In Russian Elections, Anti-semitism is Simply One More Campaign Tactic

Vladimir Brikker is a success story in business — but his political career is running into some anti-Semitic obstacles.

The story of Brikker, who is running for mayor in a provincial Russian city, is not an isolated case.

Anti-Semitic themes — often unchallenged by local authorities — have figured in most of the high-profile local election campaigns in the last few months.

But while the Jewish card is widely played, it is not clear how effective it is in squelching Jewish candidates.

A retired army officer turned businessman in the city of Dzerzhinsk, Brikker built a small media group that included a local radio station and several newspapers in just a few years.

Two years ago, he entered the local political scene in this gloomy industrial center 240 miles east of Moscow.

The popularity of Brikker’s media outlets among the city’s 285,000 people helped him to win two local elections, bringing him seats in the city and regional legislative assemblies.

But Brikker faced a tide of anti-Semitic propaganda in the final week of a tight race for mayor.

Brikker still finished a close second behind the acting mayor, Viktor Portnov, and ahead of five other candidates — earning a slot in a runoff slated for Sept. 29.

But Brikker says the result would have been even better had it not been for anti-Semitic leaflets and newspapers that appeared on the eve of the Sept. 15 vote.

“This dirty anti-Semitic campaign came so unexpected to me,” Brikker, who is running as an independent, told JTA.

Elsewhere, the recent mayoral vote in the city of Nizhniy Novgorod was marred by the distribution of a leaflet that called on voters to boycott the election as a “Jewish game.”

In August, an oil executive and lawmaker in Saratov who ran for re-election to the city’s legislature faced a wave of anti-Semitic leaflets that focused on the candidate’s Jewish origin. Nevertheless, the politician, Semyon Glozman, won a close race.

And even with no Jews in the race, anti-Semitism figured in this month’s gubernatorial elections in Russia’s vast Siberian region of Krasnoyarsk.

Some of the propaganda material distributed in the region called the speaker of the local Parliament, Alexander Uss, who is not Jewish, an “impudent Jewish informer,” probably because of the candidate’s non-Slavic-sounding last name.

In the Dzerzhinsk race, one of the leaflets called on the voters not to support Brikker, saying his ultimate goal is “to sell the town out to Jews” and to appoint other Jews to all of the city’s key posts.

The leaflet was signed by the misspelled name of one of the contenders in the race who — as it turned out — had nothing to do with the release of the hate-filled propaganda.

Also on the eve of the election, a phony edition of the city’s leading newspaper, Dzerzhinets, urged voters to “put an end to the political struggle between the Russians and the Jews,” whose involvement in politics has “caused great harm to the nation.”

The article called on voters to give “the Russian answer” to “Jewish political designs” and suggested that Russia would be better off had Jews been confined to careers in the arts and sciences.

Brikker said his appeals to the local prosecutors office went unanswered. He believes that this anti-Semitic campaign was organized — and paid for — by the incumbent mayor and regional officials, a charge they deny.

A spokesman for the regional election commission, which is charged with monitoring the campaigns of all contenders, told JTA his office recorded only some minor breaches, but that anti-Semitism and hate speech were not among them.

According to the region’s Jewish activists familiar with the situation, Brikker, always shy about his heritage, has never been involved in Jewish life.

Dzerzhinsk, in the Nizhniy Novgorod region, is primarily known as a center of the chemical industry.

Named in honor of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the KGB, the city has a Jewish population of several hundred, but no organized Jewish community, so it took national Jewish organizations to stand up for Brikker.

The Russian Jewish Congress sent letters to the law enforcement agencies, to President Vladimir Putin’s administration and to the Central Election Commission in Moscow urging the officials to speak against the use of anti-Semitism in the campaign.

The Moscow office of the Anti-Defamation League called on the Prosecutor General’s Office to start a criminal investigation regarding the anti-Brikker campaign. Russian legislation prohibits ethnic and religious incitement.

Unlike Soviet times, a Jewish background does not prevent politicians from winning public offices in today’s Russia — nor does the anti-Semitic brush, as evidenced by the campaign in Saratov.

National Jewish organizations do not tally Jews in public offices but Jews appear to have significant representation in the State Duma, as well as in the local legislatures and in mayoral seats.

At the same time, analysts agree that anti-Semitism plays an important role in regional elections.

“A contender’s actual — or alleged — Jewish background is often played up by political opponents who hope to capitalize on widespread ethnic prejudices,” said Alexander Axelrod, representative of the Anti-Defamation League in Moscow.

Axelrod said whenever there is a Jewish candidate in the race, some of his rivals are almost naturally holding onto the “wrong ethnicity” card as a ready-made tactic that can be used if needed.

Since there are rarely extreme nationalists in most local races, it is leftist or even pro-Kremlin candidates whose campaigns resort to anti-Semitism to gain electoral success.

Brikker’s main rival in the race is a member of the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party, and has the backing of the region’s chief administrators. Brikker does not believes they were involved in the proliferation of anti-Semitic materials.

“The use of anti-Semitism in an election campaign can hardly bring any gains by itself,” said Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of Panorama, a Moscow-based think tank.

“I doubt there are more than 5 percent of voters nationwide who base their electoral sympathies on the candidate’s ethnicity. What proved to be more effective is when someone in the race is confronted with anti-Semitic slurs in a combination with corruption or economic charges.”

Yuri Raskin, executive vice president of the Russian Jewish Congress, said he was mostly concerned by the fact that no local officials made any steps to counter the dissemination of the openly anti-Semitic slurs.

Raskin said this inaction is arousing suspicion that the local administration — which, like those elsewhere in Russia, effectively controls local prosecutors and the judicial system — may have been interested in letting this incident happen.

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