Antisemitism and fascism in the Russian Provinces




BRIEFING BY MICAH H. NAFTALIN
NATIONAL DIRECTOR, UNION OF COUNCILS FOR SOVIET JEWS (UCSJ)
TO THE CONGRESSIONAL JEWISH CAUCUS, OCTOBER 26, 1999
2203 RAYBURN HOUSE OFFICE BUILDING WASHINGTON, D.C.

Thank you for this opportunity to brief you on the situation in Russia, especially with respect to the alarming rise in antisemitism, fascism and other manifestations of xenophobic extremism.
UCSJ is the principal NGO that monitors antisemitism across the FSU. Since 1991 we have assembled 3,000 pages of documentation just on Russia, about half of which was collected in the past 18 months. In late November we plan to publish a comprehensive report on antisemitism in 61 of the 89 Russian provinces. I will not belabor here the litany of celebrated antisemitic hate crimes in Russia that have been so well covered, especially the synagogue bombings and attempted bombings in Moscow. Nor will I expand on the chilling effect on religious freedom represented by the discriminatory law on religion. In these respects, I would only emphasize the error of assuming that, even as religious practice is now freer for Jews, they are also safer in Russia than in Soviet times. Not so. In the Soviet period, grassroots terrorist acts even against Jews were generally not tolerated unless instigated by the KGB or the Communist Party. In general, Soviet Jew haters hated passively. The importance of the Duma's refusal to condemn last year's pogromist threats by General Makashov and others, and the Communist Party's antisemitic policy manifesto issued last December, was that it signaled approval to grassroots antisemites who began acting out in the Spring. By the same token, since such privatized terrorist acts were largely unknown under the Soviets, the police have had no experience in investigating them even if they had the will to do so.

Let me begin, therefore, by providing a snapshot one seldom hears about of the antisemitism, fascism and totalitarian communism prevalent in the vast provinces of the Russian Federation, some of which are the size of entire countries. The continuing process of de-centralization of power in Russia, where the government can barely manage to collect taxes or even pay its nuclear scientists on time, creates a situation in which fascists and antisemites operate with near impunity in many of Russia's far flung regions. Partially because of its impotence, Kremlin promises to stamp out fascist movements have largely failed amid open defiance or indifference from many regional authorities and false assertions that Russian law does not provide a sufficiently strong legal basis to take decisive measures against fascist organizations.
Two thousand Jews live in the central Russian province of Oryol, an agricultural region that is roughly the size of the Rwanda. The regional government is openly tied with fascist activists, and the official newspaper of the regional administration, Orlovskaya Pravda, consistently runs antisemitic articles. Despite a flurry of well publicized antisemitic incidents involving local fascists, when the Russian government started its latest crackdown on extremist organizations in late 1998, the federal Ministry of Justice sent an inquiry to the Oryol Department of Justice asking for information on the existence of extremist and nationalistic organizations in the Oryol region. The Oryol Department of Justice had the audacity to assert that no such organizations exist in Oryol, and yet it suffered no apparent negative consequences at the hands of Moscow as a result of this blatantly false assertion.
The level of impunity for hate groups is even more blatant in Stavropol Kray, a southern Russian region of 2.6 million people, including 20,000 Jews, bordering Chechnya that is slightly larger than Sri Lanka. The neo-Nazi group Russian National Unity (RNU) has its strongest branch in this region and operates with the implicit support of the governor and local military units and the blatant support of the mayor of Stavropol, Mikhail Kuzmin. This past July, Minister of the Interior Vladimir Rushaylo, the top police official in Russia, paid a visit to Stavropol, where he saw RNU activists and posters in different parts of the city. He then asked Mayor Kuzmin if he was a supporter of the RNU, to which the mayor responded with an emphatic yes. As in Oryol, and despite the fact that the Russian government several times last year singled out the RNU as a major threat to Russian society which must be stamped out, Mayor Kuzmin's statements have so far prompted no response from the Kremlin, either substantive or rhetorical. In Dagestan and Chechnya, war, criminality and Islamic fundamentalism have mixed with Soviet era antisemitism to create enormous danger for the 8,000 Jews who live in Dagestan and the unknown number of Jews who remain in Chechnya. In Dagestan, parts of which were occupied by Chechen warlords in August and September, some Jews have been told to convert to Islam or die. A local Jewish source informed us that a few elderly people have literally died of fright as a result of being terrorized by thugs. Earlier this month, two Jewish women were murdered by suffocation. Kidnappings of Jews have accelerated with ransom demands of between $20,000-$30,000 or more. One Jew from Makhachkala spent 15 months in captivity during which he was tortured by hunger, cold and beatings. Russian television reports that many hostages are kept in cages.
Our soon to be released report on antisemitism, fascism and religious persecution in 61 of Russia's 89 regions clearly demonstrates that as the central government increasingly shifts the responsibility of dealing with social and political problems, including fascism and antisemitism, onto the shoulders of regional governments, a wide diversity of responses to these dangerous phenomena has emerged, largely dependent on local conditions and the personalities and priorities of local officials. Authorities in 11 regions (Krasnodar, Stavropol, Oryol, Voronezh, Ryazan, Tula, Vladimir, Bryansk, Kostroma, Volgograd, and Pskov) can be fairly characterized as showing a significant degree of support for fascist organizations like the RNU and antisemitic individuals within the Communist Party.

