Putin Appoints Russia’s Third Jewish Premier

By S.A. Greene

Published March 05, 2004, issue of March 05, 2004.
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LONDON — In a hotly anticipated move that kept Kremlin-watchers guessing about policies on everything from economics to nationalities, Russian President Vladimir Putin appointed his country’s third Jewish prime minister in its post-Soviet history.

Not much is known about Russia’s newly appointed prime minister, Mikhail Fradkov. The former taxman and diplomat has kept so quiet during his meteoric rise that some assumed he was a spy. The only thing that everyone knows for certain is that Fradkov is Jewish.

Exactly what that means, however, is another question. During much of Putin’s reign, Jewish observers in Moscow and abroad have voiced alarm over what is seen as a quasi-official antisemitism in the government’s hounding of a string of business tycoons, most of whom are Jewish, including Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Leonid Nevzlin, Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky. Some observers also have noted that Putin has included far fewer Jews in his Cabinet than did his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin.

If nothing else, the appointment of Fradkov is seen as an attempt to defuse that issue, both as a domestic irritant and as a potential diplomatic hurdle.

“The oligarchs were never a specifically Jewish issue,” said Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the Russian Jewish Congress. “There were those in the government, however, at the highest levels, who wanted to make it a Jewish issue and who would very much like to see the return of state antisemitism. The appointment of Fradkov shows that, at least for now, they do not have the upper hand.”

Gusinsky and Nevzlin are among the past leaders of the Russian Jewish Congress.

Members of the congress, including several prominent businessmen, have had dealings with Fradkov in his previous incarnations as head of the tax police and a junior minister for trade, Satanovsky said. However, Fradkov has not personally been active in Jewish communal affairs.

Fradkov’s appointment is emblematic of the falling of ethnic barriers codified during Soviet times that kept certain ethnic groups — particularly Jews and so-called Volga Germans — well away from officialdom. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, there have been numerous Jewish ministers, including two prime ministers before Fradkov, Anatoly Chubais and Evgeny Primakov. Ethnic Germans, meanwhile, have done particularly well under Putin — who served as a spy in East Germany — including Finance Minister German Gref, and the head of the state-run gas monopoly Gazprom, Alexei Miller.

This progress, however, comes amid increasing signs of ethnic nationalism at the popular level. In recent months Russia has seen a number of murders and beatings of dark-skinned people by self-confessed skinheads. Police and prosecutors have resisted calling the crimes anything more than “hooliganism.”

It remains far from clear how militant nationalists — who tend to back Putin — will look upon Fradkov’s appointment. Those skeptical of the West will will remember Fradkov as the head of the tax police and a proponent of law and order. Those who fear a return to authoritarianism will remember him as Russia’s ambassador to the European Union, as a Westernizer and a liberal. Even the embattled oligarchs may find some consolation; Fradkov is known to have close ties to wners of the Alfa Group, a powerful consortium of business interests.

In some respects, Fradkov’s career resembles that of Putin — a quick, methodical rise through the ranks, starting in the Soviet foreign trade bureaucracy, with postings to India and Switzerland, then service in early Yeltsin cabinets, then to the tax police, the National Security Council and then to Brussels. Along the way, Fradkov earned a reputation for competence and loyalty, but not for outspokenness or ideas. Like Putin before he was named prime minister by Yeltsin in 1999, Fradkov has never been identified with a political party or run for office.

Most political analysts expect Fradkov simply to manage the details of a program ordained from above, unlike his predecessor, Mikhail Kasyanov, who often articulated a reform agenda that sometimes clashed with Putin.

Fradkov’s appointment — which is expected to win easy approval from the State Duma or lower house of parliament — was announced by Putin after the abrupt dismissal of Kasyanov and his cabinet. Analysts had seen that move as a severing of the last link to the old Yeltsin clique.

In making this appointment just days before the March 14 presidential elections, in which he faces no serious opposition, Putin said he wanted to give voters “clarity” about the course a new government would take. If that was indeed his goal, however, he has failed. “There is no clarity whatsoever,” said Tankred Golenpolsky, editor of Russia’s International Jewish Gazette.. “Everyone will judge this according to their own conceptions.”

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