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Russian Jews Worry Putin Proposals Could Send the Country Back in Time

September 15, 2004
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Many Russian Jews are worried that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian measures to crack down on terrorism may be deja vu all over again. On Monday, Putin announced plans for a major overhaul of Russia’s electoral system, including elimination of popular elections for regional governors and a shift in the way Russians elect their Parliament — a measure likely to increase Putin’s already formidable power.

In his remarks to Cabinet members and regional governors, which were televised, Putin also called for the creation of a central, powerful antiterror agency.

But some are wondering whether the Russian president’s desire for a state more capable of fighting terror may turn Russia away from the democratic achievements of the last decade and revert back to the Communist or czarist eras.

“The big question now is whether a balance will be kept between counterterrorist measures and the observance of human rights,” said A! lexander Brod, director of the Moscow Bureau on Human Rights, which is affiliated with the Washington-based Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union.

Among the measures being proposed in the wake of the Sept. 3 tragedy at a school in Beslan in southern Russia, in which terrorists killed more than 300 people, are some that may ultimately limit the freedom of movement for Russians within their own country.

In addition, Brod and other Jewish and human rights activists noted that the outbreak of terror in Russia has been followed by increased activity on the part of fringe nationalist and anti-Semitic groups.

The largest rally against terrorism, held near the Kremlin days after the siege in Beslan, was marred by the visible presence of anti-Semitic slogans and groups known for chauvinism against Chechens and other minorities, including Jews.

Several anti-Semitic attacks, including the desecration of a Jewish cemetery in Siberia, were reported in the ! days following the recent spate of terrorism.

“Terror seeks to spl it the society along ethnic lines, which ultimately sows the seeds of anti-Semitism,” said Rabbi Zinovy Kogan, leader of the Congress of Jewish Religious Organizations and Communities of Russia.

Some ordinary Jews focused on Putin’s changes in a nation that has never been known as a haven for democracy.

“What is being proposed now will ultimately deal a severe blow to democracy in Russia,” said Alexei Pruzhansky, a mathematician from Moscow.

He was referring to Putin’s proposal to do away with popularly elected regional governors and parliamentary deputies. Currently, one-half of the 450-seat lower house, the Duma, is elected in a direct popular vote.

If approved by the Kremlin-controlled Parliament, Putin’s proposition would have all members of Parliament elected from party slates — a move that will further sideline opposition to the Kremlin.

At least one Russian Jewish official voiced his full support for whatever actions the Russian authorities take in ! their war on terrorism.

“Helplessness. That’s the word to describe what makes so many people nervous today,” Yevgeny Satanovsky, the president of Russian Jewish Congress, told JTA. “Those who should have prevented the attack from happening failed to do this.”

Satanovsky told a Russian Jewish Congress conference on Monday, “Those who committed this barbarian act in Beslan are the same people who blow up buses in Israel, synagogues in Turkey, community centers in Argentina.”

For its part, the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia was willing to comment only on the new order for appointing governors instead of electing them in a public election, not on Putin’s general treatment of the post-Beslan situation.

“As a Jewish community, organization we refrain from commenting on general political developments in the country,” said Borukh Gorin, a spokesman for the group. “At the same time, we must acknowledge that President Putin’s administration has taken a strong! stand against any form of anti-Semitism, particularly from government officials. We hope and believe that this strong stand against any form of xenophobia and anti-Semitism will be a prerequisite for the appointment of the new governors.”

But not everyone supports Putin’s moves.

“I have a feeling that the state is using Beslan as a pretext to introduce nearly unlimited presidential authority,” Pruzhansky said.

Critics say this measure will eventually turn the Russian Parliament into a pawn of the president.

In addition to these sensational electoral proposals, Putin ordered a crackdown on extremist organizations.

Jewish leaders said they hope the definition of extremist organizations will include those radical groups that have made anti-Semitic propaganda the core of their activities.

In addition to the political concerns, some Russian Jews are worried about the tone of societal discourse following the Beslan attack.

“I cannot say I’m alarmed too much yet, but I understand where this can lead,” said Noson Vershubsky, ! a rabbi from the southern Russian city of Voronezh.

“The nearly unanimous popular support that accompanies almost everything that the authorities propose these days creates a feeling of deja vu, as if this is taking place some 20 to 40 years ago,” said Vershubsky, who served a prison sentence for his religious activism during Soviet days.

Studying Hebrew and Torah were among the activities prohibited during much of the Soviet Union’s 70-year existence.

Those Jews who still have memories of the Soviet-era KGB say they understand why many people have uneasy feelings when it comes to the issue of bringing special agencies to the forefront of fight against terror.

“Those who have lived much of their lives in the Soviet Union know how the KGB operate, when all its strength was targeted against their own citizens,” said Adolph Shayevich, one of Russia’s two chief rabbis.

“Our special organizations yet need to win a broad popular support, so that people can see ! they are fighting against terror, and not against those who tell jokes about our president,” Shayevich said.

One American advocate for Jews in the former Soviet Union expressed similar concerns about the ascendance of these agencies.

“The fact that security agencies have more power and control is not good based on Jewish history,” said Mark Levin, the executive director of NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States and Eurasia.

“We are all concerned when a terrorist event occurs like the one in Beslan. We stand shoulder to shoulder with the Russian people, but it’s unfortunate that the president would use this tragedy to do what appears to be a further consolidation of his power.”

Putin said Monday that he has ordered the security services to boost their cooperation with foreign intelligence agencies, a move that Jews here believe can bring about some closer working ties between Russia and Israel in fighting terrorism.

While Israeli experience with terrorism is routinely referred to in the Russian ! media these days, many were alarmed by a distinction made last week between Palestinians and Chechen separatists by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during his visit to Israel.

“The Russian political elite is still using double standards when it comes between the situation with terrorism in Israel and elsewhere,” said Mikhail Oshtrakh, a Jewish official from the city of Yekaterinburg.

“But this new situation after Beslan has created a hope that the cooperation between Russian and Israeli special forces will finally take a new start.”

(JTA Foreign Editor Peter Ephross in New York contributed to this report.)

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