Krasnodar, a province the size of Panama in the Northern Caucasus, of course, is the most extreme example of what happens when a hard core antisemite and Communist Party member takes power. Governor Nikolai Kondratenko is one of Russia's most notorious antisemites. Ethnic minorities there, including 3,000 Jews, are terrorized by Cossack paramilitary units operating in cooperation with police, and Governor Kondratenko consistently blames "Zionists" for everything from breaking up the Soviet Union to inventing homosexuality. Other regions, like Karelia and Novgorod, have strongly condemned the RNU, and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov has taken the decisive step of banning the RNU (an example that has so far, unfortunately, not been followed by any other regional head). Between these extremes lie the vast majority of regions, where more often than not, regional authorities are indifferent to the threats posed by fascist movements, either because the threat is minimal in their region or because the targets of these movements do not have enough influence to enlist the local authorities' protection.
In contrast to Russia, in Ukraine the central government has taken some real steps to protect its Jewish citizens from antisemitic violence and its incitement. Nevertheless, the threat to Jews remains, especially on the local or regional level where antisemitic Soviet era officials still hold sway in some areas. In Lviv, the center of antisemitic publishing in the country, the Chief Prosecutor of the Lviv region Bogdan Ferents said at a press conference in January that the pogrom inciting newspaper Za Vil'nu Ukrainu is not antisemitic and therefore will not be prosecuted. In Nadvornaya, local officials have consistently refused to divert a planned sewage line and road construction project so that it does not pass through what used to be a Jewish cemetery, despite a court order to do so. In May, Kiev mayoral candidate Gregory Surkis faced a tide of antisemitic propaganda in the final week of campaigning against incumbent mayor Alexander Omelchenko when antisemitic posters and leaflets appeared. Finally, in September, presidential candidate Yuri Karmazin, head of the Defenders of the Fatherland Party, used the time allotted to him and other candidates in a nationally televised broadcast on Ukrainian television to blast Jews for manipulating Ukrainian public opinion through their alleged control of the media. Although he is not expected to win the presidential elections, Mr. Karmazin's status as a presidential candidate shows that his positions represent a significant part of the Ukrainian electorate and his incitement of antisemitism on national TV raises societal tensions against Jews.
Clearly, the hopes and resources America and the West have invested in President Yeltsin's ability to craft Russia into a pro-Western democracy are diminishing. Conventional wisdom and the media tend to focus on the so-called "big" issues: massive poverty, economic meltdown, universal corruption, theft and export of weapons of mass destruction to rogue nations, nationalistic wars and, of course, Yeltsin's increasingly weak grip on the reins of power. The near total breakdown of the socio-political fabric of the country is more difficult to cover in newspapers let alone sound-bite television, but it is the vital issue that is our specialty and that of the overall human rights community in Russia. In our judgement, what makes Russia most dangerous concerning the so-called "big" issues is its inability to establish a civil society with rule of law, and the inability of the central government to gain moral and political leverage or authority across the 11 time zones of provincial Russia.

We and our partners in Russia - the prestigious Moscow Helsinki Group - have just completed the first year of an ambitious program to monitor human rights and democracy in the Russian provinces. The most important human rights problem documented in this USAID and NED-supported effort is the indisputable fact that the general public fears, and has every reason to fear, the police, the prosecutors and the courts. Recent polling supported by the Anti-Defamation League fully supports the monitoring evidence. All but universal corruption, torture and unresponsive policing are the key culprits, while dark-skinned Moslems from the Caucasus and Jews are among the principal targets and scapegoats.
In the absence of law and order, officials turn to criminals and nationalistic extremists for coercion while enterprises turn to mafias to enforce their contracts. This atmosphere is the breeding ground for nationalistic scapegoating and terrorism. The inability of the justice system to combat terrorists leads to wars in Chechnya and Dagestan and the unconstitutional mass roundups and deportation of dark skinned people from Moscow. It is the breeding ground for increasing antisemitic hate crimes - bombings, kidnappings, murders, cemetery and synagogue desecrations, and for a political atmosphere - official as well as grassroots - in which antisemitic invective and pogromist threats are the lingua franca of political rhetoric aimed not only at Jews but at democracy, reform and the United States.
Since it is just as true in Russia as here that "all politics is local politics," it is understandable that the population is increasingly riveted on the up-coming parliamentary elections - a factor that contributes to the increase in terrorism and antisemitism. In the context of our subject this morning, it is chilling to reflect that of the 34 political parties fielding candidates for the Duma, 13 are either communist or fascist. This surely explains why even such a figure as former prime minister Chernomyrdin, not previously known for publicly airing antisemitic sentiments, found it beneficial recently to make an antisemitic statement to the press.

