Upheavals in Russia heighten concern among Jews

NEW YORK — As Russia suffers through its latest series of political and economic convulsions, Jews in the former Soviet Union are bracing themselves for possible repercussions, immigrant and advocacy groups here report.

Executives from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society returned from an 11-day fact-finding mission in Russia and Ukraine "deeply concerned" about the state of religious protections in the former Soviet Union.

Even before Boris Yeltsin's surprise shift in cabinet personnel, including the sudden reinstatement of former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, the visitors were apprehensive. The ruble's drastic devaluation in recent days prompted Leonard Glickman, HIAS executive vice president, to call Russia's socioeconomic environment "a breeding ground for anti-democratic and anti-Semitic forces."

The deteriorating conditions come at a time when the number of Russian and Ukrainian Jews refused refugee status by U.S. officials has risen, prompting concern among Jewish immigration and resettlement agencies.

Although precise data on the denials is not readily available, HIAS records show that the refusal rate rose from around 3 to 5 percent in 1995 to around 10 or 11 percent in 1996 and 1997, with another 5 percent or so decategorized for lack of proof that they were Jewish.

Anecdotal evidence for this fiscal year indicates that the 1998 rate is higher than previous years and may be as high as 30 percent.

HIAS officials point out that these refusals have been offset by an increase in the number of Jews granted special "parole status" permission to immigrate to the United States.

But unlike refugees, these immigrants are not entitled to public assistance — which means the Jewish community bears the full financial burden of their immigration and resettlement.

Glickman said agents of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service assured him in Moscow that there is no campaign to decrease the number of refugee approvals.

In order to qualify for refugee status, applicants must show a "well-founded fear of persecution," which in the case of Jews from the former Soviet Union may include historical experience.

A ceiling for the number of refugees admitted to the United States per year is fixed annually by the president and Congress. The ceiling for the former Soviet Union is higher than that of any other country. This year, 27,000 visas are available to refugees from the region, which may include Jews, evangelical Christians and Ukrainian Catholics.

The HIAS delegation also investigated the cases of some Jews who had been granted refugee status as early as 1991, but had not yet left for the United States. Most of those refugees said they were staying to care for relatives too infirm to relocate to a new country.

Glickman was joined on his fact-finding mission by HIAS President Neil Greenbaum of Chicago and by Dail Stolow, HIAS director of overseas operations.

In meetings in Ukraine and Russia with Jews from Vinnitsa to Moscow, with refugees bound for America, with human rights groups and with the U.S. ambassador to Russia, the three-person delegation heard the same message: Despite advances on the human rights front in the region, there is still a great deal of uncertainty — and fear.

Upon his return this week, Glickman told reporters that refugees bound for the United States reported that in the post-Soviet era they felt "freer than before, but not safe."

He cited anecdotal evidence of ethnic attacks by skinheads, religious discrimination in the workplace and a pervasive feeling of uneasiness about the durability of human rights protections.

"So long as the economy is perceived as making progress, people are focused on their own lives," Glickman said. But he warned that the threat of economic instability brings with it the shadow of the region's "historic ways of reacting" to adversity.

Mark Levin, executive director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, articulated similar concerns about Russia's political and economic uncertainty.

"There are a lot of Jews in the elite of the business and political worlds," he said. "And Jews have always proven to be convenient" targets for societal frustrations in the region.

The Union of Councils of Soviet Jews was even more cautionary. Citing openly anti-Semitic regimes in some provincial regions of the Russian Federation, UCSJ President Yosef Abramowitz said in a statement that "this trend can only expand under current conditions" at the Kremlin.

Glickman at HIAS also confirmed that the incidence of hate crimes and persecution — and the lack of official protection against them — is greater outside the large cities in Russia and Ukraine.

He quoted U.S. Ambassador to Russia James Collins as expressing concerns about human rights protections.

"There is some progress," Glickman said, pointing to statements by Russian executives in support of religious diversity and against anti-Semitism. "But there is a very far way to go."

Glickman and Stolow of HIAS noted that Jewish human rights activists are tracking 300 fascist newspapers in Ukraine and 400 in Russia. Some are sold openly outside the Kremlin subway station in Moscow, even though government regulations restrict such literature.

Summing up the HIAS mission, Glickman said Jews in Ukraine and Russia stressed three overriding concerns: care for their elderly relatives, the ongoing need for human rights protections and the continuing importance of the refugee program as a hedge against increasing anti-Semitism.