Behind the Headlines: Russian Jews Optimistic That Yeltsin Will Triumph

Russian Jews reacted with cautious optimism to the results of the first round of an election that will determine the country’s future.

“I believe that Yeltsin will remain in office, giving all of us a chance to build a normal human life,” Russia’s chief rabbi, Adolph Shayevich, said after Sunday’s elections.

Most of Russia’s Jews had supported democratic-leaning candidates. Some community leaders voiced optimism about an ultimate Boris Yeltsin victory in the runoff, which could be held as early as July 3.

With 98 percent of the ballots counted, Yeltsin had secured 34.8 percent of the vote. His closest rival, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, won 32.1 percent of the vote.

The outcome of the runoff will depend in large part on who manages to woo the supporters of nationalist Alexander Lebed, a retired general who had a surprisingly strong third-place showing with about 15 percent of the vote.

Liberal economist Grigory Yavlinsky of the Yabloko bloc was reported to be the fourth with about 7 percent, followed by the ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who captured less than 6 percent of the vote.

Alexander Osovtsov, executive vice president of the Russian Jewish Congress, called Yeltsin’s lead in the first round “a huge success,” given his extremely low ratings in public opinion polls some three months ago.

But, Osovtsov said, “what could guarantee a Yeltsin victory in the second round in his political alliance with Lebed, the third in [the] race.”

Yeltsin is reportedly meeting with Lebed to discuss how they might cooperate, but the uncertainty of the alliance and its fruits is troubling for some.

“The results leave many unanswered questions as to what will happen during the second round,” said Mark Levin, executive director of the National Conference of Soviet Jewry.

“There are no guarantees that those who support Lebed will throw their support behind the candidate Lebed eventually endorses for the presidency.”

Indeed, Alexander Lieberman, director of the Moscow bureau of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, believes that the majority of those who case their votes for Lebed are likely to support Zyuganov in the second round.

Zyuganov also has tried in the wake of the election to lure Lebed into his camp, though the retired general has in the past ruled out joining any Communist-led coalition.

Both Lieberman and other local experts see Lebed as one who is able to draw both Communist supporters and those who have historically voted for ultranationalist Zhirinovsky.

“Although Lebed is an outspoken anti-Communist, his campaign’s motto, `truth and order,’ reminds me very much of the Communist or Zhirinovsky rhetoric,” said Lieberman.

But even a Yeltsin victory in July is not seen by some Jews as a sure remedy for the country’s economic and social ills.

“Russia’s democratic future will depend on Yeltsin’s entourage,” said Osovtsov, who has sharply criticized Yeltsin for his policy in the breakaway republic of Chechnya.

Yeltsin has also been seen as giving into ultranationalist pressures in recent months, a phenomenon that some fear could continue.

The recent suspension of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s operating license is one such example. A June 15 deadline for new accreditation passed this weekend, and it is not certain when a decision on the renewal will occur.

A majority of Jewish voters interviewed at Moscow polling stations on Sunday said that they had voted for Yeltsin, while liberal economist Yavlinsky also had some support.

“I had to vote for Yeltsin,” Mikhail Abramov, 44, an engineer, said at a polling station in the center of Moscow.

“Under other circumstances I would rather vote for Yavlinsky, who didn’t start the war in Chechnya,” Abramov said, indicating that because Yavlinsky was unlikely to make it to the second round, he did not want to waste his vote.

For Ilya Faynshtein, a 30-year-old English language teacher at a Moscow high school, the day of the election was meaningful as a tribute to democracy.

“I don’t know what will happen after the elections, but I’m convinced that today democracy in Russia is taking a big step forward,” she said.

At one of Moscow’s polling places, a Jewish woman who appeared to be in her 80s ran headlong into the strict rules surrounding the balloting.

Sarah Gordon tried to convince the chairman of the local election committee that her 89-year-old husband had made a mistake when he put a mark next to the name of Zhirinovsky in the ballot paper.

Zhirinovsky followed Yeltsin on the list of 10 candidates on the ballot.

Gordon, a former prisoner of the Minsk ghetto, wanted the official to correct the ballot, claiming that her husband’s vote was a result of poor vision and shaky hands.

To Gordon’s great distress, the official turned down her request, saying that it would be a breach of the election law.

International observers of the election said Monday that there had been no breaches of voting procedures or election laws during the Sunday polling.

Among more than 1,000 observers that had been accredited by the Russian government was an Israeli delegation of four diplomats and international experts.

Meir Rosenne, an Israeli observer and former ambassador to Washington and Paris, concurred that the election was held in full accord with democratic procedure.

Chanan Bar-On, a former Israeli ambassador in the Netherlands, who witnessed a night vote count at one of the stations, told journalists that there had been no possibility of vote-fixing.

“No vote fraud could be committed that would influence the final results,” said Bar-On, after visiting eight polling places in the greater Moscow area.

He said one of the strongest impressions from his visits was that “people looked proud of being given an opportunity to express their will.”

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