ASTANA, Kazakhstan (Oct. 17)
It took Alexander Mashkevich, a Jewish university lecturer in philology from the Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan, about a decade to become a billionaire. Now, Mashkevich — a leading industrialist and financier in neighboring Kazakhstan — has emerged as one of the most prominent and promising Jewish leaders in all of the former Soviet Union, and as someone with clear ambitions to play a leadership role in international Jewry.
Mashkevich, whose personal wealth is believed to top $1 billion, is the head of the Eurasian Group, one of the largest financial and industrial groups in Kazakhstan, with interests in metallurgy, coal, mining and banking.
Through his business holdings, he is believed to control as much as one-fourth of Kazakhstan’s economy.
Although he calls Kazakhstan, a predominantly Muslim Central Asian state rich with oil and other natural resources, his home, he usually travels the world with an Israeli passport in his pocket and rarely spends more than a week each month in Kazakhstan.
Mashkevich, 50, now spends hundreds of thousands of dollars each year mainly to support Jewish religious life in Kazakhstan and to fund the activities of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, which he helped establish.
The group unites Jewish communities of the former Soviet Union, Asia and the Pacific.
Although this figure is dwarfed by Lev Levayev, another Jewish businessman from Central Asia, it is enough to make Mashkevich a major player in Central Asian Jewish life.
"My interest in Jewish life is relatively new," Mashkevich admitted recently in a rare interview in the Kazakh capital of Astana.
Born into a Soviet Jewish family at a time when to live a Jewish life meant that one was courting danger, he said he developed his attachment to Judaism only recently.
"This comes from the inside, I cannot explain it," he said with a disarming smile.
That disarming smile is just part of his appealing personality.
Mashkevich is fit and tanned, and is very accessible at Jewish gatherings. He’s got a decent command of English, a soft spot for blue suits, and likes horseback riding, skiing and playing tennis.
Although he’s certainly not living a typical life for a Jew in Central Asia, his own family story is typical of many Jews in Central Asia.
Both of his parents moved East as refugees when the Nazis invaded the USSR in 1941. His father came from Lithuania, and his mother from Belarus.
Like many educated Jews on the outskirts of the Soviet empire, his parents rose to some prominence in their professions: His father was once the chief public-health doctor in Kyrgyzstan and his mother was a well-known lawyer.
Mashkevich said he has few Jewish memories from his childhood, but he remembers occasional visits as a child with his grandfather to a synagogue in the Kyrgyz capital of Frunze.
But it wasn’t until he attained success in the business world that he paid attention to his Jewish roots.
Some seven years ago he met a rabbi in Kazakhstan and began to pray regularly.
His spiritual quest came hand in hand with his interest in philanthropy.
"Once I realized that I could help the Jews I began to provide support to the synagogue, at first anonymously," he said.
He said a local Chabad rabbi once came to him with an idea to create and head up a brand-new Jewish group, the Jewish Congress of Kazakhstan. "I rejected the idea, and it took quite a long time before I agreed."
Mashkevich says that despite his busy schedule and constant travels — he has homes in several places outside of Kazakhstan, including a manor outside of Brussels — he is now dealing with Jewish issues on a daily basis.
Mashkevich is widely known in Kazakhstan as a close ally of Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s leader since it gained its independence in 1991.
Nazarbayev who has been criticized in the West for his authoritarian style and his tough handling of the opposition and the media, is nonetheless widely credited for his pro-free market stand and for his support of U.S.-led efforts against terrorism in a region plagued with Muslim extremism and separatism.
But some critics say Mashkevich needed his Jewish leadership role as a security policy that — due to his new stature as a Jewish leader with ties to world Jewry — would prevent him from being prosecuted should political climate in Kazakhstan change.
"Some buy themselves a security firm for $3 million; he bought himself the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress," said a prominent foreign Jewish leader on condition of anonymity, quoting the figure which Mashkevich is believed to have spent on the congress so far.
Mashkevich argues that the benefits of his role as a Jewish leader are doubtful given the possible anti-Semitic backlash.
"I do think I’m putting myself at risk by being engaged in Jewish philanthropy," he said.
Regardless of Mashkevich’s reasons for activity in the Jewish community, even his critics agree that he gave the Jews of Kazakhstan something they did not have before.
"Whatever his interest is, he definitely gave the Jewish community the weight and prestige it never had before," said a foreign Jewish leader who asked not to be identified.
Local Jews say they are grateful to Mashkevich for what he has given their community: prestige and wide acceptance that they have rarely enjoyed throughout Kazakh history.
"I admire everything he is doing for us," said Efraim Bron, a 68-year-old Jew from a village in southern Kazakhstan who was invited to take part in a recent synagogue dedication in Astana, the new Kazakh capital city, along with a couple of hundred of Jews from the provinces.
The shul, funded by Mashkevich, is called Beit Rachel, in honor of his late mother. Opened last month, it is believed to be the largest synagogue in Central Asia: it can probably accommodate the entire Jewish population of Astana, which is estimated at between 300 and 500 people.
The country’s Jewish community numbers anywhere between 7,000 and 20,000 people, with the majority living in Almaty, the country’s largest city and the capital until 1997.
In 1999, Mashkevich’s name appeared in media reports in the West in connection with an international money-laundering scandal when authorities in Belgium pressed charges against him and some of his business partners.
Mashkevich has denied the allegations as baseless, saying the scandal was created by some top Kazakh officials irritated by his growing influence in order to force Mashkevich leave the country.
Mashkevich said only Belgian judicial formalities have prevented it from being closed.
Some observers believe he is apparently trying to overcome this somewhat controversial international image by playing an increasingly active role as a Jewish leader.
Last year, he co-organized two major interfaith meetings in Almaty in which Nazarbayev emerged as a proponent of an international dialogue between Islam and Judaism.
More recently, Mashkevich visited Morocco when a group of U.S. Jewish leaders paid a historic visit to the Muslim country. Earlier this month, he was in Istanbul taking part in the dedication of a synagogue reopened after a terrorist attack last year.
In his own country, Mashkevich has been doing more than funding the construction of a large synagogue.
He has also been laying the groundwork for a visit to Tehran. The visit would represent a rare trip by a Jewish leader to the Islamic Republic.
Mashkevich told a recent meeting of the Eurasian Jewish Congress in Astana that the Iranian ambassador to Kazakhstan "is constantly updating me" on how the preparations for this visit are coming along.
Indeed, most believe Mashkevich has access to Tehran to discuss issues of Jewish concern because of the good relations Nazarbayev enjoys with top Iranian officials.
Mashkevich said he hoped that given the positive dynamics of Jewish life in the region, the quality and diversity of Jewish life in Kazakhstan should improve with time.
"This dynamic gives me hope that in 10 years it will be better than it is now. I see a future in this country," he said.
But like many wealthy people in the former Soviet Union, he prefers his own family to live abroad: His daughters, Anna, a 22-year-old graphic designer, and the 27-year-old Alla, an economist, both graduated from college in Great Britain and are now living in London.
Local Jewish leaders agree that the emergence of Mashkevich has radically changed the situation for the community in Kazakhstan.
"One day, a charismatic leader, someone who has money, appears," said Alexander Baron, president of the Mitsva association, an umbrella group for Jewish cultural and welfare centers in Kazakhstan. "We have instantly reached a higher level in everything we do."