Putins power grab poses risk for democracy and Jews

Between the devastation of terrorist assaults and President Vladimir Putin’s grab for power, the future of democracy in Russia is very much in question. This is a critical point in Russia’s post-Soviet development, and the implications for the Jews living there are profound.

The recent wave of terror attacks has stunned Russian society — bombs at a Moscow train station and a bus stop, two planes simultaneously blasted out of the sky, and the barbaric carnage in Beslan School No. 1. In Moscow alone, over the past few years, there has been a series of terrorist attacks, including an explosion in a busy downtown underpass, a deadly metro bombing, an attack at an outdoor music concert and the “Nord Ost” theater siege.

The fear and anger stirred by these unrelenting terrorist attacks feed a longstanding undercurrent of hatred and bring anti-Semitism and nationalist xenophobia to the surface. The number of neo-Nazi groups and the brazenness of their activity has increased dramatically. In the recent parliamentary elections, the new nationalist party Motherland gained more support than all the democratic parties combined. These racist groups are increasingly appealing to people who are feeling victimized and vulnerable.

While the undercurrent of anti-Semitism did not disappear with the collapse of the Soviet Union, until recently there had been encouraging signs that Russia was on the path to becoming a civil society based on the rule of law. Consistent, assertive rule of law is the only real guarantor of safety for Jews.

We know all too well from history what happens when our fate is left to an individual leader’s good intentions. No matter how supportive of Jews any ruler happens to be, there is no assurance that those sentiments will continue over time and changing circumstance. Only a consistent and resolute system based on rule of law can protect Jews from the prejudice and caprice of those in charge.

Now, supposedly in response to the terror attacks, Putin has announced plans to impose dramatic changes on the country’s power structure, which would severely compromise the rule of law. He would put an end to direct elections of regional governors, and assign himself the right to “nominate” them. He would also take control of appointing and dismissing judges, thereby making them beholden to him. And independent representatives in the Duma (parliament) would virtually be eliminated.

In sum, by implementing his changes, Putin would eviscerate whatever independent legal processes had been put in place, and make himself the universal dispenser of “justice.”

Putin’s actions would unleash the prejudices and hatreds of provincial leaders, by justifying extreme measures in the name of combating terrorism. The undercurrent of anti-Semitism is still strong in many provinces, and these actions would fan the flames of ethnic and religious hate-filled propaganda.

In Russia, it is at the local level that Jews are the most vulnerable to anti-Semitic assaults. Moreover, with a centralized government, resentment, tension and competition would be heightened, aggravating interethnic tension. People who feel marginalized and helpless make receptive audiences for Russia’s merchants of hate.

Russia has been shaken, and it is not clear if it will continue on a path toward democracy and civil society. There are hopeful signs coming both from the international community and within Russian society itself. It seems that people in Russia are beginning to expect and demand more of their leaders. Voices of opposition to Putin’s proposed power grab are making themselves heard, and it is not a foregone conclusion that he will carry them out.

These voices of dissent need to be encouraged by the world community through a long-term approach to support their efforts.

The fate of hundreds of thousands of Jews living in Russia depends on the development of a civil society based on rule of law. As Jews, we are obligated to do all that we can to ensure the safety and freedom of our Jewish brothers and sisters throughout the world. It is our duty to inform our elected representatives of the impending danger for Russia’s Jews and to make this issue a priority.

Pnina Levermore is the executive director of the Bay Area Council for Rescue and Renewal.

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