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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Combating Anti-Semitism

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 9 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin's pledge to fight anti-Semitism and improve economic conditions on his watch have contributed to "a noticeable decrease" in the number of anti-Semitic incidents in Russia over the last year, according to a report issued this week by the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews.

But, this U.S.-based watchdog organization warns, the difficulties Putin faces in rooting out entrenched anti-Semitic groups in the regions, his own reliance on the security services and the possibility that the Russian economic growth may slow could trigger a new upsurge in anti-Semitism.

The danger of a new wave of anti-Semitism could grow, the UCSJ said, if post-Soviet threats like the alliance between neo-Nazi and Cossack paramilitary groups combine with Soviet-type challenges like increased dominance by the security organs and the suppression of freedom of the press.

According to this group, which has been monitoring anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union and post-Soviet states for more than a generation and which currently is conducting research on anti-Semitic incidents in all of Russia's regions, this link-up has already taken place in some places and appears to be gaining ground in others, including in Moscow itself.

Perhaps the worst example is Krasnodar Governor Nikolai Kondratenko, who the report notes has publicly accused Jews of conspiring to destroy Russia and even of "inventing" homosexuality to promote that end. In May, he even said that Zionists were working together with the United States to "zombify" the Russian population and to incite ethnic conflicts on Russian territory.

But if this threat exists, the UCSJ argues, so too are some reasons for optimism. First of all, Putin's own commitment to oppose anti-Semitism and his efforts to rebuild the law enforcement agencies have significantly reduced the number of anti-Semitic incidents registered since the last years of Boris Yeltsin's presidency. Putin has even ordered the arrest of some extremists, something the report said would have been "unthinkable" under Yeltsin.

Moreover, Putin's own political agenda of recentralizing power and authority in Moscow appears to be directed against the leaders of the country's regions, some of which are headed by openly extremist and anti-Semitic governors. Thus Putin has his own political reasons for moving against such groups.

And finally, the dramatic increase in the number of anti-Semitic incidents in Russia in 1998-99 compared to the early and mid-1990s has attracted growing attention from governments and human rights organizations in the West, some of whom had viewed the collapse of communism by itself as the solution to the historical problem of anti-Semitism in Russia and her neighbors.

One example of this was the attention these governments and groups gave to the recent arrest of Vladimir Gusinsky, an oligarch who happens to be Jewish. If some were willing to accept Moscow's argument that his arrest arose from his business activities, many speculated that he had been singled out because of his religious background.

The impact on Russia of this renewed Western concern is uncertain. On the one hand, Putin and his government are unlikely to want to offend countries from which Moscow still hopes to extract assistance and cooperation. But on the other hand, Western statements on this issue could trigger the very thing they are designed to oppose: an upsurge of nationalistic rhetoric and action which could further threaten Jews in the Russian Federation.

Indeed, the mixed Russian reaction to U.S. Vice President Al Gore's selection of Senator Joseph Lieberman as his vice presidential running mate highlights some of the problems ahead, with many Moscow papers focusing on Lieberman's Jewish background and one, the "Vedomosti" business daily, going so far as to suggest on Tuesday that "if Gore wins the election, Russia will have a very uncomfortable opponent."

For all these reasons, the UCSJ says, the West will have to keep channels of communication open with Moscow to ensure that its voice is heard on the importance of combating anti-Semitism, but do so in a way that does not further inflame the situation.

That challenge, the report concludes, makes the next twelve months "a crucial time" for determining the future of Russian Jewry -- and indeed, of Russian democracy as a whole.