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Orders to arrest Russian tycoons harken back to Soviet era, Jews say

MOSCOW, April 12 (JTA) — A decision by Russian prosecutors to order the arrest of two business tycoons with Jewish roots does not signify a return to state-sponsored anti-Semitism, say Russian Jewish leaders. But the leaders are nonetheless concerned that the arrest warrants are reminiscent of Soviet-era political persecutions. The concerns were voiced after the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office issue separate warrants last week for the arrest of businessman-turned-politician Boris Berezovsky and banker Alexander Smolensky, neither of whom consider themselves Jewish or are involved in Jewish life. Prosecutors said Berezovsky is wanted on charges of “illegal entrepreneurship” and money laundering. Indeed, the arrest order was canceled Wednesday after Berezovsky agreed to return to Russia to face money-laundering charges. Berezovsky, considered one of the wealthiest men in the world, began his business empire by setting up Russia’s first capitalist car dealerships some 10 years ago. He later built up a vast network of holdings that reportedly included large stakes in the oil and media industries and in airlines. Smolensky, the head of SBS-Agro, one of Russia’s largest banks, is wanted on suspicion of misappropriation of funds. Smolensky is currently in Austria — he holds an Austrian passport in addition to his Russian one. Few people in Russia are shedding tears for the two men. Politicians across the political spectrum have been unanimous in their dislike for Berezovsky, Smolensky and some of the other so-called oligarchs, a group of businessmen who helped to bankroll President Boris Yeltsin’s come-from-behind re-election in 1996 in exchange for political influence and large chunks of privatized state property. After Yeltsin’s 1996 re-election, Berezovsky briefly held a post in the Kremlin as deputy secretary of Russia’s advisory Security Council. Both men, as well as the other oligarchs, have seen their influence wane since the collapse of the Russian economy last August and the subsequent appointment of Yevgeny Primakov as the country’s prime minister. Still, even some of the oligarchs’ political foes criticized the move. Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, a longtime foe of Berezovsky, condemned the arrest orders as political persecution. Luzhkov also warned against a possible return to Stalinist-era repression. Berezovsky’s lawyer, Henry Reznik, agreed. “We are talking about persecuting political opponents,” Reznik said. “Berezovsky is dangerous to the Communists and those dreaming about the restoration of a bureaucratic Communist regime.” In the eyes of many Russians, the oligarchs have become a symbol of Jewish prominence in contemporary Russia and as a result, have been the target of anti-Semitic attacks. Smolensky who was raised as a Jew, considers himself a member of Russia’s Orthodox Church. Berezovsky also reportedly converted to Christianity, but he has never hid his Jewish origins and has often spoken out on the problem of anti-Semitism. He even became an Israeli citizen in 1994, but later gave it up. At a news conference in Paris this week, Berezovsky said he was not a victim of anti-Semites or Communists. He insisted his persecution was part of the fight for control over the mass media in which he is a major player. Jewish leaders say they do not think the arrest orders are connected to the ongoing surge in anti-Semitism that began last summer, when Russia’s financial crisis started. But Moscow Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt said he regretted that anti-Semites generally link people such as Berezovsky or Smolensky to the Jewish community. Another Jewish official, Mikhail Chlenov, president of the Va’ad, the Russian Jewish Federation, said he is concerned over the effects of the orders on the already chaotic Russian political scene. “Such campaigns are a natural cause for Jewish concern,” he said.