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Russian anti- Semitism spurs increasing international probe

MOSCOW, Jan. 28 (JTA) — As the international community continues to probe Russian extremism, the issue of anti-Semitism among Russia’s political leaders — and how the country’s government should respond to it — is flaring up again. Responding to accusations that his party is anti-Semitic, the leader of the Communist Party took a thinly veiled swipe at Jews and other minorities once again this week. Speaking to journalists in Paris, Gennady Zyuganov said people with “non-Russian-sounding last names” are undermining Russia’s “distinctive character.” Zyuganov also condemned “those forces that are consciously stirring up ethnic conflicts” in Russia and again blamed Russia’s troubles on ethnic non-Russians in previous governments. Zyuganov’s comments came just before the U.N. commissioner for human rights announced he is launching a probe into anti-Semitic remarks recently made by members of the Russian Communist Party. The commissioner plans to issue a report on the matter in March, according to the World Jewish Congress. They also came as U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made a two-day visit to Moscow. During her trip, she said anti-Semitism is one of the critical issues facing Russia as it confronts its ongoing economic crisis. Albright offered this assessment during a meeting with lawmakers, religious leaders and representatives of human rights groups. She also said the United States is looking closely at how Russia handles the issues of religious freedom and political extremism. Jewish leaders and human rights groups in Russia and the United States applauded Albright’s effort to raise the issue during her visit. Albright’s “forceful and principled defense of human rights and civil society as central to Russia’s development does great honor to our entire nation,” said Yosef Abramowitz, president of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews. Jewish groups are speaking out with increased urgency on anti-Semitism in Russia, which has increased since Russia’s economy went into a tailspin in the middle of last year. The Anti-Defamation League and the National Conference on Soviet Jewry recently presented Albright with a “White Paper” in which they detailed the rise of anti-Semitism, as well as the steps, including the passage of a strong hate crimes law, they believe the Russian government should take. For its part, the American Jewish Committee recently released a report, “Russian Jewish Elites and Anti-Semitism,” detailing the resurgence of anti- Semitism in light of the ascendance of many Jewish business and political figures in Russia. Russia has hate crimes legislation on the books, but it is vague and has not been applied. It is unclear whether Zyuganov’s comments were directed exclusively at Jews. But given the prominence of some Jews in the previous administrations of Russian President Boris Yeltsin, it is difficult to imagine that he was excluding Jews from his attack. The Communist leader has several times referred to the disproportionately high percentage of Jews in Russia’s government and has condemned Zionism, which he said is part of a global conspiracy. As Russia attempts to cope with its gravest economic crisis since the fall of Communism in 1991, Zyuganov is not the only lawmaker to make anti-Semitic slurs. Two hard-line Communist lawmakers created controversy last fall when they each made anti-Semitic comments blaming the economic crisis on Jews. The lawmakers, Viktor Ilyukhin and Albert Makashov, recently announced that they would split from the Communists in parliamentary elections that are slated for December. Deputies said they would campaign under the banner of the Movement in Support of the Army, which Ilyukhin now heads. Ironically, the movement was created by Lev Rokhlin, a Russian Jewish general. Rokhlin emerged as a hero during the war in southern Russia’s breakaway republic of Chechnya and later became known as a bitter critic of Yeltsin. Rokhlin was shot dead last summer. Ilyukhin has said his group would pursue a common program with the Communists. Zyuganov expressed support for the split, saying the opposition would provide several options for voters. Meanwhile, scant progress has been reported in the Kremlin’s campaign against political extremism and anti-Semitism. Last fall, Russian leaders, including Yeltsin, promised to curb hate crimes in the wake of an outcry that began after the Communist Party, the largest bloc in Parliament, blocked a motion in the body’s lower house to censure Makashov for his anti-Semitic comments. This week, Russian prosecutors opened a criminal investigation of Makashov. The move came after prosecutors said a commission of experts appointed by the Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB, found no evidence to support charges of anti-Semitism against the lawmaker. Meanwhile, Nikolai Bordyuzha, secretary of the Security Council, called on the leaders of the Russian mass media to play a more responsible role in the dissemination of information on political extremism. Last week, Russian authorities launched an inspection in some areas of the country to confiscate printed, audio and video materials aimed at “propagating fascism, inciting social, racial, ethnic and religious discord.” And earlier this month, the Russian Cabinet approved a draft bill that would outlaw statements that fuel ethnic strife. The new bill seeks to make political parties responsible for members who make extremist statements. According to Justice Minister Pavel Krasheninnikov, a party must either disavow such statements made by its members or face an official ban. Experts say, however, that the bill has little chance of passing Parliament in its current form. The Communist-dominated Duma, parliament’s lower house, is expected to oppose the bill, which is seen by Communist lawmakers as being targeted mainly against their party. Despite all the grim news, the results of a recent opinion poll suggest that a large-scale media campaign against extremism and ultranationalism is yielding results. According to the nationwide poll of 1,500 Russians, 36 percent of the respondents said fascists — a term used in the Russian media that encompasses ultranationalists and anti-Semites — provoke their greatest outrage and irritation. A similar poll in 1997 showed that 24 percent of Russians were outraged by fascists. Four percent of the respondents showed intolerance to Jews, compared with 3 percent in 1997. The poll was conducted by the Public Opinion Foundation, a leading Moscow polling firm. No margin of error for the survey has been reported. In an attempt to shed more light on the situation, the ADL is currently conducting its own poll of anti-Semitic attitudes in Russia. Results are expected to be released within a few months.