As Russian elections draw near, Jews seek to preserve reforms

MOSCOW — On the eve of parliamentary elections in Russia, Jews here, like other Russian citizens, are divided over whom to support.

Whatever its composition as a result of Sunday's elections — only the second such elections since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union — the lower house of Parliament, or Duma, will confront a legislative agenda that will prove particularly significant to Russia's estimated 500,000 to 2 million Jews.

In addition to tackling pressing issues — such as Russia's badly faltering economy and rising crime rates — the Duma may also confront such hot-button issues for the Jewish community as drafting a law for minorities, compensating former concentration camp inmates and restoring properties that formerly belonged to the Jewish community.

There are also fears that if a majority of reactionary parties triumphs over reformists, the law allowing Jews to emigrate freely could be curtailed.

The fear was stirred by recent polls, which indicate that many Russians, fed up with the deteriorating economic situation, may turn their backs on reformists and throw their support behind such groups as the Communist Party, the nationalist Congress of Russian Communities and the inaptly named Liberal Democratic Party of Russian ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

Some polls indicate that these parties could claim half the votes in Sunday's elections. The Communist Party, headed by Gennady Zyuganov, has been making an especially strong showing in recent days, with polls giving Zyuganov more than 20 percent of the vote.

Although the Duma, as the lower house of Russia's bicameral Parliament, has very little effect on the government's makeup, the election's primary importance is the balance of political forces in today's Russia — a situation that can heavily influence the presidential elections slated for June 1996.

Voters will confront a wealth of candidates Sunday, with some 43 different parties and blocs in the running.

Although Jews are not monolithic in their political thinking, Jewish voters generally show "that their loyalty to democratic parties is stronger than the average support these parties are likely to gain on the national level," said Michael Chlenov, chairman of the Va'ad, the Jewish Confederation of Russia.

Among the more democratically oriented parties are Our Home is Russia, the party of President Boris Yeltsin and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin; the Democratic Choice of Russia, also known as Russia's Choice and headed by former Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar; and Yabloko, headed by Grigory Yavlinsky, who is part Jewish.

The Congress of Ethnic Unions of Russia, known as KNOR, which has a Jewish section, is backing Russia's Choice, which is the only political party that has a practical program for dealing with the country's ethnic minorities.

None of the parties seeking election has included overtly anti-Semitic slogans in its electoral campaign, Chlenov said. But he added that the some party platforms are causing concern.

"Parties like the Communists or Liberal Democrats are calling openly for a return to the past," he said.

"For those Jews who plan to emigrate or repatriate to Israel, such measures would lead to personal economic catastrophe."

Although Jewish emigration from Russia has declined dramatically from its peak shortly after the gates opened in 1992, there are still Jews who want to emigrate.

Beyond general concerns about the country's direction, a set of minority-related issues must be solved on the parliamentary level, said Moscow Jewish activist Valery Engel.

Although some of the issues are important to all ethnic minorities in Russia, others are specifically important to Jews, he said, citing the need "to adopt a law on national-cultural autonomy for the minorities.

"For Russian Jews, the effect of the law can be twofold," he said. "It should incorporate guarantees of combating national chauvinism and anti-Semitism on the state level; on the other hand, the law should ensure state support of Jewish education and culture."

Engel, a businessman and vice president of the reform-minded Congress of Ethnic Unions of Russia, is running on the Russia's Choice slate. The party has agreed to back its minority candidates running on that slate.

Engel believes he has a good chance to win a seat in the Duma.

If so, Engel, who some 10 years ago was active in Moscow's underground Jewish movement teaching Hebrew to young dissidents and future immigrants to Israel, would become the first member of the post-Soviet Russian Parliament who is fluent in Hebrew.

Jews make up about 3 percent of all candidates running for the Duma, but only a handful of them has a special Jewish agenda in the upcoming elections.

Engel is clearly worried about the future of emigration if parties appealing to the more orderly times of the Soviet era or those with a strong nationalist bent gain control over the Duma.

Engel also said the issue of compensating former ghetto and concentration camp prisoners as well as the restitution of property formerly belonging to Jewish communities remains unsolved.

Another Jewish leader, Tancred Golenpolsky — founder of Moscow's Jewish biweekly newspaper Evreyskaya Gazeta, which has the biggest circulation among the Russian Jewish media — is running on the slate of the Inter-Ethnic Union, a bloc backing the Yeltsin administration.

Golenpolsky, who is running in Birobidzhan, the Jewish Autonomous Region, is clearly worried about the shape of the new parliament.

He believes most people are unlikely to "vote for those politicians who already had a chance to be at the helm of the state," such as Gaidar or Chernomyrdin.

Golenpolsky believes Jews are taking too active a part in the electoral campaign and in Russia's political life in general.

It is not good for Russian Jews, he said, when "economic difficulties remain unsolved while the chief aide on economic issues in the Yeltsin administration, Alexander Lifshitz, is Jewish."