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Russian Jew Named Prime Minister Brings out Jewish Pride — and Anxiety

March 3, 2004
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The Jewish man named Russia’s new prime minister is little known to the country’s Jewish community.

But Jewish leaders welcomed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s selection this week of Mikhail Fradkov, currently Russia’s envoy to the European Union in Brussels.

Jewish leaders said Fradkov, who was expected to be approved by the pro-Putin majority in the Russian Parliament on Friday, has had no interaction with the organized Jewish community.

If approved, Fradkov would be the first identified Jew to serve as Russia’s prime minister. His father is known to be Jewish, and while the background of his mother is unclear, he was profiled in a biographical volume of the Russian Jewish Encyclopedia that was published in 1997.

Berel Lazar, one of Russia’s two chief rabbis, told JTA he has met with Fradkov in the past.

“He is very knowledgeable about economics. He hopefully will direct his Cabinet toward resolving Russia’s most serious problems, such as the problem of poverty,” Lazar said.

Russian experts, whom the choice of Fradkov, 53, has taken by surprise, describe him as a civil servant who is likely to become a bureaucratic prime minister devoted to Putin.

Whether he will serve in his post for very long is unclear.

Russian voters go the polls March 14 in an election that is believed to be a rubber stamp for Putin, and a new Cabinet has to be approved after the election.

But most experts believe he will remain in office for at least a year.

Fradkov has been a foreign trade official since 1972, when at the age of 21 he got a job as an economic adviser with the Russian Embassy in New Delhi.

He first joined the Russian government in 1992, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when he was deputy foreign trade minister in the reformist government headed by Yegor Gaidar. He served as trade minister for less than a year in 1997, and was named foreign trade minister two years later. He lost his job when Putin was elected president in 2000.

Before this week’s appointment, Fradkov high point came in March 2001, when he was made head of the tax police, charged with ending Russia’s massive tax evasion. The agency was disbanded during a government reshuffle in 2003, and Fradkov was sent to Brussels to represent Russia in the European Commission.

For some Russian Jewish leaders, Fradkov’s Jewishness is welcome.

“This nomination sends a clear signal to everyone,” said Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the Russian Jewish Congress. “It means that Russia’s president is an absolute pragmatist, it means that a person’s nationality does not mean anything to him, and that he is judging people by their business and personal qualities.”

Satanovsky said that while Russia’s next Cabinet’s policies may remain an open question, Russian Jews already have received an answer to an important question.

“This question is: Can a Jew become Russian prime minister? The answer is yes. The next question can only be whether a Jew can be Russia’s president. But this nomination basically means that in today’s Russia a Jew can be anything. And this is very positive,” Satanovsky said.

But others are expressing mixed feelings about Fradkov’s nomination, worrying that it could cause a backlash.

“Of course, this is an overall positive thing to Jews,” said Lyudmila Krasnopolskaya, an English-language instructor at a Moscow college. “Yet given this, I’m not sure this choice will necessarily make all Russians that happy.”

A recent conference on xenophobia and racism in Russia held last week in Moscow reported that more than 60 percent of Russians have xenophobic sentiments, and many are anti-Semitic.

“There are people in the society who can try to make this an issue,” said Lazar, speaking of Fradkov’s Jewish background.

“I know there are people even inside the Kremlin whom this nomination will not make extremely happy,” Satanovsky said.

Two major politicians have come against the nomination. Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov and ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, both members of Parliament, said their parties would vote against Fradkov when the nomination is voted on in the Duma on Friday.

Zhirinovsky called Fradkov a “gray and faceless person.”

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