Russian Jews wonder what Putin will bring

MOSCOW — Just days before the Russian presidential election, the country's state-controlled television channel ran an ad claiming one of the presidential contenders was controlled by Jews, foreigners and gays.

The attack ad on the ORT channel against Grigory Yavlinsky, who has Jewish roots, came as something of a surprise because Russian President Vladimir Putin, who won Sunday's election with 52 percent of the vote, had not played a strong nationalist card during the campaign.

If anything, it was the campaign of Putin's main rival, Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, that had been tainted from the start with Russian nationalism, and sometimes open anti-Semitism.

The election came amid ongoing concerns over anti-Semitic incidents and economic downturn, resulting in increased Jewish immigration to Israel during the last few years.

A typical election ad: "What is the secret of Zyuganov? He is kind and honest — a genuine Russian," implying that people like Yavlinsky are not.

The attack ad that garnered international attention showed footage of Yavlinsky sitting among kippah-wearing Jews, clearly stressing his connection to Jews and to Israelis.

But in another light, the sudden appearance of the ad, which Putin's team has denied any prior knowledge of, is not surprising.

There have been at least two Putins so far: One is the man who was designated heir apparent by Russian President Boris Yeltsin, promising President Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair that he would pursue free market reforms and human rights. The other is the former KGB officer who has pursued the war in Chechnya with a vengeance and not permitted journalists the press freedoms to cover either that bloody war against Muslim separatists or the campaign itself.

Now experts are pondering which Putin won the election. "He's been purposefully vague about what his plans are for the future," said Carol Saivetz, a research associate at the Davis Center of Russian Studies at Harvard University.

That vagueness allowed Jewish voters, like their fellow Russians, to project onto Putin whatever they themselves want:

*A 36-year-old businessman from Moscow expects stabilization and further liberalization of the economy.

*A 45-year-old university professor from St. Petersburg wants Putin to provide state support to the sciences;

*A 55-year-old retired soldier from the city of Samara on the Volga River wants support for the army.

*A family fleeing the instability in Dagestan wants Putin to finally wipe out the rebels in Chechnya and stop the ethnic conflicts.

*A Moscow university student wants him to crack down on anti-Semitism and crime in Russia.

All share a desire to see stability, a leader who will restore order and authority of the state and crack down on the "thieves and oligarchs," even at the expense of some democracy.

Exactly how this will translate in the coming months is unknown. Will Putin pursue free market reforms and crack down on anti-Semitism or will he become an authoritarian leader who allows free-market reforms but limits individual freedoms and pays scant attention to human rights?

Will he, as he did in the Parliament, form an alliance with Communists and their leader, Zyuganov? Or will he rely on reformers who backed him in the election, such as former Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko?

Putin gave a positive indication for Jews on Monday, when he sent word to an annual Jewish choral competition in Moscow that he would nominate the director of Moscow's Jewish Art Center, to become a hero of the state. Leopold Kaimovsky, who was stabbed in a Moscow synagogue in July, was given a standing ovation.

But all of the answers to these questions are still unknown, and will be answered only in the coming weeks."