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Jewish Journal

Primakov’s Promise

In meetings with Jewish officials, Russia's prime minister vows to combat anti-Semitism


by Lev Krichevsky

March 25, 1999 | 7:00 pm

Russia's prime minister has condemned the recent rise in anti-Semitism in Russia and said that he would press for new hate-crimes legislation to combat the growing scourge.

Yevgeny Primakov's statements, which he told to officials with the Anti-Defamation League and the Russian Jewish Congress, came on the eve of a planned trip to Washington to meet with President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.

The Russian premier canceled the trip on Tuesday, apparently because of the worsening crisis in Kosovo.

His remarks condemning anti-Semitism also came after a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, during which Israel and Russia agreed to cooperate to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, particularly Iran, and also reached an agreement aimed to boost bilateral trade relations.

The United States and Israel have also repeatedly criticized the transfer of Russian missile and nuclear technology to Iran. Indeed, the United States has recently announced sanctions against 10 Russian scientific institutes that it says are involved in helping Tehran develop its military program.

Netanyahu, who urged Russian Jews to make aliyah in the wake of growing anti-Semitism, was in Moscow as part of a two-day trip to Russia, Ukraine and Georgia.

According to Jewish officials who met with Primakov, the prime minister referred specifically to Albert Makashov, a hard-line Communist lawmaker who has made several anti-Semitic statements during the past several months.

Primakov said, according to Jewish officials, "I believe Makashov has to be condemned fair and square and unambiguously for his pronouncements in an open and undisguised way."

They added that Primakov said Russia is preparing a law that would intensify Russia's campaign against anti-Semitism, which has risen sharply since the collapse of the Russian economy last summer, and help neutralize anti-Semitic statements.

In the past, Russia's parliament, which is dominated by the Communist Party, has rejected two drafts of a law aimed at banning neo-Nazi symbols and hate groups.

On Monday, Primakov also said that he wants the Jewish community to feel comfortable and remain in Russia.

Many other top Kremlin officials, including Russian President Boris Yeltsin, have spoken out against anti-Semitism in recent months, but Primakov had been criticized for his silence.

Jewish leaders said the most important part of Primakov's message was that he made his stand public and that it came on the eve of his planned visit to Washington.

Primakov was expected to have met a barrage of questions regarding Russia's plans to combat anti-Semitism. He had also been slated to meet with representatives from the National Conference on Soviet Jewry and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, during which anti-Semitism was expected to top the agenda.

Netanyahu was accompanied by Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon during his 48-hour trip to the former Soviet Union. Netanyahu denied speculations in the Israeli and Russian press that his trip to the former Soviet Union was aimed at courting the votes of the nearly 1 million former Soviet Jews in Israel.

Russian Jews should respond to growing anti-Semitism in the country by making aliyah, Netanyahu said during a visit Sunday to Moscow's Choral Synagogue.

"I say it openly," Netanyahu told hundreds of Moscow Jews who came to greet him at the synagogue. "I want to see you in Israel," he said to an ovation from the audience.

Russian Chief Rabbi Adolph Shayevich reacted to Netanyahu's remarks by saying that he welcomed aliyah, but as a result of the "call of one's heart" -- and not because of fear for one's safety in Russia.

Some 3,300 Jews left Russia in the first two months of this year, compared with 1,600 in the same period last year, according to the Jewish Agency for Israel's Moscow office.

Shayevich and Moscow Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt urged Israeli leadership to fight a common prejudice among some Israelis who consider Russian immigrants "second-rate Jews."

Before visiting Moscow, Netanyahu also held trade talks with Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and visited Babi Yar, where nearly 100,000 Jews were massacred during World War II.

Later on Monday, Netanyahu traveled to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, where he met with Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze to discuss diplomatic and trade relations between Israel and the small former Soviet republic, as well as possible Israeli investment in Georgia's energy sector.

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