Jews feel mixed about Putin, Russias new president

MOSCOW — While Russians are viewing Vladimir Putin's ascent to power as a surprise New Year's present, Jewish observers both in Russia and the United States are decidedly more mixed.

Some share the general Russian population's enthusiasm for Putin, who became president Dec. 31 when Boris Yeltsin suddenly resigned. Others are cautiously optimistic.

Still others fear the possibility of increased anti-Semitism and a move away from democracy.

Little was known about Putin when Yeltsin nominated him to be prime minister in August.

But Putin's popularity soared in September with the start of the Chechen war, and it has skyrocketed more recently to unprecedented heights, approaching an 80 percent approval rating.

Putin, whose party came in a close second in December's parliamentary elections, is also seen as a shoo-in to win Russia's presidential elections in March.

Putin has recently cultivated an image of being friendly toward Jews.

In November, he met with leaders of the newly created Chabad Lubavitch-dominated Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, telling them he was sympathetic to Jewish causes.

One enthusiastic supporter is Rabbi Zinovy Kogan, a leader of Reform Judaism in Russia. Kogan called Putin's rise to power "a positive development for Russian Jewry." He met with Putin last month after the prime minister returned from Norway, where he had met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

Putin "spoke very warmly about Barak, saying he was the single one there to support Russia's position over fighting terrorism in Chechnya," said Kogan, who is a leader of KEROOR, the Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and Organizations of Russia.

Putin said "he was going to supervise personally the investigation of the latest synagogue bombings and some other [recent] anti-Semitic acts," Kogan said.

However, Jews on the whole don't seem as happy as other educated and professional Russians about the rise to power of this former KGB colonel. Many fear that the popularity of the Russian war against Chechen rebels could have unfortunate repercussions for other ethnic groups.

In Washington, Micah Naftalin, national director of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, said Putin "has risen to power on the back of a racist war which appeals to the worst xenophobic instincts of the Russians. We have to monitor him and make sure that he knows what we care about" and that pro-democracy forces and Jewish groups "hold him accountable."

Other leaders of American organizations working with Jews living in the former Soviet Union are taking a wait-and-see approach.

Putin recently "has talked about fighting the rise in anti-Semitism, and it will be important to see what type of leadership he exerts on this issue," said Mark Levin, executive director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry.

"He has an opportunity to make his own mark in this area if he wants to," added Levin, whose group met with Putin two years ago.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said political instability and uncertainty are always potentially troubling for Russia's Jews, because anti-Semitism is so pervasive there.

"Whatever one thought about Yeltsin, he provided a certain sense of stability and has courageously continued to speak out against anti-Semitism," he said. Because Putin was Yeltsin's chosen successor, he hopefully "will follow in the best of the Yeltsin tradition."

Meanwhile, Yeltsin and his wife arrived in Tel Aviv Wednesday for a three-day Christmas pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Some worry that he was created by a Jewish media tycoon, who continues to shadow Russia's new leader. Putin's victory in the parliamentary elections is seen as at least partially attributable to the support of Boris Berezovsky, whose officially state-controlled national TV channel ORT openly manipulated Russian public opinion during the campaign, constantly praising Putin and pounding Putin's rivals for the presidency.

Expressing an opinion that is shared by many in Russia's Jewish intelligentsia, Moscow university lecturer Galina Eliasberg warned: "I don't think he will put the country in order. On the contrary, I have an impression that some force behind him can overwhelm him and then the army will seize power or something like that."

Said Russia's chief rabbi, Adolph Shayevich, who is active in the Russian Jewish Congress: "Boris Yeltsin has made a brilliant move. But it is hard to say whether the appointed successor will prove his real successor, including his attitude toward Jews."

At the official New Year's Eve reception at the Kremlin, Shayevich said Putin told him he wished "happiness and prosperity" to all Jews.

But Shayevich added, "It could be only an official gesture. We'll see."