Ukraine Votes in First Jewish Prime Minister, Known for Israel Connections

Volodymyr Groysman served as mayor of Vinnytsia where he doubled the city's budget in three years before becoming the first openly Jewish speaker of the Ukrainian Parliament.

Ukrainian Parliament Speaker Volodymyr Groysman addresses deputies at the parliament in Kiev, Ukraine before being voted in as the new prime minister on April 14, 2016.
Ukrainian Parliament Speaker Volodymyr Groysman addresses deputies at the parliament in Kiev, Ukraine before being voted in as the new prime minister on April 14, 2016. Valyntyn Ogirenko, Reuters

The Jewish speaker of the Ukrainian parliament, Volodymyr Groysman, has been elected prime minister after a months-long political crisis.

The parliament on Thursday voted 250-57 for Groysman, who was nominated by President Petro Poroshenko.

The outgoing prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, resigned earlier this week after weeks of pressure for him to step down. He had survived a no-confidence vote in February.

Groysman has been perceived as a conciliatory figure after the governing coalition refused to support U.S.-born Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko, who has been lauded as a West-friendly reformist untainted by cronyism and corruption.

Speaking ahead of the vote, Groysman said his government was committed to tackling graft and strengthening ties with the European Union."I understand the threats that face us. In particular I would like to highlight three threats - corruption, ineffective governance and populism, which do not pose less of a threat than the enemy in eastern Ukraine," he said, referring to a pro-Russian separatist rising."I will show you what leading a country really means," he added.

Groysman is a former mayor of the city of Vinnytsia, and was an active member of the local Jewish community.

'A man of action'

Groysman’s Jewishness is not very unusual, even for a mayor and senior politician in Ukraine, where 360,000 Jews live. But his openness about it was not customary in a country where anti-Semitism and decades of Communist repression once made it undesirable for politicians to be seen as too Jewish, said the local rabbi, Shaul Horowitz.

Last year, his reputation as an honest and effective administrator earned Groysman the title of speaker of the Ukrainian parliament before Thursday's vote that made him the first openly Jewish person to hold the country’s second highest post and, at 38, the youngest person to have the job.

Josef Zissels, a leader of the Vaad organization of Ukrainian Jews, pointed to Groysman’s ascent in politics as proof of the absence of serious anti-Semitism in Ukraine. Russia regularly points to the country’s alleged anti-Semitism to justify its conflict with Ukraine, including the annexation of Crimea.

“Clearly, Groysman’s nomination shows the opposite,” Zissels said of the claims.

Horowitz is among those who believe Groysman will succeed where others have failed. The rabbi points to Groysman’s record as mayor in his native Vinnytsia.

“He’s a man of action who doesn’t talk too much but gets a lot done,” Horowitz said.

When Groysman, a lawyer with a background in business, became mayor in 2006 – at 28 he was the country’s youngest mayor ever — “the place looked like a Third World city,” Horowitz recalled.

“The roads were [in] disrepair, there were no street lights, fires broke out regularly,” he said.

The Israel connection

But today, Vinnytsia, a sprawling city of 370,000, has a reliable tram system, one of Ukraine’s best-functioning train stations, street lights everywhere and three new hospitals.

Using international connections and attracting oligarchs to set up shop in the city, Groysman nearly doubled its budget from 500 million hryvna in 2007 (approximately $100 million) to nearly 1 billion hryvna in 2010.

“If Groysman does for Ukraine what he did for Vinnytsia, then he will have done something truly great for this nation,” said Koen Carlier, a Belgian national who lives in Vinnytsia, where he heads the operations of the local Christians for Israel group.

Endeavoring to jump-start his city’s economy, Groysman has made use of his ties in Israel. He has family in the city of Ashdod, which his 69-year-old father, Boris, visits regularly. In 2012, Groysman welcomed Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman to Vinnytsia for the opening of a state-of-the-art medical diagnostic center that Israel built there.

That project demonstrated Groysman’s knack for using his broad network to meet the needs of his constituents and partners, according to one Ukrainian official who spoke to JTA under condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to speak to the media.

“With fears of growing international isolation, Israel was anxious to demonstrate that it has allies,” the official said. “Groysman knew this, and he also knew it was a country where politicians are accessible and act fast. So he worked out a symbiosis to benefit his own city.”

Groysman’s recent rise in Ukrainian politics owes a great deal not only to what but who he knew – especially Poroshenko, with whom he had had a close relationship long before Poroshenko became president. In 2012, Poroshenko, an oligarch who made his fortune from chocolates, opened Ukraine’s largest confectionery factory in Vinnytsia, adding thousands of jobs. Poroshenko, who became president in 2014, also was a partner in the construction of the Israeli diagnostic center.

Poroshenko asked Groysman to become speaker of the parliament shortly after assuming power following a revolution that ended with the ousting of his predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych. That bloody insurrection began amid claims that Yanukovych was a corrupt Kremlin stooge.

In interviews with the Ukrainian media, Groysman spoke of his grandfather Isaac’s survival during the Holocaust, when he pretended to be dead after being dropped by Nazis into a mass grave.

On January 27, International Holocaust Memorial Day, when Groysman was the chairman of the Verkhovna Rada, the parliament, he asked other lawmakers to stand for a minute’s silence in honor of the victims of the Jewish genocide. It was the first time such a gesture took place in parliament.

“Unlike many who either try to hide their Judaism or just not talk about it, Groysman is a warm and open Jew because he’s part of a new generation in a new country,” Horowitz said.