From Russia, With No Love

Well, there go my plans of drinking vodka in St. Petersburg this month with Natan Sharansky and the rest of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors…The quasi-governmental body in charge of Jewish immigration to Israel announced yesterday that its plans to hold one of its board meetings in the canal-lined city (Peter the Great’s window to the West) has been canceled only three-weeks before it was to take place. The problem, according to Jewish Agency officials anonymously quoted in various news sources, is that the Russians suddenly balked at the idea of an international Jewish meeting. They said the Agency only has legal status as a local NGO.

But I suspected, and Anshel Pfeffer of Haaretz is the first to really confirm, that the real problem goes by the name of Leonid Nevzlin.

I profiled Nevzlin three months ago. He’s the former partner of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the head of Yukos Oil who is now sitting in jail for various financial crimes. The consensus seems to be, however, that his biggest transgression is having posed a political challenge to Vladimir Putin. While Khodorkovsky became a target of Putin’s attempt to reclaim governmental power after the tumultuous ‘90s, Nevzlin got out just in time. After he escaped the country in 2003 and emigrated to Israel he was charged for ordering contract killings of Yukos’ enemies (for which he was tried and found guilty in absentia in 2008). In Israel, Nevzlin has rebranded himself, becoming a prominent Israeli philanthropist through his foundation, NADAV, and its many charitable projects to promote with Nevzlin calls “Jewish peoplehood.”

According to anonymous Jewish Agency sources quoted by Pfeffer, it was Nevzlin’s presence on the Board of Governors that angered the Russians.

“Obviously Nevzlin himself wouldn’t have come to the meeting,” the agency source said. “He wouldn’t want to be arrested and end up like Mikhail Khodorkovsky in prison. But the fact that he’s a member of the board is a red flag to the Russians.”

Pfeffer also found an Israeli government official to – also, anonymously – slap his forehead at the Jewish Agency’s “amateurish,” as he put it, handling of the situation:

“Someone probably didn’t notice that Nevzlin’s name appears on all the lists of governors’ names passed on to the Russians. They should have known it would infuriate the Russians.”

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