Formerly Loyal to Ariel Sharon, Russian Vote is Now Up for Grabs

Rows of posters of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon stare down at a group of Russian immigrant voters gathered in the cramped front room of the Kadima Party’s Jerusalem headquarters. Casting glances at Sharon’s image, the immigrants take turns firing off questions to Kadima candidates on healthcare, housing, and Hamas.

Zhanna Nosiakov, 27, who emigrated from Moscow in 1991 listens to the politicians but leaves as undecided as when she arrived.

“It all just seems like talk. We’ve seen other elections and see that nothing ever changes,” said Nosiakov, who works as a secretary. She says there is a similar lack of enthusiasm among her Russian-speaking friends and colleagues.

Before Sharon — whom she calls a “a father figure” — fell into a coma, Nosiakov’s vote was safe with his new party, Kadima. Now, like many of her counterparts, she is uncertain. Kadima’s support among the Russian speaking community has been steadily slipping since Sharon became incapacitated by a stroke in January.

Israel’s political parties are in the midst of a battle for the votes of the Russian-speaking community that arrived since 1989. They represent some 720,000 votes, a large chunk of the diverse Israeli electorate, which heads to the polls March 28.

“This is what has been going on since 1992. Israeli society is split almost equally on economy and class issues, and so the Russian vote is a decisive vote,” said Ze’ev Khanin, who lectures on political science at Bar-Ilan University.

During their years in Israel, the community has begun to vote less as a bloc. As a whole, its members tend to be predominately right and center in their political views, but the younger generation is beginning to vote along similar lines to the general Israeli population.

Furthermore, the community is a diverse group, coming from different educational and economic backgrounds. Geographically, their homes span the entire former Soviet Union, from small towns in Ukraine and mountain villages in the Caucusus to major cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg.

“It is not a united community,” said Sergei Podrazhansky, the editor of Vesti, a large Russian daily newspaper in Israel.

According to a new survey by Mutagim, a major Israeli polling company, the Russian vote will fall this way: Yisrael Beitenu — 29 percent; Kadima — 18 percent; Likud — 13 percent; Labor — less than 1 percent. The remaining vote went to other parties or was undecided.

One issue that does appear to bind Russians is their desire for a strong leader. Feeling adrift without Sharon and spooked by the rise of Hamas, many are turning to Yisrael Beitenu, a hawkish party with an immigrant rights focus led by Avigdor Lieberman, who emigrated in 1978 from Moldova.

Lieberman’s party, which has been gaining steadily in the polls in recent weeks, may be the surprise success story of the election. According to recent surveys, the party could take as many as 10 seats.

Russian-speaking voters appear to be drawn to Lieberman’s tough-talking approach to the conflict with the Palestinians and marketing that portrays him as focused.

Lieberman’s platform is considered controversial. One of his main proposals has been to redraw Israel’s borders to include large Jewish settlements in the West Bank and exclude large Arab Israeli populations.

Some 90 percent of those supporting Lieberman’s party are Russian speakers, said Eliezer Feldman, who oversees surveys of the community for the Israeli polling company Mutagim.

Feldman says that when Russian speakers first began voting in Israel, absorption issues were the most pressing issue for them. About 40 percent of them voted for Natan Sharansky’s immigrant-rights party, Yisrael B’Aliyah in 1996. Now, they are focused on security issues.

The Kadima Party is trying to woo the Russian-speaking vote through its six Russian-speaking candidates, who were presented in ads as the “commando force” of the community. Marina Slodkin, the deputy minister of absorption, was made No. 6 on the list.

At the recent Kadima meeting with Russian voters, Slodkin, formerly of Yisrael B’Aliyah, tried to convince the attendees that their interests would best be represented by having so many of their own within the party most likely to be in power.

“Being part of the party in power, I can still care for the immigrant voice but this way I have the tools to make things happen,” said Slodkin, a former professor of economics who emigrated from Moscow 15 years ago.

The Labor Party, meanwhile, led by former trade union leader Amir Peretz, has virtually no support among the Russian speakers. Jokingly they say that with his mustache, he looks too much like Stalin. Other points against him are that he has no higher education and that he ran the Histadrut, the umbrella union organization which reminds them of communism.

Likud, meanwhile is gaining momentum in the community. Likud campaign volunteers are going to Russian-speaking areas, trying to appeal to the Russians as a smart, thinking community that when considering the security situation, will want Netanyahu as their leader.

Netanyahu cut back social spending during his term as finance minister and now will have to work hard to erase his negative image among many in the community.

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