Russian Jews Ambivalent As Nation Votes for President

At a local polling station Wednesday, an elderly woman in her 70s was arguing with a war veteran about which presidential candidate to support.

“You won’t live to see any changes. Why won’t you let our grandchildren live a better life?” Galina Solomonovna, a Jewish woman who just cast her vote for Boris Yeltsin, said as she tried to convince a Communist Party supporter.

Mikhail Chlenov, president of Va’ad — the Russian Jewish Federation, said Jewish voters were as divided on the choice of a new president as the general community.

Some elderly Jews as well as many non-Jews of their age are backing the Communist Party leader, Gennady Zyuganov.

“I joined the Communist Party at the front not to betray it 50 years later,” said a Jewish veteran of World War II from St. Petersburg.

But even supporters of Yeltsin showed up at polling stations in Moscow with some ambivalence.

While some were expressing hope that Yeltsin would win the runoff against Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, they also voiced uncertainty about which direction the country would go, even if Yeltsin should win.

Some Jews interviewed at polling places in the Russian capital said they were now less optimistic about their future than during the first round of voting on June 16.

“I cast my vote for Yeltsin although today I feel more uncertainty about Russia’s future if Yeltsin is re-elected than I did two weeks ago,” said Mark Brailovsky, 55.

He referred to Yeltsin’s newly appointed national security adviser, Alexander Lebed, who Tuesday called himself “a half-democrat” when speaking about visa regulations.

Lebed, who placed third in the first round of the presidential elections and subsequently joined Yeltsin’s administration, recently stirred up controversy over his failure to mention Judaism as one of Russia’s traditional religions.

Western religious sects represent “a direct threat to Russia’s security,” Lebed said in his address to supporters last week as he campaigned 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.

Lebed’s comments caused concern among Jewish and religious leaders in Russia.

“How could he have forgotten?” said the Rev. Peter Konovalchik, president of the Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists in the Russian Federation.

“But if he did mention Judaism, would that be enough?” he added, referring to the omission of any reference to Lutherans and other minority faith groups.

Konovalchik, who came to New York as part of a delegation of Russian religious leaders, was speaking at the Appeal of Conscience Foundation in New York.

Another member of the delegation, Archpriest Victor Petiliuchenko, deputy chairman of the external relations department of the Moscow Patriarchate, said Lebed’s comments were “probably an error.” But he said Lebed was now a symbol of Yeltsin’s power and that the statements were not “a great help.”

Although Yeltsin had not been seen in public for more than a week before Wednesday’s runoff, reportedly because of poor health, some Russian Jews believed that Lebed’s remarks did not pose any threat to democracy.

“I don’t see any tragedy in what is going on in the country,” said Savely Yudin, a 35-year old Moscow photographer. “I think Yeltsin will get 60 percent of the vote,” he said.

Voter turnout for the runoff appeared to be generally lower than in the first round, when some 70 percent of the electorate voted.

Because Communist challenger Zyuganov’s supporters are organized better than the nation’s general populace, “less voters at the polling places today could make Zyuganov’s victory easier,” said Chlenov.

(JTA intern Heather Camlot in New York contributed to this report.)

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