Weekly News Update 
WASHINGTON, D.C. September 15, 2017

TO: NCSEJ Leadership and Interested Parties

FROM: Daniel Rubin, Chairman;
Alexander Smukler, President;
Mark B. Levin, Executive Vice-Chairman & CEO
Dear Friend,

On Sunday, Russia held regional elections. President Vladimir Putin's ruling United Russia party claimed victory in 15 regional gubernatorial races and is slated to maintain its hold on regional and local legislatures across Russia. In the Moscow region, however, opposition parties claimed a significant portion of the vote, with a relatively strong showing for the Yabloko Party. The next presidential elections are scheduled for March 2018 and the incumbent Putin is expected to run for re-election.

In Moscow, a firebomb was thrown at the offices of the Federal Jewish Communities of Russia. The incident was filmed on CCTV and the police are investigating. There was minimal damage to the structure and no one was hurt in the incident. 

The Zapad military exercises between Russia and Belarus began yesterday. More than 10,000 troops are expected to participate in the week-long exercise that has many neighboring countries worried that Russia and Belarus are preparing for armed conflict with NATO states. The Russian and Belarusian governments have refuted these claims and have invited neighboring countries including Lithuania and Latvia to observe the exercises.

In Kazakhstan, the World Expo in Astana closed on Sunday, September 10. We share with you a report from the event and what it means for the future of Kazakhstan, its economy, and its role in world affairs.

We wish everyone a happy, healthy New Year this coming Rosh Hashanah 5778. L'shanah tovah!


Mark B. Levin
NCSEJ Executive Vice-Chairman & CEO
Washington, D.C. September 15, 2017

Four synagogues open in former USSR ahead of Rosh Hashanah

Jewish Telegraphic Agency, September 15, 2017

Ahead of the Jewish new year, four Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union celebrated the opening of synagogues in an effort to boost cultural and spiritual activities for congregants, or commemorate Jewish heritage.

Of the new synagogues that were opened in recent weeks in Russia, Ukraine and Lithuania, the most unusual was the reopening, following extensive renovations, of a blue wooden structure that is the oldest known synagogue in Birobidzhan – a city which is the capital of an area established in 1934 by Joseph Stalin in Russia’s Far East on the border with China in a failed bid to compete with the Zionist project in pre-state Israel.

Established in 1986 amid the lifting of anti-religious policies in the former Soviet Union, the Beit Tshuva synagogue in Birobidzhan, capital of Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region, quickly fell into disrepair as Jews began leaving the area for Israel and the West following the breakup of the communist empire. Built on swampy soil that is exposed to extreme temperatures, it became a hazardous ruin.

Ruling Party Dominates Russian Elections Amid Low Turnout, Opposition Claims Strong Moscow Showing

By Tom Balmforth

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, September 12, 2017

The ruling United Russia party has dominated a slew of regional and local elections marked by low turnout and claims of voter suppression, but liberal opposition candidates appeared to gain a toehold in Moscow with a strong showing in races for district councils in the capital.

The September 10 elections, the last major vote before a presidential ballot in March 2018, cemented President Vladimir Putin's grip on power in Russia's far-flung regions and tested a new strategy -- at least in Moscow -- for opponents sidelined after years of increasing Kremlin control over the political system.

Nearly complete official counts indicated that United Russia candidates and Kremlin allies, many of them incumbents, won all 15 regional gubernatorial races -- from the Baltic Sea exclave of Kaliningrad to Buryatia on Lake Baikal -- as well as a vote for the head of the naval port city of Sevastopol on Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russia occupied and seized from Ukraine in 2014. United Russia also appeared set to maintain control over regional and local legislatures across the country.

But opposition leaders, including prominent Kremlin critics, claimed victory in several Moscow districts, including Putin's own voting precinct southwest of the Kremlin. The newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported that opposition candidates were on track to win a majority of seats in 14 of the more than 100 administrative districts of the capital.

Read the full article here.

A Problem Much Bigger Than Putin
By Mikhail Khodorkovsky
New York Times, September 12, 2017

More than 25 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the attempt to build a democracy in its place, Russia has once again become an authoritarian state. The same inability to build democratic institutions plagued the leaders of the February Revolution of 1917, which led to the Bolsheviks gaining power later that year.

Russian authoritarianism has profound consequences not just for Russian citizens, but also for neighboring countries and the rest of the world. Still burdened by a “besieged fortress” mentality, the Kremlin pursues a foreign policy aimed at achieving a “balance of forces” between Moscow and the West.

This outdated strategy creates a hysteria for military adventurism that threatens the entire planet. Pro-Kremlin propagandists such as Dmitry Kiselyov, a well-known state TV host, have even suggested that “aggressive behavior” from the United States could prompt a nuclear response from Russia.

Read the full article here.

