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Putin’s Win Leaves Jews Unmoved, but Some Seek Greater Kremlin Ties

March 16, 2004
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After he easily won re-election to another four-year term, Russian President Vladimir Putin made sure to address widespread concern about democracy in Russia — a concern Russian Jews share.

“All democratic achievements of our state will be absolutely maintained and guaranteed,” Putin said in a victory speech after Sunday’s election.

Putin won about 71 percent of the vote.

The president apparently made his comments to respond to critics in Russia and abroad who called the election campaign undemocratic and expressed concern about the future of Russian democracy.

Indeed, Putin won without having put forth a comprehensive campaign platform, without really campaigning very much and without taking part in any televised debates.

Though there were six other candidates in the race, Putin dominated the airwaves on state-controlled TV channels, giving him what many said was an unfair competitive edge.

There is no hard data yet on Jewish voter preferences, but experts agree that Russian Jews generally show greater support for liberal candidates than do other Russian voters.

In this vote, where Putin’s re-election seemed inevitable, many Jews said they would vote for the only liberal challenger, Irina Khakamada.

According to the final tally, Khakamada received less than 4 percent of the national vote but won about 8 percent in the largest cities in Russia, where most Jews live.

Elena Gitlina, 49, a manager at a Moscow tourist company, was among those who voted for Khakamada — though she didn’t have the slightest hope that she would win.

“I’ve done so to show that there is an alternative to Putin, that there is a voice of discontent in this chorus singing praise to our president who is so much obsessed with keeping his power,” Gitlina said after casting her ballot.

The strongest runners-up were candidates few Jewish voters backed. Communist Nikolai Kharitonov and left-wing economist Sergey Glazyev, from a Communist splinter group — both from parties with records of xenophobic and anti-Semitic remarks — together received about 18 percent of the vote.

Gitlina said she was the only adult out of six in her family to cast a vote. The others were unwilling to participate in an election that left the public with little real choice, she said.

Similarly, most of the Jewish leaders contacted Sunday by JTA said they didn’t vote. Many said it was the first time in their lives since the fall of communism that they took declined to vote.

“I just see no point for myself in participating in this farcical ballot,” one official said privately.

In Israel, only 6,150 Russians out of nearly 100,000 eligible Russian voters participated in the election. They cast their ballots at 11 polling stations that the Russian Embassy set up across the Jewish state.

Israeli Russians voted overwhelmingly for Putin, giving him 67 percent of their votes, even though they weren’t exposed to the lopsided campaigning that other Russians experienced.

Khakamada received nearly 25 percent of the vote from Israel, the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv said.

Before the election, the organized Jewish community in Russia tried to remain apolitical. However, one of Russia’s two chief rabbis, Berel Lazar, did say three days before the election that Jewish voters had a religious duty to go to the polls.

“Taking part in a democratic election is not only a human right, but in the first place is the fulfillment of God’s commandment,” Lazar said in a statement last week.

On Sunday, Lazar, who is known for his good personal relations with Putin, invited members of the media to the polling station where he was registered.

“The result of the election is important to Jews of Russia,” he said after casting his ballot, noting that voting “would show that Jews that live here today feel they are comfortable.”

Another influential Jewish leader said though the result of the vote will not please all Russian Jews, they don’t have to be especially concerned about Putin’s second term as long as the general political winds do not shift drastically.

“Jews in Russia are more sympathetic to Western-style liberalism that the average Russian,” said Mikhail Chlenov, secretary general of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress. “Yet Jews are ready to live within the system of power Putin has built.”

“What Jews are most afraid of is Russian nationalism as an element of state policy,” he said. “As long as Putin’s system maintains its democratic and pro-Western rhetoric in his second term, Jews here have no particular reason to be worried.”

Some Jewish figures abroad said they hope to develop a broader partnership with Putin during his second term.

The World Jewish Congress is preparing a meeting with Putin on the issue of anti-Semitism. Isi Leibler, the group’s senior vice president, said the meeting could take place in the next month.

Leibler said the goal is “to try to get the Russian government to support the resolution in the United Nations condemning anti-Semitism.”

Leibler, who was in Moscow on the day of the election, said Putin’s Russia potentially could take a more positive stance than many European nations on Israel-related issues and anti-Semitism.

“We can prove that by being better on Israel and the issue of anti-Semitism, Russia can benefit its own interests,” he told a small group of Moscow Jewish leaders.

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