Its election time in Russia &mdash with a Jewish surprise

moscow | In an age when Russian Jews worry about anti-Semitism, the appointment of a Jewish prime minister has taken many by surprise.

Russian President Vladmir Putin picked Mikhail Fradkov, currently Russia’s envoy to the European Union and an unknown figure in Russian politics, as prime minister. He will be replacing one of several cabinet-level officials who were holdovers from Boris Yeltsin’s administration.

Experts on Russian politics say Fradkov was selected because his lack of political experience and ambition will help Putin, who is intent on curbing any possible challenges to his political control.

The appointment comes amidst Putin’s imminent re-election.

Many of Russia’s estimated 600,000 to 1 million Jews are pleased with the way Putin has handled anti-Semitism. But they are uncomfortable with his apparent disregard for democracy, as evidenced by his use of state-run media to fuel his election campaign and his refusal to take part in any televised debates.

Putin has shown a great ability to maintain his grip on power, and the March 14 vote is unlikely to be an exception.

Most observers believe Putin will receive between 70 percent and 85 percent of the vote for another four-year term. The only question seems to be what would happen if more than half of Russia’s 110 million voters don’t show up at the polls. If that happens, the results of the vote could be constitutionally invalidated.

By Western standards, the campaign is an odd one. There are no issues being discussed and election posters are nonexistent.

“This election is void of even minimal elements of democracy,” says Tankred Golenpolsky, the founder of the International Jewish Gazette.

Putin’s record during his first term in the Kremlin is considered to have been mixed.

The economy boomed during the last four years due mainly to high oil prices, but many of Russia’s acute social problems — low salaries for government-paid workers and heating problems in parts of the country — remain unsolved.

It’s generally quiet on the Chechen front, where Russia fought a nearly decade-long battle with separatist Muslim guerrillas.

Free-market reforms have continued, but the director of one of Russia’s business giants, the Yukos oil company, was jailed last year in what many believe is a Kremlin-orchestrated case.

Yukos’ Jewish founder, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, remains in jail, allegedly for tax evasion and theft of state property.

Some Jews, especially those in urban areas, do not have strong praise for the Russian president. Many are liberals and want their country to become a European-style democracy with a guaranteed transfer of power through fair elections.

Other Jews support Putin, often echoing a common sentiment that Russians cannot handle democracy and are better off under a strong-handed leader like Putin.

And those who do not think they have a real choice in the elections are free to choose at least one other form of protest.

“I will not go to polls at all,” says Alexei, a 19-year-student at a Moscow Jewish university. “I cannot influence the outcome of the election, but I don’t want to play this unfair game, which can be called anything but democracy.”