Over the past dozen years, I have observed that human rights is often seen, dismissively, as a "feel good" dimension of foreign policy, i.e., the politically correct rhetoric that accompanies the serious conduct of defense, trade and economics-based diplomacy. But the conditions I have been describing are hardly "feel good" concerns. They go to the heart of the issue of judging the reliability of our international partners. The monitoring of antisemitism and fascism serves as a bellwether for judging not only human rights but the condition of the core civil society values of a country. Such monitoring by NGOs is especially necessary in a period when our government depends for its intelligence gathering far too much on surveillance by satellite.
It is important to monitor hate rhetoric as well as actions. The record of the past year in Russia documents that a rise in antisemitic threats turned out to be a predictor of accelerating violence. (Indeed, UCSJ predicted it last November.) Over the past year or more we have been pointing to similarities between today's Russia and Weimar, Germany, similarities that include socio-economic collapse including poverty, a weak central government, and a rise in fascism. I was thus recently struck by a passage in the Introduction to a collection of essays by the modern Jewish sage, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, written by his daughter who edited the collection. Heschel, a Hasidic rebbe who escaped Poland only weeks before Hitler's invasion, is best known outside theological and philosophical circles for his friendship with Martin Luther King and his civil rights activism including participation in the Selma march. The importance of monitoring is eloquently addressed by Susannah Heschel's recollection of her father's concern over the capacity of words to bring evil into the world:
He used to remind us that the Holocaust did not begin with the building of crematoria, and Hitler did not come to power with tanks and guns; it all began with uttering evil words, with defamation, with language and propaganda. Words create worlds, he used to tell me when I was a child.. The Book of Proverbs reminds us, he wrote, that death and life are in the power of the tongue. By supporting and working in partnership with Refuseniks, Prisoners of Zion and, to an extent, human rights dissidents, the Soviet Jewry Movement enabled the greatest mass exodus of Jews since Moses. It also contributed to the downfall of the Soviet Union and the potential for democracy in the region. Acting out our sacred obligations to ransom the captives, to try to repair the world, to speak truth to power, it was truly a grassroots movement that mobilized tens of thousands of Refuseniks and hundreds of thousands of Americans, to say nothing of Jewish communities in Canada, Europe and Israel. None of us will forget the 250,000-strong Freedom Sunday on the Mall, timed to the first visit to Washington by Soviet President Gorbachev.
It is no understatement to note that the Congress was a vital and crucial part of that grassroots movement, which is natural since the Congress is the grassroots branch of our government. During those decades, there were two Soviet Jewry Congressional Wives organizations that supported the movement. There was the Congressional Call to Conscience Vigil in which you and your colleagues and predecessors inserted into the Congressional Record every Friday statements, protests, and stories about Refuseniks and Prisoners and Soviet anti-Jewish policies. Based on these efforts, including CODELS to Moscow and other Soviet cities, Tom Lantos and John Porter invented the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. And, under the leadership of Sid Yates and others, the Congressional Jewish Caucus remained briefed and ever vigilant. Today, you remain the all-important opinion leaders on these vital issues for the entire Congress. Finally, I should note, the most thoughtful and responsive institutional venue in Washington tracking the persecution of religious and ethnic minorities, and human rights generally, has been the Congressional Helsinki Commission. It is because I am ever mindful of this magnificent history of your concern and moral leadership that I am honored to address you today.

I would like to close with some brief suggestions of actions Members of Congress might consider:
Support increased funding for foreign aid, and encourage more targeted support of grassroots human rights monitoring across the FSU.
Visit the trouble spots, not just the big cities, and meet with the progressive intellectual and human rights leaders, not just officials and parliamentarians. Let us help you plan your visits. These are not junkets; they are indispensable to your policymaking and foreign policy oversight. When you meet with Jewish leaders from the former Soviet Union, be aware that they often downplay their concerns about antisemitism. In contrast to the Refusenik and Prisoners of Zion period, when the Jewish leadership wanted to leave, today's leadership is committed to staying. To thrive, they must get along with their neighbors and with their local and national government officials. They often do not see it as constructive to complain about antisemitic persecution. A good example of this is the average Jewish leaders' reluctance to publicly campaign for the return of their synagogues because they are afraid of an antisemitic backlash even in communities, like Tbilisi, Georgia, that lack pronounced antisemitic histories.
Consider re-establishing an antisemitism, fascism and human rights vigil by regularly inserting your information and thoughts on these vital concerns in the Congressional Record. Such activity sends a cautionary message to the leaders in Russia, and other FSU states, and provides a morale boost to the victims. We can help you to organize such an effort.
Thank you very much for your presence and your thoughtful consideration.