Lviv, Ukraine – Ukraine’s bitter presidential campaign took an ugly turn this week as leaflets accusing Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko of being Jewish and encouraging voters not to cast ballots in her favor began to circulate in western Ukraine.
The flyer features Tymoshenko’s photograph with the words “Don’t Vote for a Jew!”
It reprints an alleged facsimile by the prime minister’s father documenting his supposed Russian and Jewish background and asks why Tymoshenko is hiding her Jewish ancestry. The leaflet also features purported quotes by four individuals, including former presidential candidate Arseniy Yatseniuk, who claim Tymoshenko is Jewish. The flyer’s circulation is listed as two million copies.
It is unclear who is behind the smear campaign. Hryhoriy Nemyria, Ukraine’s vice prime minister, however, was quick to point fingers at Tymoshenko’s rival, opposition leader Victor Yanukovych.
“Playing to people’s basest instincts is just typical of Yanukovych and his camp,” Nemyria said in a written statement. “His is a politics where an opponent is not an opponent, but an enemy. And as history has shown, once you start looking and defining one type of enemy in society, you begin to look for more and more. So who knows what group will be next?”
Lubomyr Kozak from Yanukovych’s campaign headquarters in Lviv said he had not seen the flyer, but denied his candidate was behind it. “We didn’t prepare it and we didn’t distribute it,” he said. “Tymoshenko has also distributed a lot of dirt…that in the civilized world wouldn’t be tolerated.”
The leaflets, which were dispersed in residential mailboxes and on the streets, appear to be targeted toward residents of western Ukraine, a region that historically has had a troubled relationship with its Jewish community. Ukrainian and Jewish leaders remain divided over the role Ukrainians played in the destruction of the region’s centuries-old Jewish community during World War II. They are also bitterly split over the persona of Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera, who many western Ukrainians see as a hero but Jewish leaders view as a Nazi collaborator.
President Victor Yushchenko recently fueled the debate by posthumously awarding Bandera the prestigious Hero of Ukraine award, a move that outraged Jews worldwide, (as was reported here on Vos Iz Neias).
Oleksiy Ivchenko, leader of the right-wing Ukrainian Congress of Nationalists and one of the people featured in the pamphlet, called it “a provocation.”
“Our party has a position, that each citizen, regardless of their ethnic background, has the right to run for president.”
The pamphlet appears at a critical time for Tymoshenko. To win the Feb. 7 runoff vote, she will have to carry western and central Ukraine, as well as make a strong showing in the east. Although the prime minister won most of western Ukraine’s regions in the first round of elections on Jan. 17, some worry that tapping into historical prejudices at this moment could hurt her with that segment of the population which is easily swayed.
“This might work in the countryside, where people are less educated,” said Maksym Palukh, a 23-year-old worker at an upscale Lviv department store. At the same time, he believed such propaganda is unlikely to influence the region’s urban voters. “It won’t work here,” he said. “As for Yanukovych, he is not a possible variant. His image is formed on such a level that people here won’t vote for him.”
This is not the first time the Jewish card has been played in Ukraine’s 2010 presidential race. In an interview late last year, presidential candidate Arseniy Yatseniuk blamed the dramatic fall in his ratings in western Ukraine before the first round of voting on a national smear campaign that also alleged he was of Jewish ancestry.“This country has latent anti-Semitism,” he said at the time.
Yatseniuk would not comment on the anti-Tymoshenko flyer, but his press service denied the former candidate was in any way involved with its appearance.
The pamphlet has outraged Lviv’s small Jewish community and indicates people are still willing to employ political tactics once used by authoritarian states, one of its leaders said.
“Ukraine is going in a different direction, but the methods used are the same of totalitarian regimes,” said Meylakh Sheykhet, the director of the Lviv office of the Union of Councils for Jews in the former Soviet Union. “This is an example that shows people haven’t gotten rid of their totalitarian thinking; they still see Ukraine as a totalitarian state. It shows that Ukrainian independence is still deeply being threatened.”
Ivan Mospan, a 60-year-old retiree, said the pamphlet could have opposite the intended effect.
“It is clearly insulting,” the resident of Buchach, in Ternopil region, said. “You can’t agitate people with that kind of stuff. People will vote for Tymoshenko because she is our one democratic hope. We are voting for her because if we don’t, we will lose Ukraine.”