There’s Trouble Brewing in Putin’s Heartland

By Henry Meyer

Bloomberg, September 13, 2017

During Russia’s oil-fueled boom, Rashid Tamayev saw steady pay raises at his auto factory job, helping keep his family in relative comfort—and making him a loyal supporter of President Vladimir Putin. But since a plunge in oil prices three years ago, Tamayev has lost faith in the president. Last spring he and dozens of others at the Ulyanovsk Automobile Plant lodged an appeal with the Kremlin when they were fired after pointing out safety problems. They got no answer. “Putin has forgotten about ordinary people,” Tamayev says as he watches workers from the factory leave after their shifts. “We used to live well.”

Read the full article here.

Firebomb hurled at Russian Jewish group’s Moscow offices

Jewish Telegraphic Agency, September 13, 2017

A firebombing at the Moscow offices of the largest Jewish organization in Russia caused minimal damage and no injuries.

Footage from the incident Monday night at the offices of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia showed a person whose facial features are not clearly visible throwing the firebomb and fleeing as it bursts into flames, the online edition of the L’Chaim Jewish newspaper reported Wednesday. The offices are adjacent to the Marina Roscha Synagogue.

Moscow Metropolitan Police shared the footage with the local media.

Read the full article here.

The Victory at Stake in the Russian-Belarusian War Games

By Artyom Shraibman

Carnegie Europe, September 14, 2017

Belarus and Russia have been holding joint military exercises every other year for the last eight years, taking turns to play host. This year, the Zapad (West) drills are taking place in Belarus. Additional maneuvers usually involve Russian soldiers on Russian territory.

If in the past, only neighboring Lithuania and Poland have expressed concern about aspects of the exercise scenarios, the level of alarm in the announcements leading up to Zapad 2017 is unprecedented.

Almost all of the country leaders and heads of foreign and defense ministries of the Baltic states, Poland, and Ukraine, along with several U.S. and NATO generals in Europe, have voiced concern in the last year that Russia will bring more than the planned 3,000 troops into Belarus, that the two countries are perfecting strategies for attacks on neighbors, that Moscow is using the exercises as cover for military provocations or aggression against neighbors, and that the Russian forces won’t leave or will leave military equipment in Belarus for future aggressive actions. Minsk and Moscow refute all such suspicions.

Read the full article here.

In the Ukrainian city of Uman, businesses and mobsters follow the Jewish pilgrims

By Cnaan Lipshiz

Jewish Telegraphic Agency, September 14, 2017

By selling coffee to Jewish tourists, 18-year-old Yuri Breskov can earn in a week more than his teachers from high school make annually in this provincial city.

His revenues peak at $3,000 on the week of Rosh Hashanah, when some 30,000 Israelis and other Jews visit the gravesite of Rabbi Nachman. an 18th-century luminary and founder of the Breslov Hasidic movement.

The annual pilgrimage has been taking place for decades. But what began as a trickle of observant Jews has grown in recent years and diversified to include many secular pilgrims. It’s a change that is creating new and lucrative opportunities for dozens of entrepreneurs like Breskov. But locals say it has also increased the presence of organized criminals feeding off their success.

Read the full article here.

Ukraine gives cautious welcome to Putin’s peacekeepers offer

Reuters, September 14, 2017

Ukraine on Thursday welcomed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s declared openness to deployment of United Nations peacekeepers in separatist-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine, but said Russian troops must not join such an operation.

Putin told German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday that UN peacekeepers might be deployed not only on the Donbass contact line separating the sides of the conflict but in other parts where inspectors of the international OSCE monitoring group operate.

Kostiantyn Yeliseyev, foreign policy adviser to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, said Putin’s comments were a good sign but ”the devil is in the detail.

Protesting anti-Semitism, hundreds retrace Elie Wiesel’s path to deportation

By Yaakov Schwartz

Times of Israel, September 11, 2017

In several hours, the street in front of Elie Wiesel’s childhood home would be filled by roughly 1,000 locals holding memorial candles and dressed in brightly colored peasant clothes. But for the moment, other than the occasional crowing of a rooster, the road was quiet.

Sighet isn’t a particularly small city – its population is just over 37,000 – but like many other Romanian towns, the poverty it suffers as a result of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s despotic regime leaves it feeling like a backwater.

It’s hard to imagine the 13,000 Jews crammed into the city’s ghetto before it was liquidated in May of 1944, when a young Elie Wiesel and his family were among those marched through the streets and put on trains to Auschwitz. Upon arrival, 90 percent of those Jews were immediately killed.

The Holocaust devastated Romanian Jewry, reducing its population from 850,000 before the war to a mere 7,000 today, according to the president of the Romanian Jewish community, Dr. Auriel Wiener.

Read the full article here.

Slovakia commemorated Holocaust victims and Racial Hatred Day

Slovak Spectator, September 11, 2017

On September 8, one day before Holocaust Victims and Racial Hatred Day, the Prime Minister laid wreathes at the Holocaust Victims Memorial at Rybné Square in Bratislava – where a Neological (i.e. Reformed Judaism) Synagogue used to stand. Alongside Fico, ambassadors from several countries commemorated those killed during the Holocaust, as well as other World War II events, including those typical for Slovakia. Aryanisation, or the seizing of the Jews’ property, was one of them.

