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Behind the Headlines: As Russian Elections Approach, Jewish Voters Split on Favorites

On the eve of parliamentary elections in Russia, Jews here, like other Russian citizens, are divided over whom to support.

Whatever its composition as a result of Sunday’s elections – only the second such elections since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union – the lower house of Parliament, or Duma, will be confronting a legislative agenda that will be of particular significance to Russia’s estimated 500,000 to 2 million Jews.

In addition to dealing with issues of importance to the populace – such as Russia’s badly faltering economy and rising crime rates – the Duma may also confront such hot-button issues for the Jewish community as drafting a law for minorities, compensating former concentration camp inmates and restoring properties that formerly belonged to the Jewish community.

There are also fears that if a majority of reactionary parties triumph over reformist ones, the law allowing Jews to emigrate freely could be amended.

The fear is inspired by recent polls, which indicate that many Russians, fed up with the deteriorating economic situation, may turn their backs on the reformists and throw their support behind such groups as the Communist Party, the nationalist Congress of Russian Communities and the inaptly named Liberal Democratic Party of Russian ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

Some polls indicate that these parties could claim half the votes in Sunday’s elections. The Communist Pary, headed by Gennady Zyuganov, has been making an especially strong showing in recent days, with polls giving him more than 20 percent of the vote.

Although the Duma, as the lower house of Russia’s bicameral Parliament, has very little effect on the makeup of the government, the election’s primary importance is the balance of political forces in today’s Russia – a situation that can heavily influence the presidential elections slated for June 1996.

Voters will confront a wealth of candidates Sunday, with some 43 parties and blocs in the running.

Although Jews are not monolithic in their political thinking, Jewish voters generally show “that their loyalty to democratic parties is stronger than the average support these parties are likely to gain on the national level,” said Michael Chlenov, chairman of the Va’ad, the Jewish Confederation of Russia.

Among the more democratically oriented parties are Our Home is Russia, the party of President Boris Yeltsin and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin; the Democratic Choice of Russia, also known as Russia’s Choice and headed by former Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar; and Yabloko, headed by Grigory Yavlinsky, who is part Jewish.

The Congress of Ethnic Unions of Russia, known as KNOR, which has a Jewish section, is backing Russia’s Choice, which is the only political party that has a practical program for dealing with the country’s ethnic minorities.

None of the parties seeking election has included overt anti-Semitic slogans in their electoral campaign, Chlenov said.

But, he added, the election platforms of some parties are cause for serious concern.

“Parties like the Communists or Liberal Democrats are calling openly for a return to the past,” he said, noting that this could lead to a revision of the steps toward economic privatization that have marked the post-Soviet era.

“For ordinary folks, it means they might be deprived of their right to own the apartments they occupy,” Chlenov said. “For those Jews who plan to emigrate or repatriate to Israel, such measures would lead to personal economic catastrophe.”

He also noted another possible concern for Jews – the “hypothetical possibility of the restoration of the Iron Curtain and the closing of Russia’s borders.”

Although Jewish emigration from Russia has declined dramatically from its peak in 1992, shortly after the gates opened, there are still Jews who want to emigrate.

Beyond the general concerns about the direction of the country, there is a set of minority-related issues that has to be solved on the parliamentary level, said Valery Engel, a Moscow Jewish activist.

Although some of the issues are important to all ethnic minorities in Russia, others are specifically important for the Jews, he said, citing the need “to adopt a law on national-cultural autonomy for the minorities.”

“For Russian Jews, the effect of the law can be twofold: It should incorporate guarantees of combating national chauvinism and anti-Semitism on the state level; on the other hand, the law should ensure state support of Jewish education and culture.”

Engel, a businessman and vice president of the reform-minded Congress of Ethnic Unions of Russia, is running on the Russia’s Choice slate. The party has agreed to back its minority candidates running on that slate.

Engel believes that he has a good chance to win a seat in the Duma.

If so, Engel, who some 10 years ago was active in the Moscow underground Jewish movement teaching Hebrew to young dissidents and future immigrants to Israel, would become the first member of the post-Soviet Russian Parliament who is fluent in Hebrew.

Jews make up about 3 percent of all candidates running for the Duma, but only a handful of them has a special Jewish agenda in the upcoming elections.

Engel is clearly worried about the future of emigration if parties appealing to the more orderly times of the Soviet era or those with a strong nationalist gain control over the Duma.

“We must not allow the law on emigration to be revised,” Engel said. “One could hear an oblique call to do this from the mouth of the leadership of the Congress of Russian Communities, one of the most successful parties in the race for the Duma.

“It is clear why Jews are particularly sensitive about such statements,” he added.

Engel also said the issue of compensating former prisoners of ghettos and concentration camps, as well as the restitution of property formerly belonging to Jewish communities, remains unsolved.

“The experience of other post-Communist states in Central Europe proves that the state could provide legal support in dealing with these issues,” he said.

Another Jewish leader, Tancred Golenpolsky, founder of Moscow’s Jewish bi- weekly newspaper Evreyskaya Gazeta, which has the biggest circulation among the Russian Jewish media, is running on the slate of the Inter-Ethnic Union, a bloc backing the administration of Yeltsin.

Golenpolsky, who is running in Birobidzhan, the Jewish Autonomous Region, is clearly worried about the shape of the new Parliament.

He believes that most people are unlikely to “vote for those politicians who already had a chance to be at the helm of the state,” such as Gaidar or Chernomyrdin.

Regardless of the outcome, Golenpolsky said, “I don’t think Russia will see any economic and political stabilization in the next three to four years.”

“The success of the left-wing parties, like the Communists, which many experts predict, seems to be quite natural when the Communists and different populists promise to give the masses everything,” he said.

Golenpolsky believes that Jews are taking too active a part in the electoral campaign and in Russia’s political life in general.

It is not good for Russian Jews, he said, when “economic difficulties remain unsolved while the chief aide on economic issues in Yeltsin administration, Alexander Lifshitz, is Jewish.”

Interviews with Jewish voters revealed that they do, in fact, back a number of different candidates.

“For me, there is no question of whom to support,” said Olga Pozern, a retired engineer. “I will vote for Yegor Gaidar’s Russia’s Choice Party.

“I do not believe I will live to see real changes for the better in our everyday life,” she said, but “voting for a party of democratic orientation, I want to ensure the continuity of reforms that should be seen through to the end.”

But younger voters find Gaidar less appealing.

“I will cast my vote for Yabloko, the bloc of [liberal economist] Grigory Yavlinsky,” said Anna Chernomordik, 22, a law student from St. Petersburg.

“I think if these people are given a chance, they can help turn Russia into a civilized democracy,” she said. After all, I like their leader, Yavlinsky, who is half Jewish.”

Religion was not so important to Eduard Mirkin, 56, who was born in Uzbekistan and now lives in Moscow.

“I don’t care much who is Jewish and who is not in the elections,” he said. “Why should I believe democrats, who have had a lot of time and did nothing but ruin the Soviet economy?

“I give my vote to the Communists,” he said. “We need a strong power to put an end to all this turmoil and crime.”

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