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News Analysis: Soviet Foreign Minister’s Departure May Mean Setback for Jewish Concerns

December 21, 1990
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Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze’s surprise resignation is likely to have a negative impact on Jewish concerns, no matter who replaces him, experts say.

“The signs are of deepening political crisis, almost paralysis,” said Martin Wenick, executive director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry. “My own sense is that it is not good for Soviet Jewry and may not be a positive development in terms of the growth of Soviet-Israeli relations.”

Shevardnadze resigned Thursday in a speech to the Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies that apparently stunned his audience, including Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

In the speech, Shevardnadze warned that the country is headed for dictatorship. He said his policies were being publicly undermined by reactionary forces within the Soviet government.

The resignation represents a fundamental rift between Shevardnadze and his old ally Gorbachev.

“Gorbachev is turning to the hard-liners” because of pressure from conservatives, said John Hannah, deputy director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The Soviet president “is clearly falling under the thrall of various right-wing elements which have (control of) the delivery system for both food and repression,” said Micah Naftalin, national director of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews.

“Gorbachev is being forced to move to the right in order to stay in power,” explained Wenick of the National Conference. “If Gorbachev fails, it’s likely to be a coalition of conservative forces, including the military, security forces and the old-party apparatus which are involved.”


The end of Shevardnadze’s tenure as the architect of Soviet foreign policy means an end to the extraordinary personal relationship he had with U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, a rapport Baker used to further Jewish interests.

It also means the end of a relationship the Soviet foreign minister was beginning to develop with Israel.

Just last week, Shevardnadze met in Washington with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and indicated the Soviet Union is “moving toward” restoring full diplomatic relations with Israel.

He indicated for the first time there would be no Soviet preconditions for such a rapprochement.

In Jerusalem, Shamir expressed regret Thursday at news of Shevardnadze’s resignation, saying, “Our relations with Shevardnadze, every time we had a chance to meet with him, were excellent.”

“Shevardnadze’s intellectual commitment to rapprochement with Israel and general principles of new thinking in foreign policy were stronger than any other leader in the Soviet Union. They were based on the belief that they would serve long-term national interests,” said Hannah of the Washington Institute.

“I can’t think of any candidate who could improve relations with Israel more than Shevardnadze,” he said.

A prime candidate for the post is Yevgeny Primakov, now a member of Gorbachev’s presidential council and recently Gorbachev’s personal emissary to Iraq.

He is a well-known Arabist and has a long-standing relationships with Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and other Arab leaders.

If Primakov takes over the Foreign Ministry, it will not mean an outright reversal of policy, according to Hannah, but the pace of improvement of the relationship with Israel “will probably slow down, and a real chill might be introduced.”


When Shevardnadze assumed the Foreign Ministry post in 1985, just over 1,000 Jews were allowed to emigrate from the Soviet Union. This year, more than 150,000 Soviet Jews have left.

According to Hannah, Shevardnadze’s departure will not “have a large impact on Soviet Jewish emigration, because it is so tied up with the relationship with the U.S. and the overwhelming need for help” from the West. “For the moment, that’s probably safe,” he said.

But the greater instability that lies ahead could be dangerous for the Jews who remain inside the Soviet Union.

Naftalin said that conservatives are likely to blame Jews for the failures of perestroika. “It could lead to repression and scapegoating. It is a very dangerous time,” he said.

(JTA correspondent David Landau in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)

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