ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (Jul. 1)
Public remarks by the Kremlin’s new security chief and the denial of a visa to an American Jewish leader are raising new concerns on the eve of the decisive round of Russia’s presidential race.
Alexander Lebed omitted Judaism when listing Russia’s faith groups in a speech last week.
President Boris Yeltsin appointed Lebed his national security adviser after the retired general placed third in the inconclusive June 16 presidential elections.
Yeltsin faces Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov in Wednesday’s runoff.
Western religious sects represent “a direct threat to Russia’s security,” Lebed said in his address to supporters that was aimed at building support for Yeltsin.
“We have established traditional religions — Russian Orthodoxy, Islam and Buddhism,” Lebed said, adding that these religions should be allowed to develop and flourish.
On Monday, the American Jewish Committee revealed that its executive director, David Harris, was denied a Russian visa, preventing him from attending a conference here this week on Jews in the former Soviet Union. AJCommittee is co-sponsoring the conference.
“Much as I would like to believe that this experience was nothing more than a bureaucratic snafu, I cannot,” Harris said. “Were it a snafu, the Russian authorities had ample time to correct their mistake. They did not despite the best efforts of the U.S. government.”
Harris, an activist on behalf of Soviet Jewry in the 1970s and 1980s, was thrown out of the Soviet Union in 1974 while teaching there. But he returned in 1990 as part of an AJCommmittee delegation.
Mark Levin, executive director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, said he was surprised about Harris’ visa problem. Levin said there had not been another case of an American Jewish leader being denied a visa since the collapse of the Soviet Union five years ago.
Three other AJCommittee officials attending the conference received visas.
Meanwhile, several Russian Jewish leaders attending the conference expressed concern about Lebed’s comments.
Zinoviy Kogan, leader of Russia’s largest Reform congregation, Moscow’s Hineini, said Lebed had intentionally omitted Judaism from his speech in order to please the nationalist audience he was addressing.
“He might have also been mistaken thinking that the faiths he did mention were more traditional for Russia than Judaism,” Kogan said. “Lebed should have been informed that Jews, like other minorities, lived in Russia many centuries ago.”
Some Jewish activists cautiously attributed the retired general’s comments to his lack of experience as a politician.
“Lebed expressed his personal opinion that shouldn’t influence in any way the general political situation” in Russia, said Vladimir Raskin of the Moscow Research Center for Human Rights. “Lebed was saying things that contradict the Russian Constitution, which guaranteed freedom of religion and equality for all faiths.”
Julie Brooks, of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, said Lebed’s remarks reflect “his lack of sophistication.”
Raskin said it was too early to judge whether such remarks from the mouth of the nation’s top-ranked defense official could lead to harmful consequences for Russian Jews.
“We’ll see it after the elections,” he said.
Alexander Osovtsov, executive vice president of the Russian Jewish Congress and a former member of the Russian Parliament, described Lebed as a man sharing popular anti-Semitic prejudices. But he did not see such views underlying Lebed’s remarks.
Some Jewish leaders believe that Lebed’s comments are foreboding of a shift in governmental policy, even if Yeltsin wins the election.
“I think we’ll hear more of such careless or deliberate statements in the near future,” said Tankred Golenpolsky, a Moscow Jewish activist.
Lebed’s remarks and the Harris visa controversy came amid an ongoing dispute between the Jewish Agency for Israel and Russian authorities over the agency’s accreditation.
The agency recently applied for renewal of its license to operate in Russia, after Russian authorities suspended the accreditation in April and subsequently curtailed agency activities in several cities.
Russian authorities have refused to renew the agency’s license, claiming that technical problems remain in the agency’s registration documents. The agency has said it would resubmit its application, probably after this week’s presidential runoff.