Jewish Journal

The Many Faces of Putin

Russian Jews wonder which Putin won the vote: reformer or iron ruler?

by Lev Gorodetsky

Posted on Mar. 30, 2000 at 7:00 pm

There have been at least two Vladimir Putins so far: the man who after being designated heir apparent by Russian President Boris Yeltsin promised President Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair that he would pursue free market reforms and human rights, and 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.

"I've been joking that it's not clear which Putin is going to win the election," said Carol Saivetz, a research associate at the Davis Center of Russian Studies at Harvard University. "He's been purposefully vague about what his plans are for the future."

This vagueness allowed Jewish voters, like their fellow Russians, to project onto Putin, who won last Sunday's presidential election with 52 percent of the vote, 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 of Mountain Jews, fleeing the instability in Dagestan, wants Putin to finally wipe out the rebels in Chechnya and stop the ethnic conflicts.

* A middle-aged activist from the Siberian city of Tomsk wants Putin to support Israel in the Middle East peace process.

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

All share a desire to see stability, a leader who will restore order and the 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?

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. Putin is not expected to announce his government until May, when he is also expected to receive an economic report from a think tank that he helped establish.

Since Yeltsin plucked Putin from obscurity and made him his prime minister in August 1999 -- and then acting president when he resigned on Dec. 31 -- Putin has often stated his willingness to combat anti-Semitism and xenophobia.

In November he met with the leaders of the umbrella Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia. More recently he pledged to combat the scourge of anti-Semitism in a response to a letter of concern from U.S. legislators.

"We want, and the Russian Jews need, a strong and clear message from President Putin that these types of messages have no validity in his government," said Mark Levin, the group's executive director.

So the world is holding its breath -- and waiting.

Saivetz of Harvard is slightly pessimistic, at least on Jewish issues. She's particularly worried that once the Chechen war has run its course, Jews could again become the scapegoats.

"Should somebody down the road decide to run a populist campaign, the Jews are the most likely targets. If somebody wants to find blame for what has happened" in Russia economically and politically during "the last few years, the Jews are the most likely targets.''

JTA staff writer Peter Ephross in New York contributed to this report.

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