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Russia: Communist Party Fails To Condemn Anti-Semitism Promptly

Moscow, 16 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Some prominent political analysts in Moscow say Russia's Communist Party blundered badly in recent days by failing to promptly condemn anti-Semitic statements by Communist lawmaker Albert Makashov.

There is also wide agreement among political observers that the Communists harmed themselves further by calling on the government to introduce de facto censorship of Russian television.

Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, under fire for failing to silence Makashov, said (Nov. 12) he had told Israel's ambassador in Moscow that his party deplored anti-Semitism and had rebuked Makashov in private.

But Zyuganov's remarks followed a less precise party statement on Wednesday. And last week, his party helped block a measure in the State Duma censuring Makashov.

Two political analysts discussing the issue on an RFE/RL Russian Service program (Nov. 12) said Zyuganov's failure to promptly and forcefully distance his party from Makashov indicated poor political judgment. They said Zyuganov had played into the hands of Communist party opponents ahead of parliamentary elections late next year and a presidential election due in mid-2000.

Sergei Kurghinyan, director of the "Experimental Creative Centre," a nationalist-leaning research group:

"Zyuganov (the past few years has extended) so much effort in an attempt to create for himself and his party a respectable image and in one single moment destroyed all his efforts."

He went on to say that Communist leaders face a dilemma. Criticizing Makashev too fiercely would anger nationalists at one end of the party. But failing to censure him, according to Kurghinyan, is alienating more moderate members on the opposite side of the party.

Both Kurghinyan and Georgii Satarov, president of the INDEM think tank and former political adviser to President Boris Yeltsin, say that the row has clearly damaged the Communists' chances of forming a political alliance with politicians like populist Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov in future elections. Luzhkov has called Makashov's statements "deplorable and Neanderthal-like."

Despite the controversy, Makashov continued making comments this week, adding to past anti-Semitic attacks in which he had blamed Jews as the source of Russia's economic problems. On Wednesday, he said quotas should be introduced on the number of Jews in Russia's governmental and media organizations. Zyuganov and his colleagues and allies in the State Duma responded largely by lashing back at critics.

In a statement, Zyuganov attacked what he called "haters of Russia, who are trying hard to force the so-called Jewish question on the Communists". He tried to shift the blame for anti-Semitism to his party's opponents.

Makashov's remarks and the Communists' behavior have prompted condemnation from across the spectrum of Russia's mainstream political leadership.

One critic, influential tycoon Boris Berezovsky, has called for the party to be banned. Several politicians, including pro-reform economists Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais, have joined the call. Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov has said he strongly opposes a ban on the party. The fight is likely to develop through the media, controlled mainly by business interests that, as in the 1996 presidential campaign, are opposing a return to Communist rule.

According to Kurghinyan, Berezovsky likely had two main goals in calling for a ban of the Communist party:

"He wanted to do two things. (The first was to) create a division between the Communists and Luzhkov. (The second was to) test the positions of Primakov's government".

The government is formed mainly by former Soviet-era Communist party officials. And some cabinet members have said they favor re-nationalizing state property privatized in recent years in controversial deals that have enriched politically connected businessmen. It is believed the so-called "oligarchs" are concerned that cooperation between the Communists and the government may lead to a loss of assets.

President Yeltsin, who in 1996 benefited from business and media support in his successful re-election bid against Zyuganov, condemned the Communist party for its stance on Makashov at the weekend. Yesterday, Yeltsin stepped directly into the row, ordering government officials to put a stop to "national and political extremism".

Interfax today quoted the head of Russia's security services (FSB), Vladimir Putin, as saying that legal authorities in Moscow are initiating a criminal case against Makashov. Putin also said the FSB will back calls for lifting Makashov's parliamentary immunity.

Analysts say that Communist Party leaders only compounded their political problems by sending a letter to Primakov, urging him to set up "public observatory councils" at every television station. The letter called the Russian media a destabilizing force and said the councils should have the power to control and regulate the contents of all TV programs. There has been no reaction from Primakov.

Kurghinyan said the Communists' attack on the media was, in his words, a "neurotic attempt to try at any price to obtain some control over the media," which they have always perceived as hostile.