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Across the Former Soviet Union As Russians Prepare to Vote, Jews Ambivalent About Putin’s Victory-to

March 1, 2004
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Alexander Sakov is of two minds about President Vladimir Putin’s imminent re- election.

“As a Jew, I should feel comfortable with the choice of Putin,” says Sakov, a Jewish leader and journalist from the Siberian city of Omsk. “He is no anti-Semite and I cannot say there are reasons for any special Jewish concerns associated with him. But as a citizen, I have no reason to be happy.”

Like Sakov, many of Russia’s estimated 600,000 to 1 million Jews are pleased with the way Putin has handled anti- Semitism. But they are uncomfortable with his apparent disregard for democracy, as evidenced by his use of state- run media to fuel his election campaign and his refusal to take part in any televised debates.

“You turn on the iron, and again you hear what you just heard on the radio and television,” Sakov jokes.

The state-controlled mass media are “full with praise for Putin,” he says.

Putin has shown a great ability to maintain his grip on power, and the March 14 vote is unlikely to be an exception.

Most observers believe Putin will receive between 70 and 85 percent of the vote for another four-year term. The only question seems to be what would happen if more than half of Russia’s 110 million voters don’t show up at the polls. If that happens, the results of the vote could be constitutionally invalidated.

Russians — Jews included — seem to be accepting Putin’s limits on democratic reforms because he has brought stability to the country.

Those who are running against Putin represent all segments of the political spectrum — from staunch liberals to pro-Kremlin politicians to Communists and moderate nationalists.

The race even has a bodyguard for ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky running. The bodyguard, a former boxer, is substituting for his boss in a no-win situation.

“This election is void of even minimal elements of democracy,” says Tankred Golenpolsky, the founder of the International Jewish Gazette, an independent Moscow news weekly.

Putin’s record during his first term in the Kremlin is considered to have been mixed.

The economy boomed during the last four years due mainly to high oil prices, but many of Russia’s acute social problems — low salaries for government-paid workers and heating problems in parts of the country — remain unsolved.

It’s generally quiet on the Chechen front, where Russia fought a nearly decade-long battle with separatist Muslim guerrillas.

Free-market reforms have continued, but the director of one of Russia’s business giants, the Yukos oil company, was jailed last year in what many believe is a Kremlin-orchestrated case.

Yukos’ Jewish founder, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, remains in jail, allegedly for tax evasion and theft of state property.

Putin’s popularity is largely explained by Russians’ yearning for order and a strong hand, skillfully wielded by the Kremlin’s political advisers.

Another important factor is Putin’s ability to use federal resources to do away with his serious political challengers or critics.

Some Jews, especially those in urban areas, do not have strong praise for the Russian president.

Many are liberals and want their country to become a European-style democracy with a guaranteed transfer of power through fair elections.

Before he left office in late 1999, former President Boris Yeltsin appointed Putin as his handpicked successor. Putin is expected to do the same before he leaves office.

Despite the bleak electoral perspectives, many of these people will cast their vote in the election for Irina Khakamada of the liberal party known as SPS. Sakov, who earns his living as a manufacturing engineer, says he did not see any changes for the better in his industry during Putin’s rule.

“I want to work normally, earn normally and live normally, and I don’t have any of this,” he says, explaining that much of the industrial enterprises in his area are “half-dead.”

As if echoing this concern, Putin last week dismissed his entire Cabinet in a surprise move that many believe was meant to place blame for unpopular economic and social policies on his ministers. Some of those ministers, including outgoing Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, represented the vestiges of Yeltsin’s regime.

“The president has become the most powerful symbol for Russians,” says Pyotr Schelisch, an independent Jewish member of the State Duma, the lower house of parliament.

“We had a president who was the symbol of all things evil,” he says, referring to Yeltsin, who was highly unpopular in the latter period of his term. “Now we have a president who is the symbol of all things good.”

Jewish leaders, who are remaining apolitical ahead of the election, say its outcome will not have an immediate impact on Russian Jews.

“Most of the issues of concern for Russian Jews — such as anti-Semitism or the well-being of our elderly — have nothing to do with this election,” says Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the Russian Jewish Congress.

Other Jews support Putin, often echoing a common sentiment that Russians cannot handle democracy and are better off under a strong-handed leader like Putin.

“Democracy — as it is understood by the liberals — is not suited for Russia,” Gennady Khazanov, a popular comedian and president of the Jewish Community of Moscow, told those attending a small private Jewish community dinner in early February while he proposed a toast to Putin.

While some Jews are not strongly pro-Putin, they believe that he is an acceptable choice.

“I cannot say I’m happy that we will have an election with no choice, but the choice we are being offered is probably not that bad. At least, we can see some stability in the next four years,” says Valery, a middle-aged teacher of economics at a Moscow university who asked not to have his last name published.

And those who do not think they have a real choice in the elections are free to choose at least one other form of protest.

“I will not go to polls at all,” says Alexei, a 19-year-student at a Moscow Jewish university. “I cannot influence the outcome of the election, but I don’t want to play this unfair game, which can be called anything but democracy.”

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