MOSCOW, March 4 (JTA) The resignation by the president of the Russian Jewish Congress is being interpreted by many observers here as a capitulation to the Kremlin.
Vladimir Goussinsky, a Jewish media tycoon subjected to a Kremlin-backed campaign on allegations of fraud and embezzlement, said he quit because his legal troubles are preventing him from fulfilling his duties as president of the umbrella Russian Jewish Congress.
RJC leaders say Goussinsky, who resigned last week, is sacrificing himself to help an organization that has been harmed by its association with the beleaguered tycoon.
“He did not think of himself, he wants to help the organization and the community,” Alexander Osovtsov, RJC’s vice president, told JTA.
Osovtsov added that Goussinsky made the decision without pressure from anybody in the RJC or the general Russian Jewish community.
Goussinsky, who runs NTV, an independent television channel, was outspoken in his opposition to Russia’s war against Muslim separatists in Chechnya and supported a rival of Vladimir Putin in Russia’s presidential elections last year. Some here speculate that Kremlin officials “suggested” to the RJC that Goussinsky be replaced.
Whether or not the speculation is accurate, President Putin’s administration has long applied indirect pressure on Goussinsky and the RJC.
Goussinsky was first arrested last June and released after a few days. He later went abroad, amid reports that he had cut a deal with Putin.
Currently under house arrest in Spain, Goussinsky is fighting extradition to Russia.
Parallel to its legal case, the Kremlin has sought to undermine Goussinsky’s influence in the Jewish community through a divide-and-conquer strategy.
Since Putin took power in 1999, he has made it clear that he favors the Lubavitch-dominated Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia over the RJC most publicly by appearing at several high-profile federation events.
Goussinsky’s resignation leaves the community without its strongest voice for an independent, home-grown Russian Jewish philanthropy. The RJC supports Jewish communal projects throughout the country with money raised in Russia.
Goussinsky’s replacement, Leonid Nevzlin, 42, a top manager of the YUKOS oil company, appears to be suitable to all sides.
YUKOS is headed by a leading Jewish tycoon, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who is friendly with Goussinsky but not controversial.
Nevzlin’s appointment will ensure that the RJC corrects its previous mistake of being too involved in politics, said Rabbi Zinovy Kogan, a leader of the Reform movement in Russia and a member of the RJC executive committee.
Berel Lazar, who is affiliated with the Lubavitch-dominated federation and is one of Russia’s two chief rabbis, also approved of the appointment, saying Nevzlin would help develop the RJC.
In what is seen as a conciliatory gesture, Rabbi Lazar participated in the March 1 meeting of the RJC presidium that approved Goussinsky’s resignation along with Adolph Shayevich, Lazar’s rival and Russia’s other chief rabbi.
Earlier this week, however, Lev Levayev, an Israeli diamond tycoon with business interests in Russia who is the main sponsor of the federation, met with Pinchas Goldschmidt, the Swiss-born chief rabbi of Moscow and one of the leaders of the RJC. According to sources at the Moscow Choral Synagogue, Levayev urged Goldschmidt to recognize Lazar as the only legitimate chief rabbi of Russia.
Levayev, a new Kremlin insider, told Goldschmidt that he had resolved the problems surrounding the renewal of the visa that allows Goldschmidt to remain in Russia.
With Goussinsky’s resignation, the RJC appears to have admitted that it is losing the battle for Russian Jewish supremacy to the federation.
This view is supported by financial figures. RJC officials say the organization’s 2001 budget will be much lower than the estimated $10 million it spent last year. At the same time, the federation’s 2001 budget is estimated at $70 million.
Next, most observers say, Goussinsky will be forced to relinquish his media empire.