In a defensive strike against a rival group of Jewish leaders and businessmen who are trying to sideline him from Ukrainian Jewish politics, Ukrainian-Israeli businessman Vadim Rabinovich summoned more than 1,600 Jews from across Ukraine to Kyiv on April 5-6 to show their support for his leadership.
Rabinovich, who created the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress in 1997 and had led it ever since, dissolved that organization just before the congress to create a new one named the United Jewish Community of Ukraine, which promptly elected him its leader.
The meeting came just a week in advance of the scheduled founding congress of the rival group, the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine, which insiders said might elect Ukraine's other leading Jewish financial mogul, Hryhory Surkis, as its leader.
Although held under the banner of unity, the expensively staged re-establishment of Rabinovich's umbrella group under a new name was done mainly to discourage Jewish groups from supporting the rival umbrella group, whose leaders are openly seeking to supplant Rabinovich as spokesman for Ukraine's Jews.
Three influential Jewish organizations had announced they were quitting Rabinovich's group on Feb. 24 to form the Jewish Confederation, after which Rabinovich said his group would henceforth only give money to Jewish groups that belonged to his and no other national Jewish organizations.
In an advertorial placed in the April 1 edition of the Kyiv Post, Rabinovich said his congress was aimed at creating a single umbrella group for Ukraine's many Jewish communities, calling it a 'paradox' that most communities belonged to his All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress and also to the rival umbrella group and other national Jewish organizations.
There are more than 350 Jewish communities representing Ukraine's estimated 500,000 Jews, and it was not immediately clear how many were supporting Rabinovich.
Rabinovich described his event as a great success. 'This is the first time when everyone gathered under the same roof to solve their problems,' he said at the congress.
Rabinovich has placed a two-page advertorial in this edition of the Post to promote the congress and has also placed articles in other newspapers.
But the central figure behind the rival group, Yaakov Dov Bleich, the chief Orthodox rabbi of Kyiv and Ukraine, promised the rival group's congress would upstage Rabinovich's.
Bleich, who leads the Association of Jewish Religious Organizations, one of the three groups leading the formation on the Jewish Confederation, said that 350 Jewish communities had promised to send delegates and that a number of leading Jewish public figures also would attend, including Surkis, 1+1 television company director Oleksandr Rodnyansky, VA-Bank director Serhy Maksymov and clothes designer Mikhail Voronin.
Rodnyansky loudly fell out with Rabinovich last fall, after which 1+1's majority backer Central European Media Enterprises announced it had bought an extra 10 percent share in the group of companies behind 1+1, and 1+1 sources said CME had bought out Rabinovich.
Bleich dismissed Surkis' congress as 'a union of the Jews whom Rabinovich managed to persuade to come to Kyiv, or paid to.'
Bleich said Rabinovich paid each delegate Hr 100 for participation, while the delegates themselves named smaller figures – Hr 70. Rabinovich acknowledged he gave money to the delegates, but said 'it was Hr 50 given to people so that they can eat.'
Surkis's patronage of the Jewish Confederation would signal a battle of political-financial heavyweights. Surkis – who is head of the Slavutych financial group, president of the Dynamo-Kyiv soccer club and deputy head of the Social Democratic Party – is one of Ukraine's richest and most powerful men, as is Rabinovich, who heads the Rico Capital financial group and the Ukraine-Israeli Trade Chamber.
In early 1998, Surkis accepted a post in Rabinovich's umbrella group and announced a business alliance with Rabinovich around the same time. But after that little was heard from the two men about each other, leaving political analysts to wonder if the two had fallen out.
Bleich said the chief rabbis of 'all' Western European countries had also promised to attend his congress, as well as the ambassadors of the United States, Germany, Britain and Israel.
'We don't need Vadim Rabinovich to unite the Jews, we have been doing it for 10 years,' Bleich said.
Rabinovich said that the Jewish Confederation was a religious union of three other organizations and was not aimed at representing all of Ukraine's Jews.
'They are uniting for certain purposes and under religious slogans, but we are less religious,' he said.
The Jewish Confederation is backed up by the Association of Jewish Religious Communities, the Jewish Council, and the Association of the Jewish Organizations and Communities. Only the first is a religious union.
Bleich, an American citizen, has lived in Ukraine and been actively organizing its Jewish organizations for about that long. Rabinovich, a Kharkiv native, obtained Israeli citizenship in the early post-Soviet era and became active in Jewish organizations in 1997.
Rabinovich is thought to donate some $500,000 per year to Jewish groups, but has nonetheless been unappreciated by many Jewish leaders, who believe he is trying to buy positive publicity to make up for the negative publicity that his financial and political activities have drawn.
Also, many Jewish groups from Western countries, who also donate considerable funds to Ukrainian Jewish groups, refuse to treat Rabinovich as the leader of Ukraine's Jews and have strongly endorsed the plans to form a rival umbrella group.
The Jewish Confederation sent a delegation of Jewish activists and businessmen to the United States last month to meet with leaders of the World Jewish Congress and other officials.
'Jewish international organizations and people from the [U.S.] State Department were happy to see representatives from a new Ukrainian Jewish organization because it was important for them to have a delegation of people whose biographies are clean,' said Rodnyansky, who was among the delegates.
Rabinovich had his visa to the United States revoked in 1995 reportedly due to his links with Grigory Luchansky and Nordex, a Swiss-Austrian trading firm founded by Luchansky that U.S. intelligence officials had tied to arms trading, money-laundering and attempts to sell arms and nuclear materials to rogue nations.
Rabinovich has said he has never been involved in anything but legitimate business and only helped Luchansky arrange one oil-supply deal for which Rabinovich said he was never paid. However, news reports from the time indicate Rabinovich was Nordex's vice president up until the mid-1990s and that he then subsumed at least some of Nordex's operations under the firm Ostex.
The conference itself was very peaceful and uniform. Guards at the door only allowed in people with invitations, and the delegates – mostly pensioners – voted unanimously for the decisions suggested to them by the speaker.
The congress was attended by representatives of a few embassies but almost no ambassadors. Even the Israeli Ambassador sent the first secretary in his place, saying he was busy celebrating Passover.
Bleich went so far as to suggest that Rabinovich was using his Jewish leadership position as a defense against sharing the fate of Russian Jewish businessman Boris Berezovsky, who has been effectively exiled from Russia after losing a political fight with Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov.
'If [Rabinovich] is not the leader, he will be deported out of the country,' Bleich said.
Bleich said that nonetheless the Jewish Confederation is ready to cooperate with Rabinovich and invited him to participate in its congress, but he refused because he could not be guaranteed the leadership position.
Rabinovich also said he had invited the Jewish Confederation's leaders to his congress.
'They told me they could not unite with me because I might be elected the leader,' he said.