Russian Jews watching warily as nations fiscal woes deepen

MOSCOW — Irina Meerzon knows that she is in financial trouble.

The retired accountant's pension, which had been the equivalent of $60 per month as recently as mid-August, is now worth roughly $20 as a result of the ruble's free fall. In the same time period, the prices of food staples have risen 50 to 60 percent.

"I always had to count every penny," the 74-year-old woman says, "but now I'm on the verge of poverty."

Roman Libin, 34, who published a small advertising magazine for furniture wholesalers, says he had to go out of business early this month because "no one needs now what I've been doing for the last four years."

Like other Russians, Jews here are watching with dismay as the country endures yet another period of chaos — perhaps the most serious crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

But mindful of what has historically happened here when Russia has faced economic and political uncertainty, Russian Jews are watching the unfolding events with more uncertainty and fear than their neighbors.

With an increasing number of Jews concerned about a possible outbreak of anti-Semitism, another exodus of Russian Jews appears to be possible, and the crisis is already threatening the Russian Jewish communal structure that has been set up since the fall of communism.

In mid-August, the Russian government stopped trying to prop up the ruble. In two months, the currency, which was relatively stable during the past two years, has plunged by about 300 percent. And as is usually the case when inflation skyrockets, consumers have been especially hard-hit.

In the fallout that ensued, the young, reformist Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko was ousted, and the country's parliament replaced him with 68-year-old Yevgeny Primakov — a man with little economic experience. Meanwhile, rumors continue to swirl about the ongoing deterioration of the health and mental competence of President Boris Yeltsin.

All of which has Russian Jews, in particular, feeling anxious.

"There are two dangers that we Jews feel today," said Tankred Golenpolsky, a prominent Jewish leader and publisher of the Moscow-based Evreyskaya Gazeta, a weekly Jewish newspaper.

The first, Golenpolsky said, is the impoverishment that Russian Jews are experiencing along with other Russians. But there's another worry that is specific to Russia's Jewish community.

"The second danger is typical for every crisis in Russia," said Golenpolsky. "When they are looking for someone to blame for the situation, they will turn to the Jews."

Some Jews appear to be taking no chances.

Sources at the Israeli Embassy in Moscow said they have received a flurry of inquiries in recent weeks about immigration visas.

Yuri Teitelbaum, a Jewish activist in Krasnodar, said most of those who have been emigrating from the southern Russian region were either pensioners or younger Jews. Now, he said, Jews worried about providing for and protecting their families are likely to consider leaving Russia.

Libin, the former magazine publisher, fits this profile. He said he did not think about leaving the country until several weeks ago. "Now I seriously ponder this opportunity because in the current situation I will soon have no money to support my wife and kid."

Though there has not been an increase in the number of actual emigrants, some are predicting that immigration — to Israel and to Germany — could skyrocket if the economic and political situations continue to deteriorate.

Israel has begun preparations for a possible wave of Russian immigrants.

"In October, we will have long lines in our office," said a senior Jewish Agency for Israel official in Russia.

While the effects on aliyah are not yet clear, the financial crisis is already affecting Jewish domestic charities in Russia.

The Russian Jewish Congress, a group of local Jewish entrepreneurs and financiers that has spent millions of dollars in the past two years on various communal projects, is likely to cut its budget substantially.

Vladimir Goussinsky, the multimillionaire businessman who is president of the congress, told delegates at the group's biennial convention in Moscow early this month that the coming months will be a "tough period" for the organization.

In addition to the country's chaos, all of the mechanisms that have triggered previous outbursts of Russian anti-Semitism are in place. During the past several years, many Jews, of whom Goussinsky is the most well-known, have become prominent members of Russia's market economy.

Several members of recent Russian cabinets have had Jewish ancestry. In the last cabinet, for instance, Kiriyenko and his first deputy Boris Nemtsov were half-Jewish and Economics Minister Yakov Urinson and the chief presidential adviser on economic affairs, Alexander Livshitz, were Jewish.

Jewish leaders fear that if the situation does not improve quickly, some Russians will hold Jews responsible.

So far, this has not occurred.

"Thank God, no one now is blaming Jews for what is going on," said Alexander Osovtsov, executive vice president of the Russian Jewish Congress.

Though the Kremlin has repeatedly promised to stick to reforms, many Jews fear that early elections could spell trouble.

"Every scenario now seems possible," one Jewish activist said.

"Jews fear that using this turmoil, the communists may come to power and the country will change its course," said Evgeniya Lvova, a Jewish leader in St. Petersburg.

Parliamentary elections are scheduled for December 1999, and presidential elections for 2000.

"If the situation does not stabilize in two weeks, people will begin leaving the country in bigger numbers than usual," said Lvova.

"The longer the situation remains uncertain, the more likely there will be an outburst of social discontent."