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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- An Ancient Evil, A New Conflict

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 26 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Anti-Semitism is again on the rise in Russia, a development that bodes ill for the social and political future of that country. But in addition, such a trend may threaten relations between Moscow and many Western capitals.

If that occurs, it will be only the latest occasion in which the rise of anti-Semitism there has had that effect. But this time, there is a significant difference. Earlier, primarily state-sponsored anti-Semitism disturbed the West. Now, it faces a situation in which the Russian State appears incapable of containing or stamping out this ancient evil.

Consequently, the latest increase in anti-Semitic statements and actions in Russia could have the effect of intensifying the debate about Moscow's ability to deal with a variety of other problems on its territory and to deliver on its promises to Western governments.

That stark conclusion is suggested by the testimony provided during a hearing on anti-Semitism in Russia held on Wednesday by the European Affairs Subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Among the speakers were David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee, and Mark Levin, the executive director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry.

Harris pointed out that anti-Semitism has a continuing appeal in societies, like that of Russia, which are undergoing radical and uncertain change. Levin added that the statements of Russian communist leaders such as the widely criticized comments of Duma deputy Albert Makashov in October 1998 have created an environment in which anti-Semitism can flourish.

In summing up the results of this hearing -- the third the U.S. Congress has held on this subject in recent years -- Senator Gordon Smith, the chairman of the subcommittee and a Republican from Oregon, said that Washington must make it clear that any mistreatment of Russia's approximately 600,000 Jewish citizens will hurt Russian-American relations.

American leaders over the past century have taken the same position. For example, President Woodrow Wilson was reluctant to join Russia as an ally in World War I until the Provisional Government in early 1917 overthrew the regime of Nicholas II whose government was widely condemned for sponsoring anti-Semitic outrages.

And Washington's relations with Moscow in the 1970s and 1980s were often dependent on how the Soviet government treated Jews and how many of them it allowed to emigrate to Israel and the West.

In both these cases as well as in many others, the West held Russian and Soviet governments accountable for what they were doing rather than what they had failed to prevent. Now, however, people and governments in the West are worried about what the current Russian government has failed to block.

During Wednesday's hearing, most of the testimony focused on the statements and actions of individuals who are not part of the Russian government itself: communist activists, radical nationalists and so on. And they thus called attention to the weakness of the Russian State itself.

That presents both Moscow and the West with a situation with which neither is yet certain how to cope.

On the one hand, many Russian officials are quite willing to point out that they cannot be held responsible for the actions of Russians who are not in the government. Even more, they are happy to exploit this situation either to bolster their own authority by allowing others to whip up popular passions or to use such outrages to gain Western support for a strengthening of the Russian state apparatus.

On the other, many in the West are appalled and even frightened by the intensification of anti-Semitism in Russia. Not only does this play into the notion now widely discussed that the Russian Federation is drifting toward fascism, but it leads some to conclude that only a new and more authoritarian regime can deal with this situation.

Given these uncertainties, the rise in anti-Semitic statements and actions in Russia appear likely to make relations between Moscow and the West far more difficult and contentious as each side struggles to find a way out of a situation in which the West is holding the Russian government responsible for something Moscow cannot now control.