MOSCOW, Dec. 17 (JTA) – The activities of one of Russian Jewry’s largest groups will continue despite the arrest of one of the Jewish community’s main financiers, a leader of the group said.
Some Jewish activists had predicted the quick collapse of the Russian Jewish Congress as pressure on the business empire of RJC President Vladimir Goussinsky increased during the past year.
But even after Goussinsky’s arrest in Spain last week, Alexander Osovtsov, the RJC’s vice president, said the group’s major projects would continue.
While the arrest appears to be motivated more by the Kremlin’s desire to control Russian media outlets than by anti-Semitism, Russian Jews – and Jewish leaders abroad – are concerned.
“Goussinsky has become a symbol of the Jewish movement for the whole country. The fact that he is officially ostracized this way may mean a ‘go-ahead’ sign for anti-Semites here,” said Natasha Liberman, a Jewish university student who lives near Moscow.
Last Friday, Russian officials took additional steps against Goussinsky. Moscow tax authorities announced they would seek to liquidate several of his companies, including his flagship NTV television station, and the Prosecutor General’s Office said it would seize his property in Spain as part of its bid to have Goussinsky extradited to Russia on fraud charges.
NTV’s supporters, headed by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, issued a statement saying the liquidation suit has dispelled any last doubts about the political character of Goussinsky’s case.
“The persecution of Vladimir Goussinsky, who did so much for the uniting of the Jewish community of Russia, is sheer nonsense and misunderstanding,” agreed Rabbi Zinovy Kogan, the leader of the umbrella Congress of Religious Organizations of Russia.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking in Cuba, said he had no reason to question the prosecutor general’s actions.
“He is accused of fraud, and what has been happening to him and what will be happening in the future is up to law enforcement organs and the courts,” Putin said.
The arrest of Goussinsky, a prominent critic of the Kremlin’s military action against Muslim separatists in Chechnya, is the latest blow against the media magnate.
Goussinsky was jailed briefly in June on embezzlement charges, but then released and allowed to leave the country.
He later said that while in jail he had been pressured to hand the NTV station to the state.
Goussinsky reportedly owed $200 million to Gazprom, Russia’s natural gas monopoly. According to some reports, the state hoped to take over the station as repayment for Goussinsky’s debts.
Since July he has been living with his family in London and at his villa in a luxury resort in southern Spain.
Some of Goussinsky’s friends warned him that he was not safe in Spain, particularly after Interpol, acting on a request by Russian authorities, called for his arrest.
When four Spanish police officers arrived at his villa to arrest him, Goussinsky reportedly told them: “You are making a big mistake. You don’t know who I am. I am a friend of Bill Clinton’s.”
But the Spanish judge who is handling the case, pending a Spanish court’s decision on extraditing Goussinsky to Russia, may not be impressed by his name-dropping. After all, Baltazar Garzon last made media headlines when he ordered the arrest of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
Meanwhile, international Jewish groups are working to rally world opinion on Goussinsky’s behalf.
Several Jewish groups asked Spain’s Ministry of Justice to release Goussinsky.
The World Jewish Congress said the speaker of Israel’s Knesset, Avraham Burg, plans to go to Spain to seek his release.
The U.S. State Department said it would monitor the case.