Putin’s Terror Crackdown Puts Activists in a Quandary

By Nathaniel Popper, With Reporting From Jta.

Published September 24, 2004, issue of September 24, 2004.
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For Jewish communal leaders who came of age during the fight for the freedom of Soviet Jewry but who have now shifted their focus to the fight against Islamic terrorism, events in Russia last week presented a special dilemma.

After the hostage siege in the Russian town of Beslan, the Jewish community in the United States and abroad was quick to express solidarity with Russia’s fight against terrorism. But when President Putin took steps a few days later to solidify his control over the government — and, many observers say, weaken the country’s democratic structures — Jewish groups had a mixed response, pulled between the needs of creating an anti-terrorist alliance with Moscow and the push for more democratic progress within Russia.

If the conflict in dealing with this new situation could be embodied in one man, it would be Natan Sharansky, Israel’s minister for Diaspora affairs.

Sharansky gained fame during the 1970s and 1980s as a refusenik in the Soviet Union who linked the cause of Jewish rights in the country to the universal struggle for human rights. Since moving to Israel, though, Sharansky has become increasingly identified with his hawkish views on fighting terrorism.

About Putin’s moves last week, Sharansky said in an interview with the Forward: “I believe it is a mistake; always the right way to fight the terror is a physical fight without any concessions.” But, Sharansky added, “I understand the difficult situation of Putin. He really was doing this that it would help to fight the terror.”

Sharansky repeatedly said that if western countries were interested in pushing for democracy, the most important place to fight this battle was in the Middle East, not Russia — a different message than his pronouncements from jail. “The terror is the biggest challenge which is made by the road where the human life is not the highest value,” Sharansky said with a familiar note of eloquence from the old jailhouse activist.

The Israeli government remained silent on Putin’s proposals, and expressed its continuing solidarity with Russia. During an address in New York on Monday, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said: “There’s no difference between the attacks in Beersheva and Beslan. We should be united to win this battle.” After the speech, when asked if he had discussed Putin’s move during a meeting last week with the Russian foreign minister, Shalom offered a concise: “No.”

Israel, though, has historically stayed out of campaigns for human rights in Russia. That cause has been the domain of the Soviet Jewry movement in America, which, during the last 30 years, helped produce many of the current leaders of the Jewish community.

While American Jewish organizations did sound a note of alarm at Putin’s moves, their response was decidedly muted compared with the vigorous criticism that the community leveled against the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s, when Russian Jews were trying to escape the country.

“It is a far more complicated situation than it was 20 years ago,” said Mark Levin, the executive director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, who has been a lifelong activist in the movement. “Jews living in Russia are living in a much better state than at any other time in the history of the country. The problem is that Jewish people don’t live in a vacuum.”

Putin’s controversial recommendations earlier this month included an end to elections for the 89 regional governors — who will now be handpicked by Putin — and an increasing centralization of national elections. These steps have not yet been put into effect, and there is no indication that the measures will have any unique impact on Russia’s 400,000 remaining Jews. But human rights professionals said that the proposed changes would change life for all Russians.

“It would be bad for civil society, for any citizens,” said Ludmilla Alexeyva, president of the Moscow-Helsinki Group, a Russian human rights group that has monitored antisemitism in the country in partnership with Jewish groups.

For a western world that has been torn apart by the conflict between democratic rights and fighting terrorism, the response in many countries has been mixed, with the Bush administration giving two conflicting responses to Putin’s maneuvers on two consecutive days.

There has been a similar ambivalence among Jewish organizations. Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said this week that he has been “concerned” for the last few years with the trend in Russia toward a greater centralization of the power in the Kremlin — a sentiment shared by Levin at the National Conference on Soviet Jewry. But, Hoenlein said, “we recognize the [Russian] concerns regarding terrorism, which affects not only Russia, but other countries, as well.”

The Conference of Presidents and Levin’s group will have a meeting with the Russian foreign minister later this week, and while they said they plan to bring up the issue of democracy in Russia, Levin said: “This will be one very important issue among many important issues.” Among the other pressing concerns discussed will be Russia’s involvement in Iran’s development of nuclear facilities, which Israel opposes.

The delicate response of Hoenlein and Levin’s group was criticized by Yosef Abramowitz, president of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, which tracks human rights issues in the former Soviet Union. Abramowitz said the situation made it clear how the Jewish community’s mechanisms for dealing with human rights issues in Russia have fallen into “disuse.”

“The infrastructure of advocacy in Russia, outside [efforts to spur Jewish culture], has withered away,” Abramowitz said. “The reality on the ground is that there has been a decade of this issue falling off the agenda in favor of other issues.”

In part, the slackening concern for Russia in the Jewish community has been a result of the sensitivity and concern that Putin has shown for the problem of antisemitism in his country.

A number of Russian Jews expressed trepidation last week not on the basis of their religion, but on larger concerns about Russian society.

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

A very different tone, however, came from the leadership of the Russian Jewish community. The Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, Chabad-Lubavitch group known to have a close relationship with the Kremlin, did not comment on Putin’s maneuvers but complimented his past attention to antisemitism.

The leader of the Russian Jewish Congress, which has been in competition with the Chabad group for attention from the Kremlin, gave his outright support for Putin’s moves. Evgeny Satanovsky, the president of the congress, compared Russia now to the United States and Great Britain during World War II.

“During a war, even the most democratic of states make a little minimization of democracy for part of the citizens,” Satanovsky said. “Russia is at the beginning of the terrible war.”

Israeli officials and Jewish groups, meanwhile, have been quick to link Russia’s current situation to Israel’s fight against terrorism, and in recent days Israeli and Russian officials have spoken about coordinating anti-terrorist efforts, The Associated Press reported.

But the similarity of the terrorist threat in Israel and Russia has been contested, particularly in Russia, where the government, many observers say, is being careful not to damage its ties with Arab nations.

Even for observers who see the fight in Russia as part of a global war that includes Israel’s battle against terrorism, though, there are larger questions about what relevance Putin’s proposed changes will have on terrorism.

Levin said that he was unsure if “moving in a less democratic way” offered “the best solution to the challenges that Russia is facing.”

Sharansky said it was right to be concerned about Putin’s maneuvers, but he said the critics should not get too carried away.

“Today we have a country where a majority of people live without fear for expressing their views, where no private initiatives are restricted,” Sharansky said. “We should not say that Russia is going back to the totalitarian state. That was a very different country.”

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