September 3, 1998
The Russian Meltdown
By James D. Besser,
For several years, Soviet Jewry activists in this country -- the term seems archaic, but nothing better has been invented -- have complained that their communal colleagues are ignoring the fate of the world's biggest endangered Jewish population.
Maybe. But the relative silence of Jewish leaders also reflects the fact that they don't have much to say. Russia's fate, and the fate of a nervous Jewish population, are in the hands of that country's strange assortment of reformers, retread communists and dangerously demented nationalists, as well as economic forces that have spun wildly out of control. Jewish words of wisdom on the subject -- as well as official U.S. intervention -- are unlikely to change things.
This week's dramatic events, including the burgeoning consequences of the devaluation of the ruble, panic in the Russian markets and the implosion of President Boris Yeltsin's government, may highlight the dangers Russian Jews face, but they won't provide any clear answers about what Jewish groups can do in response.
That echoes the dilemma facing U.S. policymakers, whose efforts to prop up the ailing, incompetent Yeltsin and keep the Russian economy from unraveling have been largely unsuccessful. The Russian plunge toward anarchy may be the greatest foreign policy crisis of the decade, but it presents pitifully few policy options for officials in Washington.
The importance of the Russian issue to American Jews is a no-brainer. Start with the obvious: the fact that Russia has thousands of nuclear weapons and the ability to deliver them anywhere on the planet, as well as the expertise and materials to turn any tinhorn dictator into an atomic despot.
A black market in weapons of mass destruction or their components, driven by Russia's economic desperation, is a horrifying prospect, but it becomes more likely by the day as the crisis deepens. That's bad news for Israel, the target of choice of many of Russia's potential high-tech customers.
But the danger posed by a disintegrating Russia goes far beyond the Middle East. The current instability is a boost for the ex-communists and ultranationalists who seek control of the Russian government and its crumbling but still lethal military machine.
Administration officials don't want to exaggerate the menace, but there is a strong recognition that the next finger on the button after Yeltsin retires in 2001 -- or is forced from office earlier -- could belong to a unregenerate communist who longs for the good old days of the Cold War.
American Jews have additional reasons to tremble at the Russian crisis -- 1.5 million reasons, more or less. Russian Jews are no longer virtual prisoners; indeed, many of those who have amassed great wealth in the past few years are Jewish, and Yeltsin's government has included a number of Jews, or at least people with some Jewish ancestry.
But the economic skid is producing real hardship for ordinary Russians, who have yet to see the benefits of a transition to a free market. It's hard to imagine that the battered population won't react to the fact that their money is all but worthless by blaming Russia's traditional scapegoats, the Jews. The behavior of Russia's new, brazen Jewish millionaires may only confirm to most people durable, absurd theories of Jewish economic domination.
In the worst-case scenario, anti-Semitism could erupt like a fast- spreading fever as Russia spirals downward, and Jews could once again be trapped in a country whose people are eager to vent their frustration and rage.
Those are the stakes, but the American Jewish leadership, so talkative on almost every other subject, has been strangely silent. In part, that reflects an exhaustion with an issue that consumed Jewish communal groups throughout the 1970s and 1980s, as well as the American Jewish turn inward that is also eroding activism on behalf of Israel.
But it also points to the maddening lack of options Jewish leaders have in addressing the crisis. Should they devote their resources to convincing Russian Jews to leave? Possibly. But the remaining Russian Jews have already indicated they don't particularly want to go, and Jewish leaders here are wary of paternalism. Russian Jews, for a variety of reasons, have made their choice, and there's pitifully little Jewish leaders here can do to help them prepare for what could be ahead.
Should they continue urging the administration to press the human rights agenda in U.S.-Russia diplomacy? Probably. But that issue will inevitably shrink in importance as the military and economic dangers of the Russian meltdown become apparent.
Jewish leaders are quietly discussing contingency plans to implement if the situation reaches critical mass, including plans for facilitating mass emigration to Israel. But, mostly, their efforts are confined to anxious waiting and words of reassurance to panicky Russian Jews.
A similar calculus holds true for the Clinton administration, which tried to bolster the Yeltsin government with loans, aid and encouragement. The effort was genuine, and it may have been the best Washington could do, but as last week's events demonstrated, it wasn't enough to offset corruption, incompetence and an economic infrastructure destroyed by decades of communist rule.
President Clinton went to Moscow this week to urge Yeltsin to stay the course on economic reform, but he had nothing to offer but words.
And those words aren't going to mean much to Russia's hapless citizens, who face a calamity of vast and terrifying proportions.