More Fears Raised As Russian Mayor Backs Anti-semitic, Nationalist Group

The Communist mayor of a southern Russian city has backed Russia’s largest ultranationalist organization, giving credence to the group’s claims that it has supporters in high places.

Stavropol Mayor Mikhail Kuzmin voiced his support for the Russian National Unity group in a meeting earlier this month with Russia’s interior minister, Vladimir Rushailo, according to a published transcript of the meeting in Vremya-MN, a leading Moscow daily.

Kuzmin added that he did not see any difference between being a member of the Communist Party and Russian National Unity.

The report came as American Jewish leaders were slated to press Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin during a meeting Tuesday in Washington for a strong response to recent anti-Semitic incidents in Russia.

“We want a strong statement of condemnation of the incidents, we want adequate security for Jewish institutions and we want them to go after those that engage in these crimes,” said Mark Levin, the executive director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, who will meet with Stepashin along with members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

The government’s silence on the issue “fosters in the minds of the extremists a sense of tolerance” for their attacks, he added.

Levin added that he expected Vice President Al Gore to raise the issue when he meets with Stepashin.

“There is a cloud hanging over his visit to Washington, a cloud of violence against Russia’s Jewish community,” said Levin, referring to two attacks in the past two weeks against Russian Jewish institutions in Moscow.

The Union of Councils for Soviet Jews is launching an e-mail campaign, urging Russian leaders to respond strongly to anti-Semitic violence.

“The Russian government must be shown that the world is watching how they respond to this growing threat to Russia’s Jewish community,” said the group’s president, Yosef Abramowitz.

Earlier this month, Russian National Unity held a conference in Stavropol, attended by some 250 activists, that was sanctioned by the local administration, according to press reports.

During the past several years, Jewish groups and human-rights watchers have voiced concern over a surge in grass-roots anti-Semitism and interethnic tensions in southern Russia.

Stavropol, a city of 200,000 that is the hometown of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, is known as one of the group’s strongholds.

The group’s members wear black military-style uniforms, greet each other with a stiff-armed salute and wear armbands that have a swastika combined with a cross, which they claim is a traditional Russian symbol.

Founded in 1990, the group claims to have 50,000 to 100,000 members, though observes believe this number is greatly exaggerated. The group is making plans to run in parliamentary elections slated for December, as well as in some local elections, according to the Vremya-MN newspaper.

Russian authorities have expressed concern about local officials allowing groups espousing ethnic hatred to run in the elections, yet little has been done to halt these groups’ activities.

Earlier this month, Russia’s advisory Security Council reiterated that the country should adopt a law to combat political and religious extremism before the December elections, but most observers say that such a law has no chance of passing the Communist-dominated Russian Parliament.

In a separate development, local prosecutors have charged a Russian National Unity leader in Tomsk with inciting ethnic hatred.

Pavel Rozhin is charged with organizing a campaign in this Siberian city in which leaflets were stuffed in mailboxes, allegedly written on behalf of a fictitious International Jewish Committee, calling on “the sons of Israel” to encourage conflicts among ethnic Russians so that Jews could accrue power.

(JTA staff writer Peter Ephross in New York contributed to this report.)

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