NEW YORK (Jan. 15)
The Soviet military crackdown in Lithuania on Sunday morning and other attempts this week to suppress the independence movements in the Baltic republics are indications of a changing climate in the Soviet Union that could threaten both the Jews who are trying to leave the country and those who plan to stay.
Experts here say it is too soon to assess the full impact of these developments, which appear to confirm the growing strength of conservative elements within the Soviet government.
“There’s no way of knowing what’s going to happen, but clearly, storm clouds are on the horizon,” said Martin Wenick, executive director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry.
“The ascending powers — the security forces, the military, KGB and the party bureaucrats — have traditionally been those most hostile to improved rights for Jews,” he said.
But the appointment of Aleksander Bessmertnykh to replace Eduard Shevardnadze as Soviet foreign minister is not expected to create major policy changes. Shevardnadze resigned Dec. 20, saying he feared the nation was moving toward “dictatorship.”
Bessmertnykh has been the Soviet ambassador to the United States since last spring. Though said to be a liberal, he is also a member of the Communist Party’s orthodox Central Committee.
The 57-year-old career diplomat is expected to serve as an administrator of Kremlin policy, rather than an architect of change, say analysts.
His appointment is “Gorbachev’s effort to reassure the United States and the West that he seeks to maintain continuity,” said Wenick.
NEW FOREIGN MINISTER HAS LESS CLOUT
But the new foreign minister lacks the personal relationship with Gorbachev and political clout enjoyed by his predecessor, Wenick said.
With the rising power of conservative forces, the Foreign Ministry under Bessmertnykh “is likely to have diminished influence on the formation and conduct of Soviet foreign policy,” he said.
According to Pamela Cohen, president of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, Bessmertnykh’s promotion is in line with other recent Gorbachev appointments.
“Every appointment that Gorbachev has made indicates he is looking for people who will be very loyal to him and implement his policies,” she said.
“Bessmertnykh is not associated with the right wing,” she said, “but he is not seen in the Soviet Union as an intellectual or luminary. I don’t think we should be comforted by this appointment.”
By contrast, B’nai B’rith International welcomed the appointment. According to the organization’s president, Kent Schiner, B’nai B’rith has been “most impressed with his warmth, his candor and his sincere regard for the process of democratization and guarantees of human rights, civil liberties and religious freedom.”
The disturbances in the republics, meanwhile, have had little impact yet on the rate of Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union. About 500 Soviet Jews are now arriving in Israel each day, and about 20,000 are expected to arrive during January, according to officials of the Jewish Agency for Israel.
The Kremlin’s move to an increasingly reactionary political position may increase demand among Soviet Jews for exit visas.
‘LITTLE CONFIDENCE IN THE FUTURE’
Despite pledges from Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, Soviet Jews are not sure how much longer they will be able to emigrate.
Soviet Jews never trusted the Soviet Union’s process of democratization, which had been applauded by the United States and other Western powers, observed David Harris, executive vice president of the American Jewish Committee.
“For the last 18 months, they have been voting with their feet. They’ve been telling us that they have little confidence in the future and in the process of liberalization,” he said.
“They were telling us that even glasnost and perestroika would prove transitory, that the country’s basic instincts were conservative and anti-democratic. Events in Lithuania only help make the point,” said Harris.
The military crackdown on the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius left 14 people dead, including two people crushed under tanks, and at least 164 wounded in the early morning hours of Sunday.
Emanuelius Zingeris, leader of the Lithuanian Jewish community, fled Vilnius on Saturday just hours ahead of the tanks and is now in Stockholm, where he is on a hunger strike, which he will continue until the crisis recedes, reported Dan Mariaschin, director of international affairs for B’nai B’rith International.
Zingeris, also known as Zinger, is the head of the democratically elected Lithuanian parliament’s foreign affairs committee. He is one of the five officials named by Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis to form a government in exile.
According to Mariaschin, Zingeris met with the U.S. ambassador in Stockholm and gave him a letter from the Lithuanian president asking for American help.
Zingeris is also a member of the presidium of the Vaad, the national confederation of Jewish organizations in the Soviet Union.
The Vaad’s second annual convention is scheduled to take place Jan. 21-25 in Moscow, and over 1,000 Soviet Jewish activists, and 100 leaders from around the world, are expected to attend.
It is not known whether Zingeris will be able to attend the conference or if he will be able to return to Vilnius.
‘EDUCATION TAX’ PROPOSED IN RUSSIA
Troubling developments in other republics include a raid on police buildings by Soviet troops in Riga, the capital of Latvia, and the closing of the sole Jewish paper there earlier this month, when the military shut down all of the free press.
In Russia, largest of the Soviet republics, an “education tax” of some 3,000 rubles has reportedly been included in a proposed budget presented to the Russian parliament.
This tax, if approved, would be demanded of anyone emigrating from Russia, ostensibly to “pay back” the government for the education that the individual had received.
A similar tax, of up to the equivalent of $45,000, was imposed nationally in 1972, according to Lynn Singer, executive director of the Long Island Committee for Soviet Jewry. That tax was quickly rescinded after international powers lobbied Leonid Brezhnev, then the Soviet leader.