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Around the Jewish World: Raid on Russian Jewish Oligarch Spurs Fear of Anti- Semitic Backlash

May 17, 2000
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A caller to the Russian State Radio Service’s Jewish program made no attempt to hide her venom.

“You Jews have seized the TV and the radio and the newspapers. You are everywhere, you annoy everybody,” said the caller, who identified herself as Yelena K.

Her words were just one of many recent anti-Semitic calls to Jewish Radio in which ordinary Russians expressed displeasure with the high-profile role played by Jews in the Russian media.

While the scale of anti-Semitism in Russia is sometimes exaggerated in the West, many of the nation’s 145 million people have mixed feelings — at best – – about the “Jewish influence” in the mass media, which proved a powerful political force in Russia’s recent parliamentary and presidential elections.

After the recent search of the offices of one of Russia’s most powerful media figures, Jewish leader Vladimir Goussinsky, some Jews are worried that a crackdown on Goussinsky and his fellow tycoons, some of whom are Jewish, could foment anti-Semitism and harm Jewish activities in Russia.

The raid itself appears to have been politically motivated — and had little to do with anti-Semitism.

Goussinsky, who in addition to heading the Russian Jewish Congress, owns a set of influential newspapers and radio stations, including the national TV channel NTV, is seen as a bastion of an independent media.

During last year’s presidential campaign, Goussinsky’s media empire, Media- Most, openly supported Grigory Yavlinsky, the liberal opposition contender.

Goussinsky may have piqued the Kremlin further by publicly criticizing Russia’s war against Muslim separatists in the Caucasus, calling on the government to grant independence to Chechnya.

In addition, one of Goussinsky’s main media rivals is Boris Berezovsky, a controversial Kremlin insider with Jewish roots who is widely believed to be the main schemer behind Vladimir Putin’s meteoric rise to the country’s presidency.

In addition to owning a number of influential newspapers, Berezovsky controls the state-owned national TV channel ORT.

ORT, which reaches practically every Russian household, was used as a highly effective instrument of “character killing” during the last election campaign, when it destroyed two main potential contenders for the presidency, former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov.

Russian Jews have a generally negative view of Berezovsky.

He renounced his Israeli citizenship — which he had acquired in the early 1990s, when his political position was shaky — and was baptized. Moscow’s chief rabbi, Pinchas Goldschmidt, called him “a double traitor of the Jewish people.”

But to many ordinary Russians, he is the archetype of the opportunistic Jew who schemes behind the scenes with unclear but destructive goals.

Some observers see the raid as the first step in a campaign against Goussinsky, which may lead to a broader crackdown against Berezovsky and other media moguls as well.

Putin, after all, has vowed to chase the oligarchs, as they are known here, from the corridors of political power.

Others view the crackdown as an attack on freedom of speech.

But, as is always the case in Russia, there is concern about exacerbating anti- Semitism.

“The rise of anti-Semitism is triggered usually by two factors: a steep increase in the Jewish population, which is definitely not the case now in Russia, and the appearance of a substantial number of such bright political and financial adventurers, like Berezovsky,” says Alexander Sinelnikov, a lecture at Moscow Jewish University who is a demographer.

In addition to Berezovsky and Goussinsky, Berezovsky’s close ally, Lev Chernoy, a Jewish aluminum mogul, and Roman Abramovitch, a Jewish oil magnate and a well-known Kremlin insider, control smaller TV channels and a number of influential newspapers.

Many Jews think that any clampdown on the Jewish oligarchs would strongly harm the Russian Jewish community.

Such moves would further the stereotypes about the “Jews, who have sucked out and used to their own benefit all Russian resources, including the mass media, and now are being rightfully wiped out,” said Alexey Vayman, a 26-year-old Moscow university student. “All of us would be held guilty for their real or alleged crimes.”

A further crackdown on Goussinsky would particularly harm the community, say observers, since he is the driving force between the Russian Jewish Congress.

The RJC, a major supporter of Jewish life throughout Russia, is the most financially self-sufficient Jewish organization in Russia.

But at least one observer is optimistic.

Leonid Katsis, a university lecturer and a Jewish political analyst, said he thinks Goussinsky will manage to come to terms with the government.

“A strong state in Russia will manage to keep the Jewish oligarchs in control in a civilized manner without provoking an anti-Semitic wave. And Putin really seems to be in favor of a strong state.”

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