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Across the Former Soviet Union Jews in Russia See Ominous Signs As Georgian Expatriates Are Targeted

October 13, 2006
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When hundreds rallied this week in downtown Moscow to protest the Russian crackdown on Georgians, many of the protesters had yellow stars pinned to their chests. Sunday’s rally had been called to voice criticism of the deportation of hundreds of Georgians and closure of Georgian-owned businesses in Moscow in the wake of Russia’s spy dispute with the small Caucasus republic.

The yellow stars were symbols that the protesters — who included many well-known Russian liberal figures — view the Russian authorities’ singling out of Georgians as similar to what happened to Jews during the Holocaust, when Jews in many European countries were forced to wear yellow stars as identification.

“To me, the key word here is mass deportation,” said Dr. Alexandra Arkus, a Jewish pediatrician who had a yellow star pinned to her denim jacket alongside a homemade button pin saying “I’m a Georgian.”

“The Holocaust is part of my own family history, and it doesn’t make big difference if it’s not me who is being targeted this time.”

A leading Russian Jewish political journalist who also took part in the rally agreed.

It doesn’t matter which group is singled out for ethnic profiling,” Yevgenia Albats said. “Our books, our history do not allow us to sit idle,” in this situation, she said.

Russian Jewish groups, however, have not spoken out publicly on the matter.

Up to 600,000 Georgian nationals are believed to be living in Russia, including thousands of Georgian-born Jews. Many Georgians in Russia earn their living as construction workers, taxi drivers or in markets. There are also a number of high-profile Georgian businessmen based in Russia.

Following the diplomatic dispute between Moscow and Georgia early this month, Russian police and tax officials cracked down on Georgian natives living in Russia in what authorities called part of the fight against illegal immigrants and tax evasion.

The crackdown resulted in the deportations of hundreds of Georgians and caused many more Georgians to close their businesses and lose their jobs.

Last week, Russian newspapers reported that some Moscow schools were requested to provide lists of Georgian students to the officials so their parents can be tracked down and checked for residence and tax status.

A leading human rights group condemned the “collective blame” that Russian authorities are putting on Georgians in Russia as a result of the “irresponsible actions of Georgian authorities.”

The Moscow Bureau on Human Rights said the “multiple facts of discrimination against citizens of Georgian nationality in Russian regions” was “an outrageous violation” of the Russian Constitution.

Ethnic profiling is not new in modern Russia, but by cracking down on Georgians the authorities have crossed a certain barrier, these critics say.

“When police were cracking down on Chechens” during the 1990s, “this was during the war and could at least be explained as part of the wartime rhetoric,” Arkus said. “What’s unfolding now simply borders on Nazism.”

Many Russians, however, disagree.

According to a recent opinion poll published on Wednesday, 40 percent of Russians welcome the deportation of all Georgians who do not have legal residency in Russia, the same proportion favors imposing economic blockade on Georgia and 20 percent support cutting off all trade relations between Russia and Georgia, the VTSIOM polling firm reported.

While many Jews in Russia appear to be more sensitive to ethnic profiling than average Russians, Jewish organizations remained silent in the wake of police and officials’ crackdown on the Georgian minority.

“We cannot afford speaking out on this,” an official with a leading Jewish group who asked not to be identified told JTA. “If we say something, the authorities will tell us we are shaking the boat,” he said, referring to the fact all major Jewish groups value their relations with the Kremlin, which is believed to be orchestrating the anti-Georgian campaign.

A spokesman for the Federation of Jewish Communities, the largest organization of Jews in Russia, said in an interview with JTA that he believed the persecution of Georgians was “very dangerous.”

“I hope this is the very first and therefore excessively emotional reaction” to the dispute with Georgia, Boruch Gorin told JTA.

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