Across the Former Soviet Union in Russia, Linking of Jewish Issues with Democracy is No Longer a Giv
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Across the Former Soviet Union in Russia, Linking of Jewish Issues with Democracy is No Longer a Giv

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Vladimir Putin insists that democracy and human rights are internal Russian issues. “We proceed from the fact that no one knows better than we do how to strengthen our state,” the president of Russia, which hosted the recent G-8 summit, said Saturday at a news conference following talks with President Bush. “We know for sure that we cannot strengthen our state without developing democratic institutions, and this is the path that we will certainly take. But we’re certainly going to do this on our own.”

Worries have grown during the past year over what many see as Putin’s increasingly authoritarian rule, limiting dissent and cementing his own power.

In the Soviet era and even after, this would have been considered a Jewish issue, since issues involving democracy and human rights were seen as inextricably linked to Jewish concerns.

But is it still the case in a Russia where Jews have freedom of worship and the freedom to emigrate? Do Russian Jews think attention to Russia’s democratic record is productive for the community, or is it a counterproductive development that could further alienate Russia from the West?

Some observers believe Russian Jews should remain sensitive to human-rights issues simply because they are a minority that could become a target.

“As in any country, minorities, including Jews, have a worse chance for survival under authoritarian regimes,” said Yevgenia Albats, a leading Moscow political journalist. “Just because the situation looks fine for Jews now does not mean the regime will always keep it the same. Under authoritarian rule, everything, both good and bad, lies with the autocratic leader.”

She added, “Such a leader often needs an internal enemy, and Jews are among the best candidates to this position.”

A leading U.S. advocate for Jews in the region agrees.

“History and current events show that Jews live better under democratic rule,” said Mark Levin, executive director of NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States and Eurasia. “In Russia, the Jewish community has not been targeted by the government, it has been able to develop its cultural, educational and religious institutions, but who’s to say how long this can last if the overall society doesn’t progress.”

Among the issues of concern to Western leaders is Russia’s treatment of nongovernmental organizations. Early this year, Putin signed into law a highly controversial bill that bans foreign participation in the nonprofit sector, further isolating Russian society from international democratic trends and institutions.

“It is certain that the authorities are trying to limit the influence from abroad played by various non-governmental organizations, although fears that this might somehow affect Jewish organizations have not materialized yet,” said Mikhail Chlenov, secretary-general of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress.

Another longtime Jewish activist said a discussion over the state of democracy in Russia could help bring long-standing problems to the surface.

Tankred Golenpolsky, founder and publisher of the International Jewish Gazette, Russia’s oldest Jewish weekly, gives an example of the problem.

“There are three Jewish weeklies in Moscow, and each saw how their subscribers got concerned when they tried to mail the papers without blank envelopes,” he said. “After all these years, there is deep-seated fear in Jews here. That means there is a problem that we need to talk about. You can only fight fear by talking about it.”

Golenpolsky believes Russia should not be shy about openly discussing issues of democracy and minority rights, both within Russian society and with Moscow’s foreign partners in meetings like the G-8 summit.

“This is our Russian complex: We think that if others don’t know that we have problems at home, then we don’t have problems,” he said.

But some leaders contend that any such connection may not be productive now that the Jewish community lives in a much freer country and doesn’t face an immediate threat to its well-being.

The Federation of Jewish Communities, Russia’s largest Jewish group and the one with the best relations to the Kremlin, said responsible Jewish groups and leaders should think twice before adding their voices to the chorus of those criticizing the Kremlin.

“Jewish organizations should have as their main focus the interests of the Jews that live in this country,” federation spokesman Boruch Gorin said.

Gorin and the federation believes it’s in the community’s interest to deal with issues of human rights in a more cautious manner and to avoid irritating authorities.

“It would be irresponsible” for Jewish organizations “to engage in a discussion on human rights without taking into account the peculiarities of Russian mentality and Russian history,” Gorin said.

Gorin said that the traditional approach, of local Jews appealing to the West on major issues of concern to the Jewish community, is “not smart and ineffective.”

Golenpolsky disagreed.

“We are a mature country with a great history, but we shouldn’t be playing hide-and-seek” with “our problems and with our partners,” he said.

In the meantime, few Jewish activists would disagree that the state could do more to fight the anti-Semitism that continues to plague Russian society, even in the absence of a state-sponsored policy against the Jews.

But some Jewish leaders say the issue will not be solved by lecturing Russia on its internal problems.

“Lecturing Russia is not necessary and not enough,” Chlenov said. “Much more here depends not on the West but on Russia’s own society. Either there is the will of society to fight with these evils, or there isn’t. Foreign lessons would hardly help.”

(JTA Foreign Editor Peter Ephross in New York contributed to this report.)

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