Kidnapping of Jews on rise in Caucasus

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

MOSCOW — Yuri Izmailov, a well-known member of the Jewish community in the capital of Dagestan, was kidnapped last winter and held near the border with the breakaway republic of Chechnya.

The reason: His captors wanted to receive ransom money from his relatives or sell him into slavery to Chechens.

After six months of living in a basement, eating only bread and water and sleeping on a dirt floor, the 45-year-old Izmailov knew he had to take action.

He managed to dig an underground passageway and escape onto the street, walking away unsuspected only, he believes, because his 6-month-old beard made people think he was one of the Wahabbites, a local radical Muslim group.

But that wasn't the end of trouble for Izmailov or his family, which before his escape had managed to bargain the ransom price down to $50,000.

A family celebration after his escape was interrupted by two armed men bursting into their house. The ensuing shooting left several dead and others, including Izmailov, badly wounded.

Shortly thereafter, Izmailov and his entire family left the city of Makhachkala, the Dagestani capital. Some went to Israel.

Jewish kidnappings in the Caucasus have become more frequent in the past year — some 15 to 20 Jews are currently being held in the Makhachkala region alone, according to Karen Gurshumov, a local Jewish community leader.

The kidnappings underline the precarious situation of Jews in the predominantly Muslim republics of Russia's northern Caucasus.

The incidents come at a time of growing instability and escalating conflict in the region. Chechen rebels have twice invaded neighboring Dagestan and are widely blamed for terrorist bombings that have killed hundreds in Moscow and southern Russia. Chechen leaders say their goal is to establish a fundamentalist Islamic state in the region.

The situation contrasts sharply with the era prior to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, when the anti-Semitism familiar to Jews in most of Russia was virtually non-existent in this region.

The situation began to deteriorate in 1989, when the rapid changes in Soviet society caused by Gorbachev's policies of perestroika led to a sharp surge of nationalism mixed with strong Islamic sentiments.

Anti-Zionist and explicitly anti-Semitic slogans and speeches were heard at mass rallies in Makhachkala, Derbent and other towns in Dagestan.

The increase of anti-Semitism spurred many local Jews to leave the area where their ancestors had lived for at least 12 centuries.

Most left for Israel or resettled in Moscow and other cities in Russia. Fewer made their way to the United States.

The anti-Semitic rhetoric has escalated in the past year.

Shamil Basayev, a warlord from neighboring Chechnya who has been leading the recent attacks by Islamic rebels in Dagestan, has employed anti-Zionist rhetoric to explain his goals.

"I'm going to fight against Zionism and purge Dagestan, driving out the Yeltsin regime, faithful servant of world Zionism," he was quoted as saying at a mass rally in Chechnya a few weeks ago.

Aslan Maskhadov, head of the self-proclaimed Chechen republic, has made similar comments.

The latest reports from Dagestani Jewish centers say that a new outburst of war could be drawing near. They are bracing for an invasion of Dagestan territory by Chechen fighters and Islamic fundamentalists, followed by a massive operation of Russian federal troops inside Chechnya.

Jewish activists there say that many of the 12,000 remaining Jews are preparing to pull out of Dagestan and head for Israel or for relatives in Moscow. Houses and apartments are being sold for a nominal price or are simply abandoned by Jews.

Meanwhile, the area in which the kidnappings are taking place is widening.

Two main factors explain the phenomenon.

First, as a result of the growing instability and weakening of the Russian state, the traditional clan system has resurfaced in the Caucasus region. Since the Mountain Jews, as they are known, are fewer in number than before, they have become easy prey for extortion and kidnapping.

Second, there exists a deeply rooted belief that the worldwide Jewish community, and especially the state of Israel would rush to help pay any ransom that the kidnappers demand.