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Across the Former Soviet Union Jews Looking to Liberals As Russians Prepare to Vote

November 27, 2003
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A Jewish banking executive running with a political party that has an open anti-Semite at the top of its electoral list.

A Jewish oil tycoon who bankrolled campaigns of the largest opposition parties awaiting a trial on economic charges in a Moscow prison.

Friends of former President Boris Yeltsin’s bodyguard, known for his anti-Jewish remarks, frantically courting Russian Israelis who have the right to vote in the Russian elections.

These are some of the pieces of the puzzle known as the Russian parliamentary campaign that will be put together in the Dec. 7 vote.

While 23 parties are in the race for the State Duma, as Russia’s lower house is known, only five or six of the parties have a viable chance of crossing the 5 percent threshold needed to win parliamentary seats, recent polls say.

According to Russian electoral law, half of the seats in the 450-member Duma are distributed proportionally to those party lists that capture more than 5 percent of the national vote. The other 225 seats go to the winners of direct votes in single-seat districts.

More than 4,500 candidates are registered to run for the Duma.

The number includes some Jews, and if history is any indication, voters will not hesitate to support them — about a dozen Jews were elected in single-mandate districts in the previous election four years ago.

Where are Jewish voters in this election?

Most observers agree that, as in previous post-Communist elections, most Jews are likely to support one of the two major liberal opposition parties — both of whose electoral prospects hover around the 5 percent threshold.

Russian Jewish voters “have always differed from the average national vote. Jewish voters have a traditional liking for liberals,” said Alexander Osovtsov, a Jewish former member of the first post-Communist Duma who is listed on the party slate of Yabloko, one of the two major liberal parties. SPS is the other.

Jewish votes account for a tiny fraction of the national total — there are no more than 500,000 Jews in this country of roughly 145 million.

Observers agree that the only party outside of the liberal camp that can count on some visible Jewish support — especially from older Jews — is the United Russia Party, which backs Russian President Vladimir Putin. Recent polls predicted this party would receive between one-quarter and one-third of the national vote.

Parties generally do not court Jewish votes specifically, and the organized Jewish community is not supporting any particular party.

In southern Russia’s Volgograd region, all but one of the local Jewish organizations have recently signed an agreement urging all of the signatories not to support any of the candidates in the Duma race to “avoid the involvement in politicized campaign often carrying a provocative nature.”

But the Jewish leaders in the central city of Tula faced pressure from a host of local Duma hopefuls.

Despite protests from the local branch of the Communist Party, Russia’s Central Election Committee assigned all of the Russian citizens living in Israel to the Tula electoral district, known as a Communist stronghold.

About 100,000 Russian voters in Israel have the right to vote in the Duma elections.

Votes cast in the Jewish state may play a decisive role in the race for a seat from Tula, as Israeli votes account for almost one-fourth of all voters registered in the district.

“They keep coming to us asking for support,” Faina Sanevich, a Jewish leader in Tula, said of some of the candidates in the local race. “I’m trying not to get into this at all, though I cannot do anything if some of our Jews volunteer to help in the campaigns.”

Sanevich said a prominent board member of her community recently left for Israel to campaign on behalf of Alexander Korzhakov, a centrist Duma member who is running for re-election.

Korzhakov, one of Yeltsin’s former bodyguards, has published a book that offers an insider’s look at the Kremlin. The book is filled with anti-Semitic remarks about Jewish members of Yeltsin’s entourage.

Breaking the standard of neutrality, the Russian Jewish Congress issued a statement two months ago urging voters not to support the Communists, whose leaders are known for their anti-Semitic remarks.

Jewish groups also criticized the Communists for including Nikolai Kondratenko, a former southern Russian governor known for his anti-Zionist rhetoric, in the second slot on his party’s national list, right after party leader Gennady Zyuganov.

Ironically enough, last month the name of an RJC board member, Moscow Jewish banker Igor Linshitz, appeared on one of the regional candidate lists of the Communist Party. If elected, Linshitz would represent a Siberian district in which he has extensive business interests.

But observers agree: the Communists, though likely to end up the second largest party, with between 15 and 25 percent of the vote tally, are not necessarily the biggest threat to those who support liberal and free market values.

The Kremlin, with its ongoing fight for power inside the ruling elites, may pose an even greater threat for Russia’s future.

“There is an apparent surge of authoritarianism going on in the country these days,” said Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent political analyst.

Any talk about Russian politics these days evolves around the Kremlin-led pressure placed on oil giant Yukos and its Jewish founder, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who has been in prison for a month now.

There’s no evidence that many Russians are worried by the arrest, but Jews are already concerned.

“Jews are always sensitive when such situations occur,” said Felgenhauer, adding that some of his Jewish acquaintances are more preoccupied these days with finding out how to apply for an Israeli passport than with the electoral prospects of various parties.

Although the state and the organized Jewish community have denied that the Yukos case and its embattled Jewish top management had anything to do with Judaism, many Jewish voters tend to view the upcoming election through the prism of the politically charged campaign against Khodorkovsky.

“Why does no one touch those oil tycoons who have Russian last names, and those with Jewish last names are either in prison or hiding in Israel,” a mustached young Moscow Jew who gave his name as Dmitry asked rhetorically while nursing a beer at a Moscow club last week.

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