Russian Jews call elections a victory for democracy

MOSCOW — Russian Jewish leaders are applauding what they are calling a triumph for democracy in this week's parliamentary elections.

"It is good that many leaders from the democratic wing have won seats in the new Duma," said Mikhail Chlenov, the president of the Va'ad, a Russian Jewish umbrella group.

Still more important, he said, "is that all anti-Semitic blocs have been either banned from the race or have lost in the elections."

But observers say it is too soon to say how the results from Sunday's elections — which boosts the representation of moderate parties and diminishes that of the Communists — would play out on issues important to Jews, including the recent trend toward increased anti-Semitism.

Pinchas Goldschmidt, the chief rabbi of Moscow, agreed that "less Communist influence and more democratic parties in the Duma is a sign that democracy is developing in our society."

But the rabbi added that he does not believe the elections will bring any significant changes.

American Jewish groups that monitor the situation in the former Soviet Union expressed cautious optimism.

"The cards have been shuffled," said Mark Levin, executive director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry.

We may "be looking at a different situation in the months ahead," he said, noting that the Communist Party's reduced influence as a result of the election could mean more opportunity for political and economic reform.

But, he cautioned, "we don't yet know."

For its part, the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews challenged the Russian government to use its new power in the Duma to "push through laws that will protect Russia's Jews and other vulnerable ethnic and religious minorities."

The Union of Councils also expressed concern, however, that some of the parties that did well depend on support from regional authorities "who are almost exclusively focused on parochial concerns and are often complicit" in human rights violations.

Sunday's elections — seen as an important precursor to next summer's presidential elections — are being branded by some as a "pro-government revolution."

They came against the backdrop of a wave of anti-Semitic rhetoric and actions in recent months.

Although there were no official exit polls, Jewish voters, who had been expected to split their vote among various parties, appeared to heavily support the Union of Right Forces, or SPS, a reformist party headed by former government ministers with Jewish roots.

"I voted for the SPS, and most of our people here did the same," said Svetlana Danilova, a Jewish community leader in the city of Nalchik in the Caucasian Mountains.

She said that while many of the elderly Jews in her community voted for the Communists, she believes that "today we need more active, energetic politicians."

That sentiment was apparently echoed by thousands of Russian citizens in Israel, who registered their votes at the Russian Embassy in Israel.

They are "young, Jewish and creative," one Israeli said of the SPS politicians, who won 8.7 percent of the votes, according to preliminary results.

Another reformist party, Yabloko, also drew some Jewish support, especially because of its opposition to the war in Chechnya.

Leonid Raytsin, a history teacher at a Moscow Jewish school, said that although he wanted to vote for SPS, he opposed the party's support for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and the war in Chechnya.

"I voted for Yabloko, because they want to stop the war in Chechnya," Raytsin said of the party that gained some 6.1 percent of the votes.

Some Jewish votes, especially in Moscow, supported the Fatherland-All Russia bloc, headed by two charismatic leaders: former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who is seen as a strong supporter of Jewish causes and was re-elected to his post.

Unexpectedly, a considerable number of Jews, mostly elderly people in provincial cities, voted for the Communists, according to reports from around the country.

Indeed the Communist Party, which prevailed in the last Duma, got the largest number of votes in Sunday's election. The party garnered 24.2 percent of the vote, and are expected to have about 111 seats in the 450-seat house, down from 147 seats in the last Duma, according to preliminary results.

But the real winner appears to be Putin, who is now seen as the front-runner in next summer's presidential elections to succeed President Boris Yeltsin.

Putin threw his support behind an obscure party called Unity, founded two months ago by government officials without any clear program except being a "parliamentary group of support" for the Russian prime minister.

The party captured second place in the election with 23.4 percent of the vote — with the help of positive coverage in the media.

With the support of SPS, and the support of some of the deputies elected independently, Putin is expected to have a working majority in the Duma.

Meanwhile, the bloc headed by ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky cleared the 5 percent threshold with 6.1 percent and will have 17 seats in the new Duma, a marked decrease from the 51 seats in the old parliament.

But other anti-Semites were banned from running. Indeed, Gen. Albert Makashov, known for his public anti-Semitic comments, was banned at the last minute on a campaign violation.