Russian Jews uncertain after Yeltsin shakeup

MOSCOW — Russian foreign policy is unlikely to be affected by a new government.

This is the preliminary indication emanating out of Moscow in the wake of President Boris Yeltsin's decision Monday to dismiss his entire Cabinet.

Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov, who like most members of the Cabinet will continue to perform his duties until the new Cabinet is formed, said it is "premature" to talk about his ouster. Primakov believes he will retain his post in the new government.

He also said Russian foreign policy will not undergo any changes because of the dismissal.

In a televised address, Yeltsin appeared to support Primakov's contention, saying the resignation of the government does not mean "a change in the political course."

Israel and the United States have repeatedly criticized Russia's nuclear ties to Iran. The United States has also denounced Moscow for plans by Gazprom, a state-owned Russian oil monopoly, to develop oil fields in the Muslim state.

This, as well as domestic issues concerning religious freedom, is what worries officials with American Jewish organizations.

Yeltsin's decision "could have significant impact in a number of areas the American Jewish community and Israel are concerned about," said Mark Levin, executive director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry.

Levin referred specifically to issues such as the transfer of military technology to Iran and other Middle Eastern countries, as well as domestic issues affecting Russian Jews.

"But at this point, we'll still have to wait and see."

Vice President Al Gore, addressing a United Jewish Appeal Young Leadership conference in Washington, expressed his friendship for outgoing Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, but pledged to work with whomever comes into power in Moscow.

Yeltsin has increasingly expressed disappointment with the slow pace of market reforms. He criticized the government again over the weekend for long delays in paying wages to public employees, and some experts believe there is a link between Yeltsin's move and a nationwide strike slated for April 9.

Among those removed from office was the pro-reform Chernomyrdin, widely regarded as the man Yeltsin had been grooming as his successor. Presidential elections are scheduled for the year 2000.

Russian Jews — like the rest of the nation — were uncertain how to react to Yeltsin's surprise decision, which even leading politicians learned about from news agencies.

"The decision raises many questions," said Evgenia Albats, a leading Jewish activist and Moscow journalist. "Its logic can hardly be explained."

The dismissal proves that Russian politics remain a realm where "anything is impossible to predict," Albats said.

But one leading Jewish official, Alexander Osovtsov, executive vice president of the Russian Jewish Congress, said he expects nothing alarming to happen to Russian Jews in the near future.

According to the Russian Constitution, the president has two weeks to choose a candidate for prime minister. But most experts say Yeltsin will do so within a week.

Meanwhile, Russian ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky praised Yeltsin's decision, but said the president should pay more attention to the nationality of his appointees to the next government.

Former Economics Minister Yakov Urinson is Jewish, and former First Deputy Prime Ministers Anatoly Chubais and Boris Nemtsov are half-Jewish.