Communist front-runner in Russia worries local Jews

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

MOSCOW — As the Russian presidential campaign moves into high gear, Jews throughout the country are clearly worried about what the future will hold for them after the June 16 election.

The Communist Party candidate, Gennady Zyuganov, has taken the lead in recent polls, and many Jews here believe that anti-Semitism and Russian chauvinism may become the hallmarks of state policy if Zyuganov wins.

Moreover, the lack of clarity regarding the exact shape Zyuganov's policies will take if he is elected has Russia's estimated 600,000 Jews distinctly uneasy.

Zyuganov's electoral prospects received a boost earlier this month when several small hardline Communist parties joined with a party representing war veterans to found a bloc that vowed to support Zyuganov at the polls.

Such unity has been lacking among the more democratically oriented reformist movements, which have yet to unite behind a single candidate.

Divisions among the reformers — including the Our Home is Russia Party and the Yabloko bloc — contributed in large measure to their poor showing in December's parliamentary elections, when they placed well behind the first-place Communists, who now hold 157 seats in the 450-seat Duma, or lower house of Parliament.

Although Zyuganov has been trying recently to appear to the West as a sort of a Social Democrat, "There is very little doubt that he is drifting toward a National Socialist tradition," said Yevgeny Proshechkin, director of the Moscow-based Anti-Fascist Center and a member of the Moscow City Council.

Zyuganov, a Communist Party functionary and organizer in Soviet days, has recently been holding discussions with a wide range of potential allies, including some hardline nationalists who seek a restoration of the Soviet Union and a revival of Russian military strength.

Because these discussions are still continuing, predicting what Zyuganov's policies would be is difficult.

"We don't know for sure what trends will be prevailingamong the Communist leadership if Zyuganov wins the election," Proshechkin said, referring to the variety of political thinking among today's Russian Communists.

Proshechkin, who is one of Russia's leading anti-fascist activists, said a possible rise in state anti-Semitism under the Communists would have repercussions for the population at large, not only for the country's Jews.

But that provides small solace for many in the Russian Jewish community. Some are already contemplating emigration.

"I cannot trust the Communists, and if they regain power I won't stay in Russia," said Erna Shiller, a retired engineer.

"I will leave not because of anti-Semitism, but simply because I know pretty well what the Communists are," she said.

Marat Gelman, owner of a well-known Moscow avant-garde art gallery that bears his name, was quite clear about his plans.

"If the policy of state-supported anti-Semitism is resumed, I will leave Russia immediately."

Beyond the concerns about a shift toward nationalism and anti-Semitism if Zyuganov wins, many in the Russian Jewish community are worried about the candidate's economic policies.

Although Zyuganov is not entirely clear about how it would be implemented, his economic program, built on a set of populist slogans, would spell the end of the reformist era.

Jewish businessmen, many of whom have recently become prominent figures in Russia's business community, view the Communist program as marking the end of Russia's slow, painful steps during the past few years toward a free-market economy.

"Nationalization might become a reality in this country," said Mark Weinstein, chairman of the board of Russo Bank.

"We have not entered that far yet into a market economy, so Russia could be turned back to a state-administered economy relatively easily."

Jewish voters, who generally support democratic candidates, are expected to back either President Boris Yeltsin, who is not officially allied with any party, or liberal economist Grigory Yavlinsky, whose Yabloko bloc finished fourth in the December parliamentary elections.

Yeltsin has been placing second in recent opinion polls, while Yavlinsky is running fourth.

Some 15 candidates are expected to run in the presidential elections. Because of the large number of contenders, the race is expected to be decided in a second-round runoff ballot involving the top two vote-getters.

Ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whose speeches are peppered with thinly veiled anti-Semitism, has been running third in most polls. But some polls show him in second place, ahead of Yeltsin.

Although many downplay his chances in the voting, Zhirinovsky is widely regarded as a veritable wild card.

His ill-named Liberal Democratic Party placed third in the parliamentary election, and he commands the support of millions of down-and-out voters who dream of a return to Russia's glory days.

Some political observers believe that if he fails to reach the runoff, Zhirinovsky will throw his support behind Yeltsin in an effort to ambush Zyuganov.

Among those tossing their hats into the presidential ring is the man who presided over the downfall of the Soviet Union: Mikhail Gorbachev.

After months of playing coy with a largely indifferent Russian public, Gorbachev announced March 1 that he would run for the presidency.

His announcement, however, has received little attention in Russia, where recent polls suggest that only 0.5 percent of the population would vote for him.

Some political experts believe that for Gorbachev, the presidency is not as important as staying in the public eye.

Jewish voters here appear to share the general public's opinion of Gorbachev.

"His time has gone, and I don't think he's got something more to say," said Boris Dikstein, a 26-year-old medical student.

"Gorbachev has done a lot for political freedom, but he has never been good on the economy."

Many reform-minded politicians see Yeltsin as the only viable alternative to Zyuganov.

But others, unable to forgive Yeltsin for the ongoing war in the breakaway republic of Chechnya, are rallying around Yavlinsky.

Former Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, leader of the reformist Russia's Democratic Choice Party, has set peace in Chechnya as a major condition for his party's support of Yeltsin.

The leader of the Party for Economic Freedom, Konstantin Borovoy, recently urged his supporters to back Yavlinsky.

But Borovoy, who is Jewish, went a step further: If the runoff vote pitted Yeltsin against Zyuganov, he would recommend a vote for neither one.