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New Russian Jewish leader: quiet, self-confident

MOSCOW, May 23 (JTA) — When the Russian Jewish Congress delegates voted for a new president last week, they already knew who would win — the only candidate, oil magnate Leonid Nevzlin.

They also knew what they wanted in the new leader of one of Russian Jewry’s umbrella groups — someone who could lead the RJC out of its struggles with the Kremlin and the chaos that had enveloped it under its controversial former leader, Vladimir Goussinsky.

By all accounts, Nevzlin, who has been serving as interim RJC president since Goussinsky resigned on March 1, fits the bill. He’s successful, mild-mannered and — perhaps, most importantly — less emotional than his predecessor.

Goussinsky is a media tycoon who was chased out of Russia by the Kremlin during an almost yearlong campaign to charge him with fraud and embezzlement regarding his ownership of the NTV television station. His troubles — he is currently living outside of Russia, which has unsuccessfully tried to extradite him — have harmed the RJC, and drawn the organization’s resources away from serving the country’s roughly 600,000 Jews.

Speaking at the RJC conference in an apparent reference to Goussinsky’s problems, Nevzlin said, “The future of the Jewish community depends on its relations with the authorities. We should not give the authorities any pretext to use inter-Jewish discord to reach their own aims, which do not always coincide with ours.”

Nevzlin was referring to the RJC’s battle with the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, which has displaced the RJC as the most vibrant Jewish organization in Russia today.

But he also intends to avoid the outspoken political comments made by Goussinsky, who got into hot water with the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin when he criticized Russia’s war against Muslim separatists in Chechnya.

One of Nevzlin’s first priorities, he told JTA, is to increase the RJC budget — which, at $6 million, is smaller this year than last.

In short, he appears to want to become a quiet, but self-confident, manager.

Indeed, one Jewish observer compared Nevzlin to a “Jewish Putin,” soft-spoken but forceful, while Goussinsky is seen more in line with Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, who is considered flamboyant and mercurial.

Being a manager is also what Nevzlin does in his private life.

A resident of Moscow, he graduated with a degree in engineering from the Moscow Institute of Oil and Chemical Engineering in 1982. Along with another Jew, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, he formed one of the first successful private banks in Russia in 1989. The two then went into the oil business together, and now run the YUKOS firm — Khodorkovsky is in charge, and Nevzlin is his deputy.

Nevzlin, 41, is something of a Johnny-come-lately to Jewish life. He says his current involvement has to do with his two grown daughters from his two marriages.

“For all of my life, I have never felt any substantial anti-Semitism, and was rather indifferent to the Jewish community,” he said. “Then something clicked, and I thought, Well, I am over 40, I have made a successful career, I have made a fortune. But what will I tell my children when I am 70?”

Outside of increasing the budget, he offered few specifics on how he plans to revitalize Jewish life in Russia, other than to say he hopes to build Jewish communities, help Jews and combat anti-Semitism. He did say the RJC would no longer fund religious organizations, in effect seceding that area to the federation.

He said he hopes to mend the rift that has emerged between the RJC and the federation — a split that surfaced again at the conference, when Rabbi Berel Lazar, the federation’s head and one of Russia’s two chief rabbis, said he would suspend his membership in the RJC to protest what he called its undemocratic ways.

But Avrohom Berkowitz, the federation’s executive director, said he is optimistic that the situation between the two groups would improve under Nevzlin.

Under his watch, Nevzlin said, decision making in the RJC will be more open. He also said he would not take a position on other inter-Jewish conflicts, including the rivalry between between Lazar and Adolph Shayevich, Russia’s other chief rabbi.

Not all RJC members are pleased with Nevzlin’s low-key approach and his decision not to fund religious groups. But they appear to be in the minority — and, like the rest of Russia did with Putin — seem willing to give the quiet man a chance.

As one Jewish activist told JTA after meeting with Nevzlin, “His approach is constructive, his reactions are quick, and I think he is going to manage with this RJC mess.”

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