Though he is polling at a mere 0.6% of the popular vote, Ukraine presidential hopeful Vadim Rabinovich is certain he stands a chance to win, saying it’s now in God’s hands.
“The moment I submitted my candidacy for president, Ukraine became a real European country,” Rabinovich, 61, the head of of the Ukrainian Jewish Parliament, told The Times of Israel, saying he has proven that neither ethnicity nor religion are factors in electing Ukraine’s government.
“I am the Obama of Ukraine,” he joked in a half-hour Skype conversation peppered with phone calls conducted via translator in his busy Kiev office Friday morning.
The colorful Ukrainian oligarch businessman has a mixed reputation on the streets of Ukraine. Like many, his fate has changed according to the whims of the myriad of political regimes ruling the country. JTA reported that in the 1980s, Rabinovich was arrested and sentenced to 14 years in prison for black market ventures. He apparently served seven years, according to Korrespondent, a Ukrainian weekly.
In the early 1990s he was stripped of Ukrainian citizenship and made aliyah to Israel, but in the late 1990s, he returned to Ukraine. Since then, he has donated vast amounts of time and money to Ukraine at large — and specifically to the Jewish community — in founding and presiding over a number of organizations.
Most divisively, he founded the 120-member European Jewish Parliament in 2011 with fellow oligarch Igor Kolomoisky, the current temporary governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region. The pair also launched businesses, including the former Jewish television network JN1.
A dedicated philanthropist, Rabinovich donates regularly to a number of causes, including the rebuilding of the Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem’s Old City, complete with a $3-million gold replica of the Temple’s menorah.
After a square abutting the synagogue was named after Rabinovich, he became briefly known as “the man who rose from the dead.” Jerusalem city guidelines state a square or road can only be named after a person who died before the year 1500. (The petition to name the square after Rabinovich had labeled him as deceased.)
With his share of critics, in March 2013 Rabinovich was the target of an assassination attempt when a bomb was hurled at his car in the parking lot of his Kiev office. The blast was reportedly felt three floors above.
In conversation with The Times of Israel, Rabinovich repeatedly made reference to the “war” being fought in Ukraine.
“I saw, before the beginning of our conversation, that again many people were killed during the night. Who is fighting is difficult to understand — different people will tell you different answers. My feeling is everyone who has a weapon is a criminal if he is not representing the state, but people have differing opinions, and many criminals feel like heroes.
“If people in your country were killed every day, with tanks roaming the streets, you’d say you were at war too. Everything here is like what you see in the movies!”
‘If people in your country were killed every day, with tanks roaming the streets, you’d say you were at war too’
When asked if he feels Jews would be safer by making aliyah to Israel, Rabinovich said: “You know, for many. many years I’ve tried not to give a recommendation. I give people the facts and give them the opportunity to decide, or otherwise people will blame you. If they make aliyah, they’ll say I pushed them; if not, they will say I didn’t tell them the truth.”
Ukraine’s Jewish community, said Rabinovich, conducts seminars and works together with Limmud, Hillel, Taglit-Birthright and Masa, giving members the opportunity to learn and discover about Israel on their own.
Asked where he believes Jews would be safer, in Israel or Ukraine, Rabinovich said: “More safe? It’s more safe for Jews to go to synagogue — in which country it doesn’t matter.”
If speaking in economic terms, however, Rabinovich was much less coy. “The situation is much worse in Ukraine. With the war, we’ve already lost part of our territory” and the economy is in shatters.
“This is the fault of the political elite of Ukraine who now runs the country. It is almost the same regime as under [former Ukraine president] Viktor F. Yanukovych — the same corruption, with different mottoes,” said Rabinovich.
A poll spanning April 29 through May 11 on the Ukraine Elections website lists Petro Poroshenko as the overall leader (33.7%), followed by Yulia Tymoshenko (5.9%). Rabinovich was listed last in the statistics, with 0.6%.
Rabinovich told The Times of Israel he is interested in continuing as the chairman of his centrist party, saying he is the unifying candidate who just wants to serve the country. But if he does not win, he plans to return to business.
Though often labeled a media mogul by the press, Rabinovich told The Times of Israel that he hasn’t had control of the Jewish television network JN1 for some time, saying although he helped establish the channel, he relinquished control to Kolomoisky.
“Mr. Kolomoisky, after the launch of the Jewish channel in France [i24 news], said, ‘I fulfilled my mission to help Jews have their own channel. Today there is another Jewish channel, but the situation in Ukraine is difficult. We are now in a war, and to explain the situation in the country, I will shift the Jewish channel to a Ukraine channel.’ He’s the owner; if the channel were mine, maybe I’d make another decision, maybe not. It is an outstanding project and my feeling is once the war situation improves, he’ll go back to it.”
With his presidential run in God’s hands, Rabinovich ended philosophically:
“I am happy because of one thing — that all presidential candidates who can realistically become president have declared their intentions to have a good relationship with Israel. There is no one among them that is the leader of an anti-Semitic movement and it means the Jewish community will be OK. I will make sure of it.”
Anya Zhuravel Segal contributed to this report.