The Slovak PM could not make a speech due to his other official duties but the head of the Museum of Jewish Culture in Slovakia, Pavol Mešťan, thanked him for being present at the birth of the Holocaust Museum idea. “The catastrophe of the Jews was a dreadful experience – the biggest mass murder in history,” Mešťan said, as cited by the SITA newswire. “We must show that it was the experience of humankind, not just a Jewish experience. They were only the ones who paid dear for it. We have to show – and keep showing – that Nazism was born somewhere, came from somewhere, and it did not appear out of thin air,” Mešťan summed up.

Read the full article here.

Damage on Jewish cemetery in Sofia points to anti-Semitic act

By Imanuel Marcus

Sofia Globe, September 14, 2017

In what looks like an anti-Semitic act of violence, unknown individuals have damaged graves at the Jewish Cemetery in Sofia. The latter is located on the premises of the Bulgarian capital’s Central Cemetery, towards the North of the city center.

Photos taken by concerned visitors of the cemetery show knocked down gravestones and broken grave slabs. One photo shows a grave stone, which seems to have broken into at least three pieces, after it was thrown on a neighbouring grave.

The visitors who noticed the damage contacted Shalom, Bulgaria’s largest Jewish organisation. Shalom’s President Dr. Alek Oskar turned to Deputy Mayor Todor Chobanov, who is in charge of Sofia’s cemeteries.

After escaping USSR aged 7, cultural director went back to establish Jewish life

By Yaakov Schwartz

Times of Israel, September 12, 2017

It may seem counterintuitive for a Soviet-born American expat to direct a Jewish cultural center in Jerusalem catering mostly to Israelis. But then again, “Jewish culture” is difficult to pin down.

If the trick is to try to reconcile Judaism’s racial, cultural, religious and nationalistic facets — or at least make it marketable to as broad an audience as possible — it looks like David Rozenson, the CEO of Beit Avi Chai, is striking the right note.

His background has contributed to his aptitude for the job.

Rozenson’s escape to the United States when he was seven years old in 1978, like that of so many others, was grueling. His father was arrested on trumped-up charges after filing an application to leave the Soviet Union, and had no contact with his wife or children for a year. Upon his sudden release, the family was given three weeks to pack up and go, leaving most of their belongings behind.

Read the full article here.

German government rejects Polish demand for WWII reparations

Jewish Telegraphic Agency, September 10, 2017

The German government rejected a Polish demand for new talks on World War II reparations.

The German government says the issue was closed in 1953, when Poland relinquished its right to further compensation.

Several Polish politicians have disputed the 1953 accord, saying that it was made under pressure from the former Soviet Union, the Deutsch Welle German news service reported.

Germany paid “considerable reparations for overall war damages” to Poland, German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said Friday, according to the AFP news agency.

Read the full article here.

Poland, Brexit, and the Curse of History

By Judy Dempsey

Carnegie Europe, September 12, 2017

As if relations between Warsaw and Berlin were not bad enough.

On September 11, the Polish government said it had the right to demand reparations from Germany for the loss of life and damage it suffered during World War Two. That, Warsaw argued, was the conclusion of the parliament’s research service.

Over 6 million people, including 3 million Jews, were killed during the Nazi occupation of Poland, not to mention the immense destruction of several cities.

Poland’s governing Law and Justice Party said that in 1953, when Poland was under communist rule, it was bullied by the former Soviet Union not to seek reparations from what was then West Germany. Mariusz Błaszczak, the Polish interior minister, said that material losses from the Nazi occupation of Poland amounted to $1 trillion.

Read the full article here.

Can a Giant Science Fair Transform Kazakhstan’s Economy?

By David Segal

New York Times, September 9, 2017

By day, the huge and gleaming sphere looks like the spaceship of aliens who may not have come in peace. At night, it blinks out a playful pattern of colors and boosterish slogans on its high-tech outer skin — a few parts light show, a few parts bumper sticker.

Known officially as the Nur Alem, the imposing silver globe is the symbol and centerpiece of Kazakhstan’s latest attempt at an “Open For Business” sign. Five years ago, the country won the rights to stage what is essentially the world’s largest science fair. More than 100 nations built pavilions on a once-empty corner of this capital city. The Kazakh government chipped in a reported $3 billion, and, after an 11th-hour, all-hands push, met a June 10 deadline to open Expo 2017.

The theme of the fair, which closes on Sunday, is “Future Energy.” That may sound like a stab at humor given that oil, gas and metals are the lifeblood of the country. But guided by the hand of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the first and, so far, only president of this former Soviet Republic, Kazakhstan is trying for a dramatic economic makeover.

Read the full article here.

[Link to pdf of full articles]
1120 20th Street NW, Ste. 300N Washington, DC 20036-3413
Telephone: +1 202 898 2500  |  ncsej@ncsej.org
Founded in 1971, the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry represents the organized American Jewish community in monitoring and advocating on behalf of the estimated 1.5 million Jews in Eastern Europe and Eurasia, including the 15 successor states of the former Soviet Union.