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Behind the Headlines: Communist Resurgence Sparks Uncertainty Among Russian Jews

December 19, 1995
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The Communist Party’s powerful electoral showing this week has generated strong feelings of uncertainty among Russia’s Jews about their country’s future.

When the returns from Sunday’s parliamentary elections first came in, voices of alarm were sounded within Russia’s Jewish community, estimated at between 500,000 to 2 million people.

Early returns gave the Communist Party the lead with some 22 percent of the vote and the ultranationalist party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky second place with about 11 percent.

Even before the final results were in, however, more moderate, albeit cautious note was sounded by Russian Jews, most of whom had supported democratically oriented candidates.

On Monday, for instance, Michael Chlenov, chairman of the Va’ad, the Jewish Confederation of Russia, spoke of the possibility that Russian Jews would panic and seek to emigrate as soon as possible.

But by Tuesday, he said that “in spite of the seeming victory of the Communists, the balance of power” in the incoming Parliament “will be almost the same as now.”

Voicing a common concern for the future, however, he added, “We still have reason to be worried before the June 1996 presidential elections.”

Although the power of the lower house of Parliament, or Duma, is limited, Sunday’s elections are being viewed as an important barometer of the political climate in advance of the presidential elections.

The parliamentary elections were only the second since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

Preliminary results from the voting represented a significant defeat for Our House is Russia, the government party led by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and backed by President Boris Yeltsin.

As of Tuesday, the party was running in third place, with nearly 10 percent of the vote.

The Communist victory came as a slap in the face to the reformist policies of Yeltsin, who on the eve of the election made a direct appeal to Russia’s voters not to turn back the clock on reforms.

Among the nation’s Jews, much of the concern arises out of tremendous uncertainty.

As Gabriella Safran, the National Conference on Soviet Jewry’s representative in the former Soviet Union, put it: “I don’t think anyone has a sense of the Communists’ true intentions. It’s a great mystery.”

As for the Jewish candidates on the ballot, all were believed to be defeated.

Those candidates included Valery Engel, a longtime Jewish activist who served as vice president of the Congress of Ethnic Unions of Russia; Tancred Golenpolsky, founder of Moscow’s Jewish biweekly newspaper Evreyskaya Gazeta; and Alla Gerber, an anti-fascist activist who is a member of the present Duma.

Gerber belonged to the parliamentary faction of Russia’s Choice, the party headed by former Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar.

According to Russian electoral law, half the seats in the 450-member Duma are distributed proportionally to those party lists that capture more than 5 percent of the national vote.

The other 225 seats go to the winners of a direct vote for candidates in Russia’s single-seat districts.

Under this formula, candidates whose party failed to clear the 5 percent threshold were nonetheless capable of being elected to the Duma.

Clearing this threshold was the liberal Yabloko faction, which placed fourth in the vote, with 8.4 percent of the vote. Yabloko is headed by liberal economist Grigory Yavlinsky, who is part Jewish.

Preliminary returns from the single-seat voting indicated further gains for the Communists.

On Monday, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov suggested that his party would set up a national patriotic coalition of “allies and fellow travelers” in the new Duma.

Zyuganov said the coalition might include Zhirinovsky’s virulently nationalist Liberal Democratic Party.

But the Communist leader was critical of Zhirinovsky himself.

At the same time, however, fear about Zyuganov’s true nature surfaced prior to the election when the popular Moscow daily Moskovskiy Komsomolets quoted him as saying:

“The world outlook, culture and ideology of the Western world is being more and more tangibly affected by the Jewish Diaspora.

“Its influence is growing by the hour. The Jewish Diaspora that traditionally had [Western] financial life under control, is becoming, as its `own market’ develops, a kind of controlling stockholder of the entire economic system of the Western civilization.”

Some Jewish observers, while criticizing the remarks, downplayed them.

“We have to keep this in perspective,” said Rabbi Mark Staitman, chairman of the National Conference. “We have to see whether the rhetoric is followed by concrete steps.”

During a recent meeting with Zyuganov in Moscow, Rabbi Arthur Schneier of New York said the Communist leader told him that the party had reaffirmed freedom of religion and conscience in its platform in a vote of 500-16.

Although he called Zyuganov’s remarks “totally unacceptable,” Schneier said they represented Zyuganov’s election effort to play to a part of his constituency.

Noting that there has been a resurgent interest in religion in Russia since the fall of communism, Schneier, who was accredited by the Russian government as an international observer to the election, said he believed that the Communist leadership “is much too pragmatic” to adopt steps that would curtail freedom of religion.

Meanwhile, Russia’s chief rabbi, Adolph Shayevich, agreed that now that the voting is complete, the guessing game of what the Communists have in mind begins.

“Whoever comes to power, any political change in Russia is always fraught with dangerous consequences,” he said.

“It would be better for the nation if the government and the Parliament are given a possibility to complete the reformist program they have launched,” he said.

“Jews are an optimistic people,” Shayevich added, “and I believe that Russia, with God’s help, will turn into a democratic power.”

Some Jewish voices were less sanguine, saying that the chances for Russia’s democratic development were weakened as result of Sunday’s vote.

Among those who found the election results particularly disturbing was Leonid Stonov, the international director of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews’ human rights bureau.

“There are terrifying results,” he said in an interview. “The situation is very dangerous.”

Pointing to a possible coalition of “red and brown forces” involving the Communists and Zhirinovsky’s ultranationalists, Stonov said, “It is quite possible they will stop the reforms.”

He expressed particular concern over the possibility that in the near future, “the Duma will vote against emigration” – once again barring Jews from leaving the country.

Jewish emigration from Russia, once banned totally, has declined dramatically from its peak in 1992. But there are still Jews who want to emigrate.

Although the Duma needs presidential approval for any of its legislative moves, Yeltsin is in a precarious position after this week’s elections and he “may move to soothe the nationalist forces,” said Stonov, who splits his time between Moscow and Chicago.

“I want to be optimistic,” Stonov said. “But we should directly confront events – and events are very bad.”

Other observers, both in Russia and the United States, expressed concern about the vote, but were less inclined to see it as a call to return to Russia’s Communist past.

“There is no reverting back to the old days,” said Schneier, president of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation.

The Communist victory came because “voters were unhappy with the lack of a tangible improvement in their lot.”

For her part, the National Conference’s Safran said Russia’s Jews are “not seeing this election as a big factor in their decision to stay or leave Russia.”

“The June election will be a larger factor,” she said, speaking from St. Petersburg during a conference call Monday with Jewish journalists in the United States.

She also said Jewish activists in Russia view the “vote for Zhirinovsky as the vote of someone who is very angry” and wanted to cast a ballot “for the most visible anti-establishment figure.”

“A lot of Jews are disturbed by the size of Zhirinovsky’s vote,” she said. “But they see it as a protest vote rather than a vote against Jews.”

Alluding to reports that surfaced in the West last year that Zhirinovsky is part Jewish, Safran said those reports are now widely known in Russia.

As a result, she said, “people who voted for him are not the real anti- Semites.”

Addressing the fears expressed by some Russian Jews after the vote, Martin Wenick, executive vice president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, said, “What you are hearing now is a clarion call from those living there that things are going badly” in Russia’s reformist era.

Noting that the election “raises concerns for minority rights” in Russia, Wenick said it was “significant that well over a third of the votes went to parties that look backward instead of forward.”

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