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While Europeans Condemn Israel, Russians Understand Terror Threat

April 15, 2002
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A small pro-Palestinian march in Moscow was the latest in a string of protests, inspired by Mideast violence, that hit Europe in the past week.

But Tuesday’s demonstration appears to belie overall public opinion here — and the opinion of a growing part of the Russian government — which some say has turned slightly pro-Israeli in recent months, for a peculiar mix of reasons.

Most remarkable about Tuesday’s march, which attracted roughly 400 people and culminated with a protest outside the U.S. Embassy, was that it was the only anti-Israel event reported in Moscow since Israel’s West Bank offensive began in late March.

A national television station reported later Tuesday that most of the protesters were Arabs or Muslims studying or working in Moscow.

The only other recent public expression of anti-Israel sentiment reported in Russia occurred on March 31, when a swastika and anti-Jewish epithet were painted on a synagogue in the northwestern city of Petrozavodsk, according to the Web site of the Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union.

UCSJ also reported that local Muslims had organized an anti-Zionist rally in the city three days earlier.

But despite a Muslim population estimated at 13 million — some 9 percent of the total population — Mideast tensions do not appear to be reverberating strongly in Russia.

“A large part of educated society seems more positively oriented toward Israel than against it,” said Alexander Militarev, rector of the Jewish University in Moscow.

“There are people who don’t like Israel. They tend also to be anti-American. They’re strong nationalists and often Communists,” Militarev said. “But it seems to me they aren’t a large group.”

The government reflects the popular attitude, Militarev added.

“The president and government are diplomatically neutral, but emotionally pro-Israel. The deciding role is being played by” Russian President Vladimir Putin, “and it seems that Putin is more for Israel. You can feel it when he speaks about the Mideast,” Militarev said.

Putin’s latest public statement on the conflict came a week ago, when he denounced terror attacks against Israeli civilians but urged Israel to weigh its response carefully.

“We condemn terrorism in any form,” The Associated Press quoted Putin as saying. “We proceed from the assumption that a retaliatory action must correspond to the threat.”

He added, “We believe that Israeli action must correspond to what Israel and its citizens face today.”

Because his statements have been less prescriptive than those of Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov — who this week called for a complete Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank — those interviewed said Putin generally is seen as slightly pro-Israel.

“Russia is now 55 percent on the side of Israel and 45 percent on the side of” Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, said Alexander Bovin, Russia’s first ambassador to Israel. “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs used to be 40 percent on the side of Israel and 60 percent on the side of Arafat.”

But, he added, the ministry “and the rest of the government are moving to Putin’s position.”

The Israeli diplomatic mission in Russia supports this analysis.

“Relations between Israel and Russia are the best they’ve ever been in the history of Israel,” said Yaron Gamburg Kechedzhi, press attache for the Israeli embassy in Moscow.

That has held in the past week, he said, even though Israeli soldiers forcibly took over a building near the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem that belongs to the Russian Orthodox Church.

The act drew media attention in Russia until soldiers returned the building late last week.

The Russian public has not voiced a unified opinion on the conflict, Gamburg Kechedzhi said, but Russian media coverage has been very fair.

“The intensity of press coverage of the Mideast conflict is unprecedented. ORT, RTR and NTV” — Russia’s largest national television broadcasters — “are all in Israel, as are correspondents of many newspapers.”

They “are very balanced and very exact in their approach,” he said. “They do their best not to distort information.”

Though few opinion studies have been done on the issue, one survey of 500 Muscovites conducted in March by ROMIR, a polling agency affiliated with Gallup International, found that 24.6 percent of respondents said Russian interests more closely coincide with Israel’s interests in the Mideast conflict. Another 20.7 percent believe Russia’s national interests coincide with both the Israeli and Palestinian sides; and 20.2 percent said Russian interests do not coincide with those of either side.

Only 3 percent said Russia’s national interests coincide with the Palestinians’.

Militarev pointed to two significant reasons why Russians have been more tolerant of Israel’s recent military offensive — or at least more muted in their criticism — than other Europeans.

“On one hand, there are a lot more Arabs in Europe,” who have been a main source of anti-Israel feeling there, he said.

In contrast, the majority of Muslims in Russia either are Tatars from the central Russian republic of Tatarstan or members of various ethnic groups from the northern Caucasus region.

“On the other hand, the liberal left is stronger in Europe,” Militarev said, suggesting that the leftist intolerance for state-sponsored violence — and its glorification of the perceived underdog — also contributed to the prevalence of protest in western Europe.

In Russia, in contrast, “a disgust for Soviet power has pushed the intelligentsia to the right,” Militarev said. “And then there’s a big part of the population that just isn’t very interested.”

Others have speculated that Israel enjoys more support in eastern Europe because those populations mistrust the positions taken by the former Communist regimes, which for decades were the Arab world’s diplomatic sponsors.

One of Russia’s two chief rabbis, Berel Lazar, also acknowledged a greater tolerance among Russians for Israel’s military action.

The bombing of apartment buildings in Moscow and Volgodonsk in 1999 — which the Russian government blamed on Chechen terrorists, and answered with massive military force — has made Israel’s position easier for Russians to understand.

“People in Russia have seen what terrorism is,” Lazar said. “And I think people here see it as a double standard to criticize Israel for reacting to terrorism when the Russians are fighting terrorism in Chechnya.”

Lazar added that “Russians are more realistic” than western Europeans “when it comes to the issues of terror and what is really happening in the Mideast.”

In addition, Lazar said, Putin’s closeness with the Jewish community has played a role in shaping public opinion.

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