Part Politics, Part Social Mixer at Israeli Mock Election in Russia

While Israelis went to the polls Tuesday, 500 Russian-Israeli expatriates gathered in an upscale Moscow restaurant to cast their own votes in a mock election. The winner: the pro-Russian, hard-line Yisrael Beiteinu, with 27 seats, followed by Kadima and Labor, which each earned 26 seats in the mock vote for Israel’s 120-member Knesset.

The numbers contrasted sharply with the real Israeli vote, in which Ehud Olmert’s Kadima Party led with 28 seats and the Labor Party took 20. In that vote, Yisrael Beiteinu won 12 seats.

The Russian-born Israelis, accompanied by their spouses, friends and girlfriends, showed up to vote at this election-night party held to coincide with parliamentary elections in Israel. Only those with Israeli passports were allowed to cast ballots.

Cocktails in hand, the crowd applauded and cheered as Israeli election campaign spots played on a screen flanked by oversized Israeli flags. They ate, drank and chatted as the official election results came in by satellite link-up.

“I did not think that it would be possible that all these people would take part in elections just for fun,” Arkady Milman, the Israeli ambassador to Moscow, told the crowd.

Israel does not have an absentee ballot system. Except for diplomatic employees and sailors, citizens who are outside the country on election day — estimated at 340,000, about half of them in the United States — are not able to take part in the electoral process. So the Moscow “election” was purely a symbolic gesture.

It also was a social occasion. There are believed to be 50,000 Israeli citizens living and working in Moscow, but there’s no place for them to get together, said Oleg Ulyansky, organizer of the mock election.

The evening was part of a sporadic series of social mixers for Israeli-Russians that Ulyansky — who left the Soviet Union for Israel over two decades ago — initiated when he returned to Moscow four years ago to work as a manager for a Russian company.

“By law I cannot cast a vote, but I am a citizen of Israel and I came here to carry out my duty and exercise my right, even if it is in the form of an exit poll,” said Mark Shtein, an Israeli businessman.

“If I were in Israel, I wouldn’t even participate in elections,” Ilya Lieberman, another Russian-born Israeli working in Moscow, said after casting his ballot. Lieberman said he came to the event just to mingle with fellow expatriates.

It was no surprise that Yisrael Beiteinu came in first in the mock election. The party, headed by Avigdor Lieberman, an immigrant from Moldova, promotes immigrant rights and is often referred to in Israel as the “Russian” party. Most of the people at the mock election party were born on Soviet soil and lived as new immigrants in Israel themselves, so Yisrael Beiteinu’s issues are close to their hearts.

The under-40 crowd, gathered around the bar, voted heavily for the Green Leaf Party, which favors the legalization of marijuana. The party failed to reach the threshold required to win even one seat in the real election, but would have received 10 seats if the Knesset were formed in Moscow.

Who knows whether these 50,000 expatriates might have been able to swing the actual elections in their favor if they had flown back to Israel to vote.

They’ll never know, and can comfort themselves only with the T-shirts handed out to party-goers at the end of the evening. The shirts read, “I voted in the Knesset elections in Moscow.”

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