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No surprises in Putin victory, but question for Russian Jews is what comes next

Demonstrators in Moscow protest Vladimir Putin's re-election, including one carrying a sign reading "We are not an opposition, we are your employers!" with the word "fired" over a drawing of Putin's face, March 5, 2012. (Freedom House via CC)

(JTA) — With Vladimir Putin’s re-election as president of Russia pretty much a foregone conclusion, the question facing Russia was never what would result from last weekend’s election but what would happen after the vote.

Thousands of protesters turned out Monday in a Moscow saturated with police and soldiers to protest an election that European observers criticized as unfair due to the Kremlin’s domination of Russian media outlets and voter intimidation.

The demonstration was yet another sign that Putin, who took 64 percent of Sunday’s vote, is returning to the helm of a different Russia than the one he left in the hands of his handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, in 2008. The two swapped roles in what essentially amounted to a power-sharing arrangement between the president and prime minister.

The key turn came in December, when protests against Russian parliamentary elections that month coalesced into a mass movement. Unlike previous attempts at challenging the regime, these protests were not snuffed out immediately by the Kremlin, and their staying power has captured international attention.

They also have divided Russian Jews.

“On the one hand, I have young people coming to me and asking me why aren’t you taking part,” Moscow Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt told JTA. “On the other hand, I have older-generation Russian Jews coming to me and saying, ‘Speak to our children that they should not join the demonstrations.’ ”

The divide is generational and demographic — between younger, more liberal, freedom-hungry urban Jews who came of age after the fall of the Soviet Union, and older, more conservative Jews from smaller cities and towns who are wary of trading the stability that Putin has brought for a more uncertain future.

In the 12 years since Putin first ascended to power, public anti-Semitism has been all but silenced in Russia, Jews have not found themselves special targets of the regime and the Jewish community has built strong ties to the Kremlin. While many Jews remain concerned about Putin’s Middle East policies — Russia has been more of a hindrance than a help on Iran sanctions and has been supportive of a Syrian regime that has used deadly force to put down protests — they are generally satisfied with how Putin has treated the Jewish community at home.

“Jews lived in Russia by czar, by Stalin, by all situations,” said Yuri Kanner, head of the Russian Jewish Congress. “This situation that we have today is the best situation today in Russia in the past 200 to 300 years.”

Of course, public criticism of the Kremlin is ill advised in Putin’s Russia, and no Jewish community leader interviewed by JTA was willing to go on the record criticizing the regime. But many young Jews are among those turning out in Moscow to protest Putin’s re-election.

“We deal with a number of young people who were actually participating in the demonstrations,” said Mark Levin, the executive director of NCSJ, a Washington-based organization that advocates for the welfare of Jews in the former Soviet Union. “They want a different future. They want a more open and free society. They want greater opportunities. They’re much like their counterparts in other countries.”

Jewish opposition to Putin is centered more on what his re-election means for Russia than what it might mean for Israel or Jews in particular.

“Every voter has Jewish interests and Russian interests,” said Michael Chlenov, secretary general of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress. “For the Russian interests, there are many complaints, not specifically Jewish: eradication of democracy, anti-Americanism, etc.”

The question for Russia going forward is whether Putin will crack down on the demonstrations or whether this newly empowered opposition will be able to wring some concessions from their old-new president.

“There’s no map for this. The protesters don’t know how he’s going to react,” said one Jewish observer who lives in Russia and insisted on anonymity.

“There’s no question that December was a game changer,” the observer said. “This term will be different than previous terms. There’s more accountability, people know how to organize, there’s more self-confidence in an opposition community whose voice has been heard.”

What the opposition lacks is a clear political leader. While analysts said most of the Jewish votes against Putin were cast for independent Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire owner of the NBA’s New Jersey Nets who has Jewish roots, none of the opposition candidates — including Gennady Zyuganov of the Communist Party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the nationalist Liberal Democratic party and Sergey Mironov of the Just Russia party — were considered serious threats to Putin.

During the campaign, “the Jewish issue,” as Russian Jews call it, hardly emerged at all — welcome news for a community that remains concerned about its safety in a society with a long history of anti-Semitism and xenophobia. In the end, Zyuganov finished second with 17 percent of the vote, Prokhorov captured 8 percent and Zhirinovsky had 6 percent.

While election monitors highlighted voter irregularities in various parts of the country, their primary criticism wasn’t about how the votes were tallied but the inability of opposition candidates to gain any traction because of the Kremlin’s near-total control over the Russian media. In addition, Russian voters reported being compelled by their employers to cast votes for Putin.

“The basic question now is: Who are going to be the key people in the government?” Goldschmidt said. “People are going to decide how they feel based on these choices.”