Top Russian election contenders doing little to court Jewish vote

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MOSCOW — With Russia's presidential elections just weeks away, the top candidates are doing very little to court the Jewish vote.

But members of the community are split over whether a direct appeal would provide any benefit to the candidates or to the Jewish voters.

When they go to the polls to choose from the 11 candidates running for the presidency in the June 16 elections, most Jewish voters are expected to throw their support to either President Boris Yeltsin or to liberal economist Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the reformist Yabloko bloc.

With no exact figures available, the country's Jewish population is estimated at anywhere between 600,000 and 2 million.

At least some here would like to see Yeltsin come out and specifically address the community, if only to reassure Jews that he is aware of their interests and needs.

"I think it's worthwhile for Yeltsin to show appropriate respect to the Jews before the election," said Dmitri Vestenberg, 29, a law student from Moscow.

"In the meantime, only [ultranationalist candidate Vladimir] Zhirinovsky and the Communists seem to acknowledge the Jews' existence in the country," he said sarcastically, referring to their thinly veiled anti-Semitic remarks.

But some Jewish leaders questioned whether any of the reform-minded candidates should make a special address to the Jewish community.

By all accounts, the race could prove a tight one between Yeltsin and Communist rival Gennady Zyuganov.

Recent opinion polls give Yeltsin a 5 percent to 10 percent lead over Zyuganov. But they indicate that neither candidate is likely to win more than 50 percent of the total vote, which would prompt a July 7 runoff.

Given the high stakes of the race — a continuation of reforms vs. a possible return to at least some of the policies of Russia's Soviet past — some members of the Jewish community fear that a direct appeal to Jewish voters could hurt the candidate among non-Jewish voters.

"Any appeal to Russian Jews wouldn't be a smart step for a presidential candidate in a country like Russia," said Yevgeny Satanovsky, director of the Moscow-based Institute for Israel and Near Eastern Studies.

"Reform forces are supportive of the Jewish community on the level of personal contacts," he said.

"Any other expression of loyalty to the country's Jews would be meaningless, if not harmful, for both the community and the candidate."

Russia's chief rabbi, Adolph Shayevich, said there were two reasons why reform-minded candidates were not speaking out directly to Jewish audiences.

"The number of Jews left in the country is not very big, compared to that of five years ago. That's why a direct appeal to the community is not seen as necessary," he said.

Second, he said, there is little reason to make such an appeal, given that the reformists are "sure of winning significant support from the Jewish community when Russians go to the polls."

Moscow's chief rabbi, Pinchas Goldschmidt, suggested that Yeltsin could benefit from directing some attention to the Jewish community.

"Yeltsin might want to take more Jewish votes in the first round of the ballot," he said.

Yeltsin has reached out to other religious communities and already has received endorsements from the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church and from some of the country's Muslim leaders.

The president already has made two addresses to specifically Muslim audiences.

And he may yet issue a direct message to the Jewish community before the June 16 vote.

According to Vladimir Pliss, director of the Moscow Jewish Arts Center, Yeltsin's campaign has approved plans to have Yeltsin make a campaign stop at a Jewish charity event.

After the Jewish community center in the western city of Yaroslavl was bombed April 19, Pliss proposed that a charity concert be organized on behalf of the community.

Yeltsin campaign aides said last week that the event, set to take place June 7 in the Moscow House of Cinema, will include an address from the president in which he will condemn anti-Semitism.

The address may also include other statements of support for the country's Jewish community, according to Yeltsin aides.