Behind the Headlines: Breakup of Soviet Union Could Lead to Resurgent Wave of Anti-semitism

The breakup of the Soviet Union into separate, independent republics could spur a new wave of anti-Semitism in areas where nationalist sentiment is strong.

Soviet Jewry experts cite the current fighting between Serbs and Croats in Yugoslavia as an example of how historic animosity has been unleashed with deadly results in Eastern Europe.

These experts say that the treatment of Jews in republics that declare independence from the Soviet Union will be directly related to how democratic the newly empowered governments are.

Accordingly, the National Conference on Soviet Jewry sent a letter Tuesday to Secretary

of State James Baker, urging him to secure human rights guarantees, including the right to emigrate, when deciding whether to recognize Soviet republics as independent.

But experts also point out that a strongly democratic government is no guarantee of security for the local Jewish population.

In Russia, for example, the move toward democracy paradoxically has allowed anti-Semitic groups such as Pamyat to flourish.

While President Boris Yeltsin is widely regarded as being committed to democratic reform, he may be unable to prevent such groups from threatening the republic’s population of 550,000 to 700,000 Jews.

A republic’s government may say that it opposes anti-Semitism, but “there’s a difference between what they say and what they do,” said Martin Wenick, executive director of the National Conference.

THE NEW ‘ENEMY NO. 1′?

“Jews will be minorities in each of these republics, and they will suffer as a result of that,” he predicted.

Jews in the various republics often speak Russia. rather than the native ethnic language. As nationalist sentiment grows in these republics, Jews may be scapegoated by local populations venting their anger over their prior incorporation into the Soviet Union by Russians.

Jews and other minorities may replace ethnic Russians as “enemy No. 1″ in these areas, said former refusenik Leonid Stonov, director of the Soviet-American Bureau on Human Rights of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews.

According to Wenick, one of the biggest trouble spots in the short term is likely to be Moldavia, whose parliament voted Tuesday to sever ties with Moscow.

Moldavia has one of the worst economies in the Soviet Union and a long history of anti-Semitism. The fear is that strife between ethnic Romanians and Russians could endanger the republic’s population of 65,000 to 80,000 Jews.

The neighboring Ukraine, home to between 485,000 and 635,000 Jews, was once considered the “motherland of anti-Semitism.” But Stonov of the Union of Councils said he is encouraged by the close cooperation between the Jewish community there and the leaders of the pro-democracy movement Rukh.

Another Slavic republic, Byelorussia, has a Jewish population of between 80,000 and 112,000. It, too, has been swept by strong nationalistic and anti-Semitic sentiment, according to Myrna Shinbaum, director of Soviet and Eastern European affairs at the Anti-Defamation League.

But Stonov played down such problems in Byelorussia by virtue of its fairly “high level of culture” as well as its border with the Baltic republic of Lithuania, which has moved swiftly toward democracy.

CONCERN ABOUT MOSLEM REPUBLICS

In the long term, the experts are most concerned about the fate of Jews in the six Moslem-majority republics in Central Asia. They see a potential for violence there against ethnic minorities, such as Armenians, Russians and Jews.

The Moslem republic with the largest Jewish population is Uzbekistan, where an estimated 100,000 Jews live in Bukhara, Samarkand, Tashkent and other areas.

The republic was rocked by ethnic violence in May 1990, when Uzbeks “went on a rampage against non-Uzbeks” after a soccer match and pillaged a few dozen homes owned by Jews or Armenians, said Shinbaum.

Wenick expressed concern about the potential for violence in Azerbaijan, where heavy fighting has taken place in recent years between Azerbaijanis and ethnic Armenians. The republic has a Jewish population of 30,000 to 35,000, much of it centered in the capital of Baku.

After Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan, the next largest Jewish populations in Moslem republics are Kazakhstan, 20,000; Tadzhikistan, 14,500; Kirghizia, 6,000; and Turkmenia, 2,400.

Should these republics gain independence, they are likely to fall under the influence of nearby Moslem countries.

Iran already has a consulate in Azerbaijan, and Libya has one in Uzbekistan, said Helene Kenvin, president of the Caucasus Network, a U.S. group that coordinates efforts on behalf of Jews in the eight southern republics.

There is also some concern that should the six Moslem-majority republics get to decide emigration matters, they might not let Jews leave.

LESS CONCERN ABOUT THE BALTICS

The two other southern republics, Armenia and Georgia, are of strikingly different concern to Jews. Fewer than 1,000 Jews live in Armenia.

But Georgia has “very high nationalism” that could lead to totalitarian rule under its current president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, said Stonov of the Union of Councils. The republic has a Jewish population of 25,000 to 28,000.

There is generally less concern about the fate of Jews in the three virtually independent Baltic republics: Latvia, with 28,000 Jews; Lithuania, with 14,000 Jews; and Estonia, with 5,000 Jews.

While the local populations in these republics took part in “horrible atrocities” against the Jews during World War II, more recently, democratic forces there have been “understanding of the Jewish community,” said Wenick of the National Conference.

The Baltic republics have “reached out to the Jewish minority and to Israel,” said Shinbaum of ADL.

In Lithuania especially, Jews have been appointed to prominent positions in the new government. The chairman of the international committee in the Lithuanian parliament, Emmanuelis Zingeris, is Jewish.

But even in these republics, anti-Semitic feelings will “die hard,” predicted Shinbaum. Since the Communist revolution of 1917, “even where there are not a large number of Jews, they have been taught from the beginning that Jews are responsible” for their problems, she said.

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