Just days before the Russian presidential election, the country’s state-controlled television channel ran an ad claiming one of the presidential contenders was controlled by Jews, foreigners and gays.
The attack ad on the ORT channel against Grigory Yavlinsky, who has Jewish roots, came as something of a surprise because Russian President Vladimir Putin, who won Sunday’s election with 52 percent of the vote, had not played a strong nationalist card during the campaign.
If anything, it was the campaign of Putin’s main rival, Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, that had been tainted from the start with Russian nationalism, and sometimes open anti-Semitism.
A typical ad for the election — which came amid ongoing concerns over anti- Semitic incidents and economic downturn, resulting in increased Jewish immigration to Israel during the last few years, ran: “What is the secret of Zyuganov? He is kind and honest — a genuine Russian,” implying that people like Yavlinsky are not.
But looked at in another light, the sudden appearance of the ad, which Putin’s team has denied any prior knowledge of, is not surprising at all.
There have been at least two Putins so far: the man who after being designated heir apparent by Russian President Boris Yeltsin promised President Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair that he would pursue free market reforms and human rights, and the former KGB officer who has pursued the war in Chechnya with a vengeance and not permitted journalists the press freedoms to cover either that bloody war against Muslim separatists or the campaign itself.
“I’ve been joking that it’s not clear which Putin is going to win the election,” said Carol Saivetz, a research associate at the Davis Center of Russian Studies at Harvard University. “He’s been purposefully vague about what his plans are for the future.”
This vagueness allowed Jewish voters, like their fellow Russians, to project onto Putin whatever they themselves want.
A 36-year-old businessman from Moscow expects stabilization and further liberalization of the economy;
A 45-year-old university professor from St. Petersburg wants Putin to provide state support to the sciences;
A 55-year-old retired soldier from the city of Samara on the Volga River wants support for the army;
A family of Mountain Jews, fleeing the instability in Dagestan, wants Putin to finally wipe out the rebels in Chechnya and stop the ethnic conflicts.
A middle-aged activist from the Siberian city of Tomsk wants Putin to support Israel in the Middle East peace process.
A university student from Moscow wants him to crack down on the anti-Semitism and crime in Russia.
All share a desire to see stability, a leader who will restore order and authority of the state and crack down on the “thieves and oligarchs,” even at the expense of some democracy.
Exactly how this will translate in the coming months is unknown. Will Putin pursue free market reforms and crack down on anti-Semitism or will he become an authoritarian leader who allows free market reforms but limits individual freedoms and pays scant attention to human rights?
Will he, as he did in the Parliament, form an alliance with Communists and their leader, Zyuganov, who received roughly 30 percent of the vote — slightly less than he did in 1996? Or will he rely on reformers who backed him in the election, such as former Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko?
Putin gave a positive indication for Jews on Monday, when he sent word to an annual Jewish choral competition in Moscow that he would nominate the director of Moscow’s Jewish Art Center, to become a hero of the state. Leopold Kaimovsky, who was stabbed in a Moscow synagogue in July, was given a standing ovation.
But all of the answers to these questions are still unknown, and will be answered only in the coming weeks. Putin is not expcted to announce his government until May, when he is also expected to receive an economic report from a think tank that he helped establish.
The pre-election anti-Semitic ad that captured international headlines demonstrates that there may be two Putins regarding Jewish issues as well.
Since Yeltsin plucked Putin from obscurity and made him his prime minister in August 1999 — and then acting president when he resigned on Dec. 31 — Putin has often stated his willingness to combat anti-Semitism and xenophobia.
In November he met with the leaders of the umbrella Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia. More recently he pledged to combat the scourge of anti- Semitism in a response to a letter of concern from U.S. legislators.
Even though it was clear from polls that Yavlinsky, who garnered less than 6 percent, had no chance of winning the election, the ad was vicious.
Yavlinsky was accused of having spent 10 times as much money on his election campaign as was legally permitted. It was further alleged that he had illegally received this extra money from abroad and from the Jewish media tycoon Vladimir Goussinsky, who heads the umbrella Russian Jewish Congress.
The ad mentioned that Goussinsky is an Israeli citizen and, clearly meaning to stress his Jewish and Israeli connection, showed footage of Yavlinsky sitting among kipah-wearing Jews.
It is believed that Yavlinsky, in fact, captured the bulk of the Jewish vote in Moscow and St. Petersburg. In provincial cities it is estimated that Jews voted for Putin in more and less the same percentage as the general population.
“I voted for Yavlinsky, because he is the only one who has a human face over there,” said Vera Eisenstadt, a Moscow retiree.
The main reason for Jewish support of Yavlinsky in St. Petersburg and Moscow, Russia’s two largest cities, is that his democratic, pro-Western outlook reflects their views as members of Russia’s traditional intelligentsia.
“Among my acquaintances it would seem strange and not prestigious to vote for anybody besides Yavlinsky, though some people just didn’t go to the polls or voted `against all of the above,'” said Eugenia Toporovsky, a Jewish university student from Moscow.
Meanwhile, the ad has Russian and American Jewish leaders worried — and calling on Putin to repudiate it.
Pinchas Goldschmidt, Moscow’s chief rabbi, called the attack on Yavlinsky “an act of state anti-Semitism” and said that if “Putin doesn’t want to be accused of anti-Semitism, he should publicly repudiate these acts.”
The Washington-based NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia said in a statement that the ad “perpetrated the worst stereotypes against Russian Jews.”
The group, which has been monitoring anti-Semitism in the former Soviet Union, is preparing a congratulatory letter for Putin’s victory, but would express their “surprise” and “concern” over the ad.
“We want, and the Russian Jews need, a strong and clear message from President Putin that these types of messages have no validity in his government,” said Mark Levin, the group’s executive director
So the world is holding its breath — and waiting.
Saivetz of Harvard, is slightly pessimistic, at least on Jewish issues. She’s particularly worried that once the Chechen war has run its course, Jews could again become the scapegoats.
“Should somebody down the road decide to run a populist campaign, the Jews are the most likely targets. If somebody wants to find blame for what has happened” in Russia economically and politically during “the last few years, the Jews are the most likely targets.”
(JTA Staff Writer Peter Ephross in New York contributed to this report.)
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.