Conflict Strains Ties Between Russian and Georgian Jews

The Russian soldier took the last drag of his Marlboro Light, scanned the crowd of Georgian police huddling about 20 yards away and threw the butt in their direction.

He slung his rifle over his shoulder and jogged back toward an armored vehicle, with a reporter right beside him.

“We’re not going to Tbilisi. I want to go home,” the soldier told JTA.

But as Russian troops pushed within 30 minutes of the Georgian capital on Monday, it was unclear whether any of the higher-ups agreed with him.

Over the weekend, Russian forces dug in on either side of the main road leading from the capital Tbilisi to the embattled city of Gori and farther west. They set up sniper positions on hills, hid armored vehicles on the side of the road beneath piles of tree branches and operated with impunity on Georgia’s main highway.

The Georgian forces — outmanned and seeking to avoid confrontation — could only look on powerless.

They stared across the line with one question on their mind: “How long will they stay?”

A flurry of diplomacy by European Union and American officials has sought a resolution to the situation and to press Russian troops to leave Georgia. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Russia would pull its troops out Monday but gave no timetable for withdrawal.

For the Georgians, the anxiety is pervasive. For Russians, the self-assuredness is absolute. These attitudes reach into the Jewish communities of both countries.

The normally close relations between Russian-speaking Jews — manifested in congresses and charities meant to bring them together — have been strained by nationalism and propaganda wars in the last week.

Georgians view the Russian troops on their soil as no less than a full-scale occupation of their country, akin to Czechoslovakia in 1968 when Russian tanks rumbled into Prague. A photo exhibition in front of the Parliament building in Tbilisi compares the invasions.

Georgian hopes still lay in diplomatic pressure from the West. European Union flags fly alongside the red-and-white crosses of the Georgian one in front of most storefronts in the capital.

“The Russians understand that what they’re doing is a crime,” said Temur Yakobshvili, Georgia’s reintegration minister, and one of several high-ranking Jewish officials in the Georgian government. “They’re starting to realize that this crime can not last unpunished.”

His responsibility was to reunite Georgia with its breakaway republics, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. When border skirmishes erupted last week and threatened to explode into all-out war, he traveled to the Ossetian capital Tskhinvali but could not alter the course of the conflict.

Now, with Russian troops at his doorstep, he said all Georgia could do was to wait and see. Any advance or retaliation against Russian troops could provide the impetus for a broader conflict or a fuller invasion.

On Saturday night, he unwound in a corner office of his ministry, fondling a string of worry beads and shuffling through a game of computer solitaire. He said the terms of the current cease-fire make it clear that the Russians need to leave, and quickly.

“Immediate means now,” he told JTA. “Unfortunately we don’t have any indications that the Russians understand what is now.”

The Russians may understand but they have little reason to leave.

Behind their front lines, news reports suggest that they are dismantling key parts of the Georgian military and civilian infrastructure. At the same time, irregular troops from the Caucasus republics and South Ossetia have been looting ethnic Georgian villages.

The ease with which Russia exerted its will in the last week has emboldened the country. Many Jewish groups and leaders from Russia have lined up behind the war effort and against Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

The boldest statement came from the president of the World Congress of Russian Jews, Boris Shpigel, who called Georgia’s attack on South Ossetia, which ignited the Russian response, a genocide.

“We, as a people who have experienced genocide, cannot remain aloof when armed men kill innocent women, children and the elderly. We agree that evil must not go unpunished,” Shpigel said in a statement published in full by the Jewish News Agency, a wire service operated by the Chabad-run Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia.

The federation has not commented on the conflict and could not speak about the statement, according to their press service.

The federation has operations throughout the former Soviet Union, and many of the countries where it operates have stood in solidarity with Georgia since the outbreak of fighting earlier this month, creating cross purposes that have strained relationships.

Ze’ev Elkin, a member of the Israeli Knesset and of the World Congress’ Parliamentary Club, distanced himself from Shpigel’s rhetoric, saying such congresses should not get involved in “geo-political conflicts,” the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported.

Shpigel declined to comment when JTA called his cell phone for comment late last week.

While Shpigel spoke out, other Jewish groups have skirted the issue or remained silent.

Moshe Kantor heads both the European Jewish Congress and the Russian Jewish Congress, groups that are closely aligned but are straddling both sides of the current conflict.

A spokeman for the Russian Jewish Congress said the group had prepared a statement but was awaiting approval by its leadership.

“There’s a lot of information coming in and to the end it’s not sure that this information is completely true,” said Mikhail Savin, the spokesman. “That’s why we haven’t put out a statement sooner.”

But Evgeny Satanovsky, a vice president of the congress and a specialist in Middle East politics, said that Saakashvili had fallen into an American trap.

The war is an outgrowth of American encroachment on Russia, he said. America has sought to create a “collar” of countries in Russia’s traditional sphere of influence.

Satanovsky said the United States went too far and now is reaping the consequences because it has little moral authority or influence to goad Russia into pulling back.

He said Georgia was like a small lap dog that constantly bites its owner, 10,000 times over.

“The 10,000 plus one time, I’m going to beat the dog,” he said.

In an interview with JTA, Rabbi Zinovy Kogan, a leader of the Russian Congress of Jewish Religious Organizations and Communities, tempered the strong remarks he had made to a Russian wire service .

Kogan originally compared Saakashvili to Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, whose army had destroyed the temple in Israel.

“These days, Georgian President Saakashvili, seized by Satan, razed Tskhinvali to the ground,” he was quoted as saying, referring to the South Ossetian capital.

Kogan told JTA he loved the Georgian people and sympathized with Jews suffering on both sides of the conflict, but he blamed Saakashvili for the conflict and said the Georgian leader cared only about land, not about people.

“Saakashvili gave the order. He fired first,” Kogan said. “That was the main thing to him, to get the territory.”

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