News Analysis: Future of Soviet Jewry Unclear As Moscow Government Unravels
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News Analysis: Future of Soviet Jewry Unclear As Moscow Government Unravels

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The accelerating disintegration of the Soviet central government has created new concerns about the future safety and status of Soviet Jewry and its ability to emigrate freely.

The decision Sunday by the three Slavic republics of the old Soviet Union to form a Commonwealth of Independent States is but the latest and most dramatic of a string of moves in recent weeks that have badly weakened and all but destroyed Mikhail Gorbachev’s Kremlin government.

There were reports Tuesday that Gorbachev was close to resigning as president.

It remains to be seen whether the other nine Soviet republics will join the commonwealth formed by Russia, Byelorussia and Ukraine.

But in any case, power has shifted from Moscow to the individual republics. They are already exercising virtual autonomy in matters of domestic policy and increasingly are becoming involved directly in foreign relations.

Of specific concern to advocacy groups for Soviet Jewry is what type of emigration policy will be adopted by the various republics. In recent years, they have generally followed Moscow’s policy, which has made it possible for hundreds of thousands of Jews to leave the country.

Of more general concern is the type of governments that will be empowered in the republics. There is uncertainty over whether, in the absence of communism, the republics will become truly democratic entities.

There is concern that in some republics, especially Georgia and Moldavia, ultranationalist groups hostile to the interests of Jews and other ethnic minorities could become more popular and see their xenophobic policies implemented.

In other republics, including the three Slavic ones that formed the commonwealth, the concern is that conditions may be ripe to enact laws favoring one ethnic group over another, thereby exacerbating tensions.


In addition, the economic crises in the various republics could lead to outright ethnic wars beyond the scattered violence that has occurred thus far. In a worse-case scenario, that violence could lead to the type of civil war that has devastated Yugoslavia with deadly results.

“The combination of economic and political instability that exists is conducive (and) has the potential for fueling ethnic conflicts, “said Martin Wenick, executive director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry.

“There is still no vision as to what kind of government will be implanted or superimposed on the former USSR, ” said Pamela Cohen, president of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews.

Both Soviet Jewry groups will be watching closely as the republics decide whether to adopt or revise the Soviet Union’s regulations for issuing of emigration visas and passports.

Rabbi Avraham Weiss, national director of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, said Jewish groups should be pressuring the republics not only to guarantee Jewish emigration but to accelerate it.

“Every day you wait with the changes taking place in the Soviet Union may be too late for Soviet Jewry,” he said.

Jewish groups also will be monitoring what types of laws and regulations the republics adopt regarding the extent of permissible religious activity, the registration of religious groups and the import of religious goods.

The problem, as one Jewish organizational official put it, is that “each republic has to be approached separately” on these issues.


Wenick said that the National Conference has already discussed emigration matters with leaders of the Russian, Byelorussian and Ukrainian republics.

And leaders of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee recently met with the leaders of Moldavia, a republic bordering Romania considered fertile for anti-Semitism, and Azerbaijan, a Moslem-majority republic that, like others in Central Asia, has the potential for adopting pro-Islamic fundamentalist policies.

They promised to protect the rights of the Jewish minority and to allow free emigration.

In announcing the formation of their commonwealth Sunday, the three Slavic republics pledged to honor all international accords that were signed by the Soviet Union. This apparently includes the 1975 Helsinki Accords, which call on treaty members to have liberal emigration policies.

Other guarantees that the commonwealth has agreed to uphold include “freedoms of all citizens irrespective of nationality.” State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said Monday.

Perhaps the biggest threat to Soviet Jews right now is uncertainty about the future.

Cohen of the Union of Councils said that for Jews in the various republics, there is currently “no repression, but there’s no guarantees for anything that anybody is doing, which causes enormous psychological unrest.”

Jews have an “enormous fear” that a “political earthquake” may erupt, with either an authoritarian or totalitarian government assuming power, she said.

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