Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Ukrainians Elect Country's First Jewish Prime Minister


Ukraine's parliament chose the country's new prime minister today. His name is Volodymyr Groysman. He's 38 years old. And his selection is noteworthy for what didn't prevent him from becoming prime minister - for the dog that didn't bark. Groysman is Jewish. And while that may not be the most important fact about him in contemporary Ukrainian politics, it's significant given the catastrophic history of Jews in Ukraine.

After centuries of anti-Semitic pogroms, Jews accounted for almost a third of Ukraine's urban population on the eve of the Holocaust. Today they're about 1 percent of the population. Historian Timothy Snyder of Yale University has written extensively about the murderous violence in Eastern Europe during and between the two World Wars. And he joins us now. Welcome to the program once again.

TIMOTHY SNYDER: Glad to be here.

SIEGEL: Is it fair to say that what's most remarkable about Ukraine having a Jewish prime minister is that in the year 2016 it's not so remarkable?

SNYDER: I think it's remarkable in deep historical ways. It's remarkable in the history of Jewish political integration. There aren't that many Jewish heads of government if you don't count Israel. This is the only one in the world. It's remarkable compared to the United States for example. It's interesting and it shows that Ukraine is not really an ethnic nation. That's not its problem. It is a political nation. It's successful at that level.

And of course it's also interesting because we now have the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the Holocaust in Ukraine. That's going to be commemorated most likely with the Jewish head of government. And that might be a chance for a fruitful international conversation and national conversation inside Ukraine about what happened to those three-quarters of a century ago.

SIEGEL: There are still some right-wing, anti-Semitic groups claiming that - well before Groysman became prime minister - that Ukraine is ruled by a Jewish cabal. Is that fringe talk or does one hear a good deal of it in Ukraine?

SNYDER: It's about as - no less significant than in Russia and Poland, probably less significant than right-wing populism in France and in much of Western Europe - but because Ukraine is a much less stable political system. But, yeah, I think it's probably the case that the anti-Semitic fringe in Ukraine isn't going to be much impressed by this particular development either.

SIEGEL: Well, if Groysman's Jewishness doesn't describe his place in Ukrainian politics today, what does? How would you say he fits in?

SNYDER: Yeah, so, I mean, to answer that - just a very quick glance at the main problem of Ukrainian politics. The main problem of Ukrainian politics is not interethnic relations. The main problem of Ukrainian politics is not even that Russia occupies the south and the southeast of the country. The main problem of Ukrainian politics is corruption. Corruption is the reason why people protested on the Maidan in Kiev. Corruption is the reason why there was a change of government that led to the current government being in power. Corruption is the reason why the current president, Petro Poroshenko, was elected.

Now, the main question in Ukrainian politics today, April 2016, is whether Poroshenko is part of the problem or whether he's part of the solution. The government under Poroshenko, who is the president, the government under the previous prime minister included a number of notable reformers - several of them not even citizens of Ukraine until recently - who were brought in precisely because they weren't caught up in the various networks of corruption that dominate Ukrainian political and social life.

Now, as Groysman becomes prime minister, we can be interested that he is Jewish, but what we must not do is overlook the situation into which he arrives, which is that, A, he is part of Poroshenko's party. B, he is very young. C, he doesn't know any foreign languages. And, D, he doesn't have much backing of any kind beyond the president. So at this point what his arrival at the center of Ukrainian politics really means is the domination of the current Ukrainian president. And from the point of view of the West, if we want to be clear-eyed about this, we have to make sure that this is not - or do what we can I suppose to make sure that this is not a step further towards more corruption.

SIEGEL: Professor Snyder, thanks for talking with us today.

SNYDER: It's been my pleasure. Thank you.

SIEGEL: Historian Timothy Snyder is the author most recently of "Black Earth: The Holocaust As History And Warning." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.