adding that it’s necessary to “regulate” these diplomats’ influence over Yuschenko and Ukrainian foreign policy.

Experts who see a pro-Arab tilt say these diplomats are afraid of upsetting a balance between Ukraine’s relations with Arab nations and with Israel. Some Jewish leaders fear that the cancellation of Yuschenko’s planned Israel visits were due to Ukraine’s wish to avoid irritating Iran, with which Ukraine is seeking closer economic cooperation.

Iran, Syria and other Arab nations play key roles in Ukraine’s foreign trade.

Ukraine’s bilateral trade with Iran has almost doubled since 2003, reaching some $600 million last year. Ukraine’s economic relations with Syria are developing dynamically, with $704 million in bilateral trade in 2005 compared to $610 million the previous year.

But the volume of trade with Israel has shown little growth, standing at $269 million in 2004 and $165 million in the first three quarters of 2005.

At a meeting with Iranian trade officials in Kiev last month, Economy Minister Vladimir Makukha said Ukraine and Iran have numerous grounds on which to build relations. He voiced a readiness to boost ties with Iran in sectors such as oil, gas and aircraft-building.

Other experts say Ukraine avoids involvement in the Middle East conflict because of its own political and economic uncertainties. These experts say Ukraine is unable to play a visible role in any Mideast settlement.

This was seen during Israel’s war with Hezbollah this summer, these experts say, when Kiev failed to take a clear-cut stance, although it sent humanitarian aid to Lebanon.

“Ukraine is a big loser in the Middle East,” said Ilya Bryskin, chairman of a Ukraine-Israel consulting group on economic cooperation and vice-head of the National Anti-Corruption Committee. “Ukraine showed no real interest in either Israel or the Palestinians, mistakenly considering that such a policy is the best diplomacy.”

Meanwhile, Israel has its own reasons for concern regarding Ukraine. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, about 200 Soviet nuclear missiles were stored in Ukraine. The missiles were subsequently returned to Russia, except for 12 to 20 units that “disappeared” and which some believe were secretly transferred to Iran.

In late September, Ukraine’s defense minister denied allegations in Jane’s Defense Weekly that Ukraine sold sophisticated military radar systems to Iran. Citing unidentified sources, the British magazine reported that Ukraine sold an unknown quantity of Kolchuga radar systems to Iran, saying deliveries were either recent or imminent.

Jewish leaders in Kiev expect Yuschenko to clear up the matter if he ever visits Israel.

Jews also believe Yuschenko should be more consistent in fighting anti-Semitism in Ukraine, an issue that undoubtedly would be raised on a visit to Israel.

In his two years in power, Yuschenko has condemned xenophobia and anti-Semitism and voiced support for the Jewish community, but Jewish activists say authorities should do more to combat anti-Semitism.

They point in particular to the distribution of anti-Semitic books, many of which can be openly purchased in Kiev’s central square and even inside the Ukrainian Parliament building.

Experts also talk about the personal inconsistency — or maybe lack of experience as a politician — that has become a trademark of Yuschenko’s presidency.

“Yuschenko’s announcement about his upcoming visit to Israel is just an example of this,” political analyst Vladimir Malenkovich said.

Widely described as a pro-Western liberal, Yuschenko isn’t the only player helping to define Ukraine’s foreign policy. His situation became even more complicated this year when his rival in the last presidential election, Viktor Yanukovich, who is known for his pro-Moscow orientation, became prime minister.

Some analysts suggested that by announcing his upcoming visit to Israel while visiting a Western European country, Yuschenko wanted to reaffirm his pro-Western ambitions, which Yanukovich opposes.