MOSCOW, June 13 (JTA) — Escalating tensions in the Russian Jewish community exploded for all to see this week as authorities arrested Vladimir Goussinsky, the media tycoon who also serves as the president of the Russian Jewish Congress.
Tuesday’s arrest, reportedly on charges of fraud and embezzlement, came just hours after 26 Lubavitch rabbis gathered here to elect Rabbi Berel Lazar the chief rabbi of Russia.
While unconnected on the surface, the two developments are linked in that they could have major implications for Russian Jewry and its relations to the Kremlin.
Russia’s chief rabbi is important because that individual is the only official representative of the Jewish community recognized by the government.
The election of Lazar as chief rabbi comes just a week after the country’s chief rabbi for the past decade, Adolph Shayevich, accused the Russian government of seeking his ouster.
Shayevich, who is backed by Goussinsky’s Russian Jewish Congress, later backtracked from his statement, but has insisted that he had felt pressure to resign, especially from the Lubavitch.
Both observers and players on the scene have expressed concern that the communal in-fighting is clearly linked to the bitter rivalry between Goussinsky and Russia’s new president, Vladimir Putin, and that the rivalry has spilled over in dangerous ways to the Jewish community, which numbers an estimated 600,000.
Goussinsky, who has supported Putin’s political rivals, and the offices of Media-Most, the tycoon’s media empire, had been targeted in recent weeks by the government, which has been cracking down on the media.
Putin, who was out of the country when Goussinsky was arrested Tuesday told Russian reporters he was surprised by the move.
The arrest prompted American Jewish organizations to come to Goussinsky’s defense.
Goussinsky “enjoys the strong support” of the organized American Jewish community in his leadership role” as president of the RJC,” said a statement by NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Saying that “basic freedoms appear to be challenged” in Russia today, the statement added: “We expect the Russian authorities to follow due process and international legal standards with respect to Mr. Goussinsky and to assure the full rights of the Russian Jewish community.”
Jewish officials also expressed skepticism over Putin’s reaction, saying he most likely was involved.
For his part, Lazar also expressed concern, saying that the arrest of a senior Jewish official such as Goussinsky “is a shocking and dangerous development.”
Lazar called upon the Russian government to immediately free Goussinsky and that he was sure Goussinsky would comply with the authorities’ investigation.
The Lubavitch rabbis who elected Lazar chief rabbi were delegates of the Congress of Jewish Communities in Russia, which opened Monday and was organized by the Lubavitch dominated Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia.
The Federation, which became a legal entity last November as an umbrella structure, immediately received clear-cut signs of support from the government, including a meeting between its leaders and Putin, who was then acting president.
The Federation was immediately promoted by the state-controlled TV channel ORT, which is controlled by the controversial media tycoon and Kremlin insider Boris Berezovsky, a rival of Goussinsky.
The promotion led to accusations that the Federation was being supported by “Berezovsky’s people” in the Kremlin, most likely, according to sources, Alexander Voloshin, the head of Putin’s administration.
Lazar and the secular head of the Federation, Michael Gluz, strongly denied any connection with Berezovsky and with the Kremlin administration.
They repeated the same denial last week when Shayevich accused Federation people of pressuring him to resign from his post.
Boruch Gorin, Lubavitch’s spokesman in Russia, said Tuesday that Shayevich “himself contacted Lubavitch and said he was tired and wants to resign. We said OK. Then he met with us and said he changed his mind. We again said OK. Then we learned he sent an open letter to Putin.”
The letter he is referring to is the one Shayevich sent to Putin on May 30, demanding that he not “interfere” with the internal affairs of the Jewish community.
But Shayevich told JTA on Tuesday that three Lubavitch representatives brought him to a Moscow hotel and offered him $250,000 to resign from his post to make way for Lazar.
Shayevich said he rejected the offer.
He also said he was taken by surprise by Lazar’s election Tuesday, and rejected it, echoing the view of several in the Moscow Jewish community that Lazar does not represent the religious community of Russia.
Pavel Feldblum, the executive director of the Moscow Jewish community, said that since Lazar was elected only by Lubavitch rabbis, he can only be the chief rabbi of Lubavitch in Russia.
The Conference of European Rabbis also weighed in on the controversy by saying it would continue to recognize Shayevich as chief rabbi.
For their part, Lubavitch officials say the Federation represents 85 religious communities, and that the Lubavitch rabbis at the Moscow conference this week were authorized by their communities to elect a chief rabbi.
Gorin, Lubavitch’s spokesman, said after Lazar’s election that this is not “a putsch, it is a Velvet Revolution.”