Russian vote interests few Jews


MOSCOW (JTA) – On Dec. 2, Russia’s Jewish voters will turn out alongside their fellow countrymen to choose the configuration of the next Duma, the lower house of Russia’s parliament.

If, that is, anybody cares.

A widespread sense of social and economic stability, the absence of significant anti-Semitism and a lack of viable alternatives to the party in power, United Russia, have coincided to produce what Jewish community insiders and analysts are calling the least important election for Jews here since the fall of the Soviet Union.

“Elections,” laughed Moscow Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt when asked by JTA to comment about the upcoming vote. “What elections?”

In July 2005, Russia raised the threshold needed to secure seats in the Duma to 7 percent from 5 percent of votes, making it effectively impossible for small parties to win seats in the legislature. This has set the stage for sweeping electoral gains by parties sympathetic to President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin.

Critics have accused the government of using the measure to stifle opposition groups and limit political involvement, leading many to conclude that voting simply is not worth the effort.

While many have tuned out the elections, some held rallies across Russia this week to protest the Kremlin’s tightening grip on power, at times clashing with riot police. One opposition leader, Garry Kasparov, the Jewish former chess champion and now leader of the Other Russia opposition group, was arrested after his party declared that Putin is turning the country into a dictatorship.

For Russians averse to authoritarian political movements, these elections are just one more example of the backward trend to the single-party politics of the Soviet era.

A high-ranking Jewish community member who declined to be named said there is a rising tide of anger at the withering political pluralism in Russia. As a result, some Jews have fled the country. Others have turned inward, embracing Orthodox Judaism as an outlet for their desire for change, the community leader said.

One positive consequence of the new election rules has been to sideline parties that appeal to anti-Semitic and xenophobic sentiments. They will find it virtually impossible to meet the minimum threshold for participation in the Duma.

“It’s a case of the marginal groups in the political spectrum becoming more marginal,” Goldschmidt said.

Asked if he would be voting, Vova from Irkutsk said, “Hopefully not, because there’s nothing to choose from.”

If Vova bothered to vote, the 33-year-old said he’d cast his ballot for SPS, an opposition group not expected to reach the 7 percent threshold.

Vova said the lack of choices at the ballot box might not be a bad thing.

“I think that Putin is probably one of the most liberal politicians. If people chose for themselves, they’d choose someone really crazy,” he said, citing extremist politicians.

A Nov. 16 report by the Levada Center, an independent Russian polling and social research center, projected that of the seven parties running, only United Russia and the Communist Party of Russia will break the 7 percent threshold.

The poll put the Communists at 14 percent and the pro-Putin United Russia at 67 percent. Even Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party, an ultranationalist mainstay that holds 35 seats in the current Duma, looks unlikely to make the minimum.

Political parties that openly espouse anti-Semitism have been a fixture of Russian electoral politics since the early 1990s. The sense of danger they created helped spur Jewish activism and involvement.

But this election has proven different.

Whether because opposition voices are being silenced or the government is truly committed to combating anti-Semitism, this campaign cycle has been uniquely lacking in vocal anti-Jewish sentiments.

Evgeney Satanovsky, vice president of the Russian Jewish Congress, said these elections differ greatly from the past few in Russia.

In 1993 there nearly was a civil war, in 1996 there was a serious danger of a Communist victory and in 2000 it was a toss-up. But this time, Stanovsky said, there’s “more or less stability and predictability.”

Perhaps more than anything else, this stability owes itself to Putin.

Following the chaos of the 1990s, which saw two economic collapses and the demise of Russia’s extensive social safety net, the vast majority of Russian voters seem to be pleased with the relative prosperity of the Putin era. Under Putin, real wages and Russia’s stock in foreign affairs both have risen.

“I think that people are happy with Putin because he’s made their lives better,” said Yulia, a 23-year-old student from northeastern Russia. “I don’t think Russia cares about democracy. Should my mother care about free speech?”

Not everyone is happy, however.

Alexander, who works in Jewish education here, said he still hadn’t decided whether or not to vote.

Watching the recent Israel-Russia soccer match at the Choral Synagogue, he appeared disgusted but resigned with the fate of Russian politics.

“Why vote?” he said. “It isn’t going to change anything.”

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