Two months after local elections were held across Ukraine, the residents of the small northern city of Konotop are expressing shock and dismay over the behavior of newly-chosen Mayor Artem Semenikhin of the neo-Nazi Svoboda party.
According to news reports, Semenikhin drives around in a car bearing the number 14/88, a numerological reference to the phrases “we must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children” and “Heil Hitler”; replaced the picture of President Petro Poroshenko in his office with a portrait of Ukrainian national leader and Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera; and refused to fly the city’s official flag at the opening meeting of the city council because he objected to the star of David emblazoned on it.
Svoboda, known as the Social-National Party of Ukraine until 2004, has been accused of being a neo-Nazi party by Ukrainian Jews and while party leaders have a history of making anti-Semitic remarks, their rhetoric has toned down considerably over the past years as they attempted to go mainstream.
While it managed to enter mainstream politics and gain 36 out of 450 seats in the Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, the party’s support seemed to evaporate following the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, in which it played a central role. It currently only holds six seats in the legislature.
The party managed to improve its standing during recent municipal elections, however, obtaining some 10 percent of the vote in the capital of Kiev and garnering second place in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. For the most part, however, Svoboda is far from the major worry for Ukrainian Jews that it was only two years ago.
“It is a sad, but a reality when anti-Semites are being elected in local governing bodies, even mayors promoting hate and intolerance. Konotop is a clear case,” said Eduard Dolinsky of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee.
For the Jews of Konotop, however, worries persist, with Ilya Bezruchko, the Ukrainian representative of the US-based National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry, saying that he believed that residents, who generally get along well with local Jews, voted for Semenikhin because he projected an image of someone who could bring change and reform a corrupt system.
However, Semenikhin himself has a history of fraud, having been arrested for posing as an electricity company worker in order to extract payments from businesses in Kiev in 2012, Bezruchko charged.
Bezruchko, whose late grandfather was the head of the community and whose mother currently works for the city council, said that Semenikhin and his assistant have left angry comments on his Facebook page in response to critical articles that the Jewish activist had posted on his blog.
He claimed that someone close to the mayor claimed that he would be hospitalized if he returned to the city from Kiev, where he currently lives, and that the mayor himself posted to say that his mother was corrupt and should be fired from her job.
“The reaction of community is shock. People are shocked it could happen in the city and nobody believed it could happen here but it happened somehow,” community activist Igor Nechayev told the Jerusalem Post by phone on Monday.
While there have been a couple of instances of anti-Semitic graffiti over the past decade and one occasionally hears references to conspiracy theories identifying Ukrainian political leaders as Jews, for the most part relations between the Jewish community and their non-Jewish neighbors are cordial, he said.
However, while the mayor attempts make sure that his statements never cross over into outright anti-Semitism, many things he says can be interpreted in such a way, he continued. As an example, he referred to a recent statement by Semenikhin in which the Mayor refused to apologize for anti-Jewish actions taken by far right nationalists during the Second World War, intimating that it was because those responsible for the Holodomor famine of the 1930s were largely Jewish.
The Holodomor was a man-made famine that came about during the collectivization of agriculture in the Soviet Union and which led to the starving deaths of millions. Ukrainians consider it a genocide.
“The community is discussing the situation and they understand that the mayor is balancing between anti-Semitism— he isn’t crossing a red line with statements but saying borderline things that can be understood as antisemitic,” he explained.
While the Jews are not scared, Nechayev said that they are wary because “Svoboda has a lot of activists [and] fighters in region and [they] can be dangerous.”
Many of the community’s members are elderly and there aren’t many young activists. However he said, members of the city council who have approached by members of the community seem in agreement regarding the Mayor, with several indicating that he has insufficient experience and will not last long in the job.
Speaking to the Post, Vyacheslav Likhachev, an anti-Semitism researcher affiliated with the Vaad of Ukraine and the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, said that “Ukrainians are afraid of the Russian threat, not the threat of national radicalism” and that “Semenikhin has successfully created himself an image of defender of Ukrainian independence, and voters were able to support him, not paying attention to the radicalism of his views.”
“Unfortunately, the current Ukrainian legislation does not allow it to be forbidden to take part in the election candidates with right-wing views, or to remove them from the elected positions. The special anti-communist and anti-Nazi law talks about banning the symbols of the National Socialist (Nazi) of the totalitarian regime, which includes symbols of the Nazi Party and the state symbols of the Third Reich only. It is impossible to interpret, in legal terms, symbols like ’14/88.’”