By Cnaan Liphshiz
Three powerful and prominent Jews in Ukraine appear to have had their citizenship stripped as their long-simmering conflict with President Volodymyr Zelensky has reached a boiling point amid the war with Russia.
Last week, Zelensky reportedly either revoked or took steps to revoke the Ukrainian citizenship of two of the country’s best known oligarchs, Igor Kolomoisky and Hennadiy Korban, as well as that of Vadim Rabinovich, a former tycoon turned opposition lawmaker.
The three men are among the wealthiest Jews in Ukraine, and the official reason for the move appears to be that they hold foreign citizenship — including in Israel. Dual citizenship is technically illegal in Ukraine but is widely tolerated in practice.
Several alternate theories are also circulating, including that Zelensky is purging oligarchs with checkered pasts in an effort to prove to the United States and other Western countries that Ukraine has no tolerance for corruption.
What is clear is that three of the most influential Jews in Ukraine, including two who have been instrumental in funding Jewish infrastructure projects, especially in the Chabad-Lubavitch stronghold of Dnipro, appear no longer to be welcome in their native land. Korban has already been denied entrance into Ukraine at a border crossing and had his Ukrainian passport confiscated, according to Ukrainian media reports.
It is also clear that the decision is generating rare pushback for Zelensky, Ukraine’s Jewish president who is widely seen as a hero for standing up to Russia.
The citizenship revocations have “revealed a colossal institutional problem that has now upset a really huge number of people,” Borys Filatov, the (non-Jewish) mayor of the strategically important city of Dnipro has said, referencing hundreds of thousands of people with dual nationalities in Ukraine.
Filatov, who is an ally of Korban, added that some Jews from Dnipro with Israeli citizenship are considering leaving following the move. Approached by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency for comment on this claim, the city’s rabbi, Shmuel Kaminezki, declined to comment; a source in Dnipro told JTA recently that about half of the city’s Jews had already left since the start of the war. At least 8,000 Ukrainians with Israeli citizenship were living in Ukraine when the war broke out, according to the Israeli embassy in Kyiv.
“No one has the right to violate the constitution, even if you have a halo glowing around your head and you feel like a god,” Zoya Kazanzhi, a prominent Ukrainian journalist, said in an interview with the NV news site earlier this week. She characterized the move as “political revenge.”
The move comes as Zelensky reportedly is cracking down on Ukrainians who may be cooperating with Russia. But Kolomoisky, Korban and Rabinovich all have strong patriotic credentials.
Instead, at least part of the long-simmering internal conflict is believed to be about power more than ideology. Since his election in 2019, Zelensky has continued the anti-oligarch reform started by his predecessor Petro Poroshenko in a bid to loosen Kolomoisky’s grip on the economy, media and other centers of power. That move surprised some because Kolomoisky had been among Zelensky’s top backers and had returned from a self-imposed exile in Israel only after Zelensky was elected in 2019.
Kolomoisky, Korban and Rabinovitch all have also faced allegations of mass-scale corruption both in court and beyond.
Kolomoisky is a banking magnate from Dnipro and a major funder of Jewish causes and the Chabad movement in Ukraine. He holds citizenship in Cyprus and Israel as well in Ukraine, where he was born.
Kolomoisky, who has said he will appeal the nullification of his citizenship, is thought to be the main financier of the flashy, 22-story Jewish community center built in Dnipro in 2012. He has also poured millions of dollars of his own wealth into preparing Ukraine’s army to fight Russia since Russia’s 2014 invasion into Ukraine, and even briefly acted as the head of the Dnipro region during that crisis.
He has been accused of laundering hundreds of millions of dollars derived from a Ponzi scheme. He is also under a criminal investigation led by Ukrainian investigators and the FBI for allegedly using multiple shell companies and bank accounts to take out millions of dollars of government money for real estate investments, including in the United States. Kolomoisky has denied any wrongdoing.
Stripping Kolomoisky of his Ukrainian citizenship could facilitate his extradition to the United States if prosecutors there requested it, according to a report in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The newspaper published an investigation late last year showing that Kolomoisky had not paid taxes on many of the properties he has purchased in the United States. To date, the United States has not made a formal extradition request.
Meanwhile, Korban is a past business associate of Kolomoisky, a former politician and a mining magnate who is famously belligerent. A member of the board of trustees of the Jewish community of Dnipro, he has spent millions on Ukrainian Jewry’s institutions and causes, as well as significant sums on beefing up Ukraine’s military capabilities against Russia. His sister, Victoria, is living in Israel and their parents are reportedly Israeli citizens. Hennady Korban is believed to hold Israeli citizenship in addition to his Ukrainian one.
Korban was arrested in 2016 in connection with a $150,000 bribe that police said he had given to a judge. The investigation into his actions, which Korban has compared to an antisemitic blood libel, is ongoing.
The case of Rabinovich, a former major donor to Jewish causes who appears to have lost his fortune of billions of dollars before becoming a lawmaker in 2014, is more complicated.
Rabinovich served seven years in jail in the 1980s for black market deals. He has called the charges, made against him by a Soviet court before Ukraine became independent, “trumped up.”
As a longtime critic of Zelensky who holds Israeli citizenship, Rabinovich was flagged as a “traitor” in April by Ukraine’s National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption, alongside 110 other Ukrainians.
The government’s summary of the case against him called him a “collaborator, pro-Russian politician,” adding that he has “been abroad since the beginning of the war” and wrote on Feb. 14 on Facebook that the war had begun “but it is the West that is leading it, with Ukraine.”
Rabinovich, who has dismissed the April allegations as a witch hunt against opposition voices, has made statements that undermine Russian propaganda about Ukraine being a “Nazi” country.
“I want to destroy the myth about an antisemitic Ukraine which is spreading around the world,” Rabinovich said in his inaugural address as a lawmaker in 2014, the year that Russia first invaded Ukraine under similar pretenses to those cited in its current onslaught.
The Ukrainian government has not publicly confirmed that it has revoked the men’s citizenship. Unusually, the July 18 presidential decree announcing the decision surfaced online without the president’s signature, and Zelensky’s office has remained vague on the issue when asked to confirm the decree’s authenticity. But sources close to Zelensky told the Post-Gazette that the document, which also revokes the citizenship of several suspected petty criminals and smugglers, was authentic.
The president’s move against Kolomoisky, Korban and Rabinovich has surprised and bewildered many.
“I have received no answers to the questions that I have directed at the respected guarantor of the constitution, but I would like to receive them,” Filatov, the mayor of Dnipro, said in a filmed speech, referencing Zelensky.
Filatov is a close associate of Korban, known by some as Dnipro’s “shadow mayor.” But he broke with Kolomoisky after Kolomoisky failed to support Korban during Korban’s legal ordeals. He has long been a critic of Zelensky.
Meanwhile, Vyacheslav Likhachev, a spokesperson for the Vaad, a Ukrainian Jewish community group with little connection to the groups supported by the president’s three rivals, also said he was puzzled.
Speaking only as a casual observer of the fight, Likhachev said the timing of the president’s move was hard to explain.
“The brief answer is that Zelensky is fighting political rivals,” Likhachev said, though “it seems that nobody really knows” why now, and why by voiding their citizenship. Perhaps, Likhachev proposed, the answer is “because he can.”
Whatever Zelensky’s motivation, the move could have sweeping consequences for efforts to reinvigorate Jewish communities in Ukraine. Jewish leaders were already concerned that a looming financial crisis would reduce the capacity of wealthy Ukrainian Jews to build back up institutions that have been damaged by a mass exodus of Jews during the war. Now, the question may be whether those wealthy Ukrainian Jews remain Ukrainian at all.