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Ukrainians Watchful as Crucial Vote Nears

May 21, 2014 By:
Cnaan Liphshiz, JTA
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Months after the outbreak of anti-government protests, and days before Ukrainians head to the polls to elect a new president, central Kiev still has the feel of a war zone, May 2014. Photo by Cnaan Liphshiz

KIEV, Ukraine — Even in normal times, Kiev can feel like a city perpetually under construction. Potholes are “fixed” with flimsy coverings, ramshackle scaffolding clings precariously to the sides of buildings, and tangles of wires seem ever ready to combust.

But since the outbreak of anti-government protests in November, the sense of flux in the Ukrainian capital has been greater than ever. Two kinds of tents now dot the city center: Hundreds of khaki-colored bi­vouacs housing the revolutionaries whose protest movement led to the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych in February, and recently erected campaign booths making bold promises of a brighter future ahead of Sunday's presidential elections.

Politicians describe the vote as the most crucial since Uk­raine emerged as an independent country in 1991 following the breakup of the Soviet Union. But many disillusioned voters here seem to place more faith in the tired men and women inside the khaki tents — and their pledge to speak truth to power — than in any of the candidates featured in the election posters.

Marina Lysak, a Jewish activist who participated in the protest movement known as Maidan, after the central Kiev square where the protests took place, told JTA that the tent people are there to send a message to whoever prevails in the election.

“The statement is: ‘We are watching you. If you betray us again, we will not remain silent,’ ” Lysak said.

The leading candidate for these tasks is Petro Poro­shenko, 48, an oligarch from Odessa and the head of a confectionary empire. Polls predict Poroshenko will take 30 percent of the vote in the first round of balloting.

Jewish community leaders have remained officially neutral about the candidates, but many Ukrainian Jews back Poroshenko, a former foreign minister rumored to have Jewish roots.

Poroshenko’s media team did not reply to JTA requests for comment, but they are not indifferent about the subject. Last year, Poroshenko’s spokeswo­man asked Forbes Israel to remove her boss’ name from a list of the world’s richest Jews, a magazine source confirmed.

Even if the rumors were true, Poroshenko wouldn't be the only candidate for president with Jewish roots. Vadim Rabinovich, a billionaire media mo­gul and founder of the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress, is running on a platform combining a tolerant attitude toward Ukrainian minorities with plans to dispense with Uk­raine’s quasi-federal political system and reduce taxes.

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