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Russian Jews look to Putin in elections


MOSCOW, March 15 (JTA) — Zisya Weisman says he is going to vote for the incumbent and almost-guaranteed winner, Vladimir Putin, in the upcoming Russian presidential elections.

“First of all, there is no choice. Others have no chance,” says the 55- year-old retired Jewish army major from the city of Samara. Weisman said he admires Putin’s experience in the Soviet-era KGB.

Plus, he says, Putin “promised to crack down on anti-Semitism.”

But Stas Mogilevsky, 25, is going to vote for “none of the above,” hoping to bring about a second round of elections, which would be held if no candidate receives at least 50 percent of the vote in the March 26 ballot.

“Many Jewish people around me think that Putin has totalitarian inclinations and is going to crack down on human rights and basic liberties, introduce a compulsory draft of students,” says Mogilevsky, a student of psychology at Moscow State University. He added that some of his friends prefer Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov.

The presidential election comes after Putin’s Unity bloc won the most seats in December’s parliamentary elections. After that vote, Jewish observers here and abroad were unsure whether he would support the Jewish community’s long-standing desire for the government to crack down on anti-Semitism and support human rights. This uncertainty was heightened after Putin entered an alliance with the Communists soon after the election.

In the December ballot, Jewish voters, in a sharp contrast to the broader Russian electorate, overwhelmingly supported the Union of Right Forces, headed by former Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko, Boris Nemtsov and backed by Anatoly Chubais, all reformers with Jewish roots.

But this time around, Jews, particularly those living outside Moscow and St. Petersburg, appear to be joining with the majority of their countrymen in a desire for Putin’s “strong hand” to crack down on crime, corruption and economic chaos.

More than 50 percent of Jews outside these two major cities are expected to vote for Putin, according to Jewish sources.

But in St. Petersburg and Moscow, where more than half of Russia’s roughly 600,000 Jews live, Jewish voters on the whole appear to be less supportive of Putin.

A sizeable percentage of the Jewish intelligentsia — and especially Jewish students in Moscow and St. Petersburg — not only dislike Putin but are scared by his background in the KGB.

Many are going to vote for liberal Grigory Yavlinsky, who shares their pro-Western outlook.

Alexander Lvov, 35, a teacher from St. Petersburg, will likely vote for Yavlinsky because he is the “only one with a human face.”

Major Jewish organizations in Russia are expressing a “cautious optimism” or maintaining silence on Putin’s apparently inevitable rise.

Representatives of the Russian Jewish Congress, whose leader, media mogul Vladimir Goussinsky, is battling with Putin and his team, refused to state a position, saying the RJC is a nonpolitical organization.

Just the same, perhaps Putin’s early overtures to Jewish leaders appear to be paying off.

In November, Putin promised the leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch dominated Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia to assist the Jewish community in combating anti-Semitism, building schools and reclaiming former synagogue buildings for Jewish communities.

He also told the group’s leaders that he acted personally to help rebuild Jewish life in St. Petersburg in the early 1990s, when he was head of the KGB branch there.

Baruch Gorin, speaking for the federation, says, “Our contacts with Putin show that the Yeltsin-era status quo in relations between the Jewish community and the authorities will be kept. And this status quo was not bad for the Jews.”

In a further effort to bolster support, Putin said this week in a letter to U.S. legislators that Russian authorities are firmly committed to battling anti-Semitism.

“Any signs of anti-Semitism are considered an inadmissible display of aggressive nationalism incompatible with civilized society in Russia,” the letter said, according to Putin’s press service.

The letter came in response to a recent letter sent by 92 members of the House of Representatives and 98 senators who voiced concern about anti-Semitism and religious persecution in Russia.

Polls of the general electorate show that Putin appears to be a shoo-in, with 52 percent to 55 percent of the vote. Zyuganov is expected to receive between 16 percent and 20 percent, according to the polls, with other candidates, including ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Yavlinsky, trailing far behind.

If Putin earns more than 50 percent, he will avoid a second-round runoff.

Putin received an added boost this week when the Union of Right Forces, known as SPS, announced Tuesday that it would support Putin, apparently to prevent a runoff.

Putin appears to be particularly popular among the Jews of the North Caucasus, who want him to put down the Muslim insurgency there and combat anti-Semitism among Chechen gangs who have carried out a wave of kidnappings, whose targets include Jews, and recently beat a Jewish hostage to death.

“Putin means stability. I think that the level of crime in Russia and the situation around Chechnya demand tough handling. The economy also needs to be stabilized,” says Roman Levayev of the city of Nalchik, which is located in a republic bordering Chechnya.

Sources in Israel’s Russian community predict that Putin will also be strongly supported by Israeli Russians with double citizenship, most of them older Jews, who will cast their ballots at the Russian Embassy in Israel.

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