Russian authorities actions unsettle Jewish Agency

The matter alarms U.S. politicians.

"We've raised our concerns about this at senior levels of the Russian government," State Department spokesman Glyn Davies said at the news briefing Wednesday. "Our embassy in Moscow continues as well to pursue it."

The disruption of the seminar Tuesday of last week in Russia's northern Caucasus city of Pyatigorsk follows an early-April incident in which Russian officials canceled the agency's accreditation. Agency leaders downplayed the suspension of their license, calling the matter a technicality and insisting that their operations in Russia remained unchanged.

The Jewish Agency is the primary recipient of funds in Israel raised by the United Jewish Appeal in concert with local federations. It encourages and oversees the immigration of Jews to Israel.

Russian authorities arrived at the agency's Pyatigorsk offices Tuesday of last week, asking emissaries to show documents proving that the agency was operating legally in the area.

The Russian officials then accompanied the emissaries to an immigration seminar being held nearby. There, the officials read aloud the government's orders canceling the agency's accreditation. Then they halted the seminar.

This event was "one more episode in a string of events through the past few weeks" that seem to evince a "possible change in the position of Russian authorities regarding Jewish Agency activity in Russia," an agency statement said.

"Any disruption in Jewish Agency activity in Pyatigorsk has an immediate effect on the process of immigration to Israel."

Pyatigorsk is "an area with many ethnic and political tensions" and, hence, a source of steady immigration to Israel, it added.

In a telephone interview from Jerusalem, Burg said, "The concern is [that] we don't know whether it is bureaucratic stupidity or if there is a policy here."

Burg planned to meet this week in the United States with Jewish organization heads to discuss recent developments.

In a meeting with Alexander Bovin, the Russian ambassador to Israel, it was agreed that "there would be no positive outcome" if problems surrounding "the legal registry of organizations were to be blown out of proportion or become an issue with widespread repercussions," Burg noted.

Nevertheless, these events worry Jews worldwide.

Martin Wenick, executive vice president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, called the situation "ominous" and pondered the broader implications for Jews in Russia.

"It's something that has to be watched," he said. "This is a transitional period in the former Soviet Union, with a lot of uncertainty. It's not clear if it's Jewish Agency-specific or is in relationship to the political situation and the operations of foreigners."

Because the U.S. government's attempts to resolve the problem have been useless so far, Wenick added that Russian officials appear "less concerned about Western government opinion and attitudes than they have been in the past."

Another U.S. Jewish expert who asked to remain anonymous said, "This could be part of a broader campaign to make [Russian President Boris] Yeltsin and his government appear more nationalistic."

If Yeltsin is re-elected, he said, "the tone and tenor may go back to what it was, or there could be a re-emergence of the old apparatchiks [Soviet-era bureaucrats]," who desire "a return to what once existed: greater control over the flow of people in and out" of Russia.

American Jewish officials warn against a high-profile protest, saying it could backfire by playing into the hands of Russian politicians. But they say it is critical that the community remain informed and ready to act if necessary.

"The stakes are very high," said Mark Levin, executive director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry.

"We are continuing to not call for a broad-based community action," he said, but advised that Jews "continue to express our concern."

Israeli media reported last week that new restrictions are being placed on the emigration of army-age Jews and those working in security-related institutions.

When the Russian Ministry of Justice notified the Jewish Agency last month that new laws rendered invalid its license, other foreign organizations operating in Russia received similar letters. Experts in the field confirmed that rules and regulations governing organizations in Russia are constantly changing.

Burg said the agency is working to comply with new accreditation laws.

The U.S. State Department emphasized the importance of preserving individuals' freedom to emigrate.

"One of the most important aspects of political reform in Russia from the standpoint of the United States has, of course, been freedom for Russian citizens to emigrate," Davies said.

"We expect that Russian citizens will continue to be able to exercise that right. And up until now we've seen no indication that the Russian government is restricting the right to emigrate," he said.

Meanwhile, three Congressmen wrote a letter to Secretary of State Warren Christopher, expressing "deep concern" over the cancellation of the agency's license.

"It is imperative [that] we make clear to President Boris Yeltsin that a return to the restricted emigration policy of [the] past is completely unacceptable," wrote Reps. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Jim Saxton (R-N.J.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.).

The push for financial aid to Russia, they wrote, was based in part on the "assumption that Russian Jews would be free to emigrate and free of strong-arm tactics in Russia."

The news reports, they said, "shake our faith and those assumptions, and cause us to re-evaluate our position on aid to Russia."