MOSCOW, Jan. 3 (JTA) — While Russians are viewing Vladimir Putin’s ascent to power as a surprise New Year’s present, Jewish observers both in Russia and the United States are decidedly more mixed.
Some share the general Russian population’s enthusiasm for Putin, who became president Dec. 31 when Boris Yeltsin suddenly resigned; others are cautiously optimistic.
Still others fear the possibility of increased anti-Semitism and a move away from democracy.
Little was known about Putin when Yeltsin nominated him to be prime minister in August.
But Putin’s popularity soared in September with the start of the Chechen war, and it has skyrocketed more recently to unprecedented heights, approaching an 80 percent approval rating.
Putin, whose party came in a close second in last month’s parliamentary elections, is also seen as being virtually a shoo-in to win Russia’s presidential elections, which have now been moved to March from June.
Putin has recently cultivated an image of being friendly toward Jews.
In November, he met with leaders of the newly created Chabad–Lubavitch dominated Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, telling them he was sympathetic to Jewish causes.
The move partially backfired when a number of Jewish leaders in Russia complained that Putin had, perhaps inadvertently, singled out one of Russia’s umbrella Jewish groups for support in an attempt to divide the Jewish vote.
One Jewish leader who is enthusiastic about Putin is Rabbi Zinovy Kogan, one of the leaders of Reform Judaism in Russia, who called Putin’s rise to power “a positive development for Russian Jewry.”
Kogan met with Putin last month after the prime minister returned from Norway, where he had met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
Putin “spoke very warmly about Barak, saying he was the single one there to support Russia’s position over fighting terrorism in Chechnya,” said Kogan, who is also one of the leaders of KEROOR, the Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and Organizations of Russia.
Putin said “he was going to supervise personally the investigation of the latest synagogue bombings and some other anti-Semitic acts,” Kogan said, referring to the recent wave of attacks against Jews.
A Jewish journalist from St. Petersburg who first met Putin when he was an aide to that city’s mayor in the early 1990s, said that in discussions about getting humanitarian medical aid from Israel to St. Petersburg, Putin “sounded quite sympathetic toward Israel and Jews in general.”
“He made an impression of a very accurate, efficient and responsible man, which is rare in the Russian bureaucracy,” said the journalist, who asked not to be identified.
Despite the sense among some that Putin cares about Jews more than Yeltsin, Jews on the whole don’t seem as happy as other educated and professional Russians about the rise to power of this former KGB colonel.
“It turns out that the intelligentsia no longer need freedom, but want a tough hand,” the well-known pollster Yuri Levada, the director of the All-Russia Center for Public Opinion Research, said, citing figures that show the Chechen war has more support among the better-educated cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg than in smaller cities and towns.
Perhaps Russian Jews diverge from this trend, say observers, because they are less prone to the traditional Russian desire for a strong leader.
At the same time, many fear that the popularity of the Russian war against Chechen rebels could reverberate in Russian society.
The campaign against “Chechen terrorists” could “bring about strengthening of xenophobia in the society which inevitably brings intensification of anti-Semitism,” said the St. Petersburg journalist.
In Washington, Micah Naftalin, national director of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, agreed.
Putin “has risen to power on the back of a racist war which appeals to the worst xenophobic instincts of the Russians,” he said, adding, “We have to monitor him and make sure that he knows what we care about” and that pro-democracy forces and Jewish groups “hold him accountable.”
Other leaders of American organizations working with Jews living in the former Soviet Union are taking a wait-and-see attitude about the change of leadership.
In recent weeks, Putin “has talked about fighting the rise in anti-Semitism, and it will be important to see what type of leadership he exerts on this issue,” said Mark Levin, executive director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry.
“He has an opportunity to make his own mark in this area if he wants to,” said Levin, whose group met with Putin two years ago.
“With a new Duma coming in and him possibly being elected president, this will be an opportunity for him to state clearly what his views are,” he said, referring to Russia’s lower house of Parliament.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said political instability and uncertainty are always potentially troubling for Russia’s Jews, because anti-Semitism is so pervasive there.
“Whatever one thought about Yeltsin, he provided a certain sense of stability and has courageously continued to speak out against anti-Semitism,” he said, adding his hope that because Putin was Yeltsin’s chosen successor, “he will follow in the best of the Yeltsin tradition.”
Both Foxman and Levin noted that, aside from Putin’s approach to anti-Semitism, Russia’s larger economic and political issues will impact significantly on the situation of Jews.
“Everything we as a community have been able to do in concert with Israel and the Russian Jews is dependent on the political environment, and the only way it will remain an open and free environment is if more progress is made in the economic and social areas,” said Levin.
For many Jews in Russia, Putin remains tainted by the corruption that was so prevalent during Yeltsin’s regime.
Some worry that he was created by a Jewish media tycoon, who continues to shadow Russia’s new leader.
Putin’s victory in the parliamentary elections is seen as at least partially attributable to the support of Boris Berezovsky.
Berezovsky’s officially state-controlled national TV channel ORT openly manipulated Russian public opinion during the campaign, constantly praising Putin and pounding Putin’s rivals for presidency — former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who is known to be very friendly with another Jewish media tycoon, Vladimir Goussinsky, the head of the Russian Jewish Congress.
A Moscow university lecturer expressed an opinion that is shared by many in Russia’s Jewish intelligentsia.
“The guy came to power on the wave of the Chechen war. He seems created by Berezovsky,” said Galina Eliasberg.
“I don’t think he will put the country in order; on the contrary, I have an impression that some force behind him can overwhelm him and then the army will seize power or something like that,” she said.
Russia’s chief rabbi, Adolph Shayevich, who is active in the Russian Jewish Congress and friendly with Luzhkov, is more cautious in speaking about Putin:
“Boris Yeltsin has made a brilliant move. But it is hard to say whether the appointed successor will prove his real successor, including his attitude toward Jews.”
At the official New Year’s Eve reception at the Kremlin, Shayevich said Putin told him he wished “happiness and prosperity” to all Jews.
But Shayevich added, “It could be only an official gesture. We’ll see.”
(JTA staff writer Julie Wiener in New York contributed to this report.)