MOSCOW, Feb. 21 (JTA) When Vladimir Putin refused to meet with visiting American Jewish leaders, the U.S. delegation was told the acting Russian president was not receiving any foreign visitors so he could concentrate on domestic matters.
But some observers say political rivalry is the real reason Putin would not visit with the delegation from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which was hosted by the Russian Jewish Congress.
Observers say he wanted to distance himself from the RJC and its leader, Jewish media tycoon Vladimir Goussinsky.
Putin is allied with Goussinsky’s rival mogul, Boris Berezovsky.
Goussinsky’s national television channel has come under recent criticism from a business leader for “highlighting negative aspects” of Russia’s war against Chechnya. Putin owes much of his popularity to his strong hand against Chechen rebels.
Despite the snub, the delegation met with several top Russian leaders, including Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and former Prime Ministers Yevgeny Primakov and Sergei Stepashin. The delegation also met with leading figures in the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, including speaker and Communist leader Gennady Seleznyov.
Among the issues discussed were:
Iranian Jewish prisoners: Ivanov said his office has been in contact with its Iranian counterpart on behalf of the 13 Iranian Jews arrested last march and accused of spying for Israel and the United States. The executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents, Malcolm Hoenlein, confirmed that “the Russians have already helped us during the past couple of months.”
Aid to Iran: Russia has been accused of selling nuclear technology to Iran, but Ivanov said only nonmilitary technology has been transferred.
Anti-Semitism: “We have included the Jews in the four traditional religions in Russia, so be happy about it,” Seleznyov said in a reference to Judaism having been granted rights in a much-criticized 1997 religious law.
Synagogue security: Luzhkov said he was ready to deliver concrete help to the Jewish community, including increased security for synagogues.
Chechnya: Yevgeny Satanovsky, a Russian Jewish Congress leader, said he supports the Russian government’s military action in Chechnya and reminded the delegation that several dozen Jews and Israelis, including children, have been taken hostage by the Chechens.
But if the delegation had hoped to gain insight into Putin, who is considered to be a shoo-in to win Russia’s presidential elections next month, they appear to have been disappointed.
Said Ronald Lauder, the president of the Jewish National Fund, “It became very obvious to us that nobody knows who he is.”