Weekly Top 10
WASHINGTON, D.C. December 31, 2020
TO: NCSEJ Leadership and Interested Parties

FROM: James Schiller, Chairman;
Mark B. Levin, Executive Vice-Chairman & CEO

Dear Friend,
We applaud the House of Representatives who unanimously passed the Special Envoy to Combat Anti-Semitism Act. It elevates the position to the rank of Ambassador. We hope President Trump will sign the bill into law.

We mourn the passing of our friend and colleague, Oleg Kravchenko, Deputy Foreign Minister of Belarus, who passed away suddenly of a heart attack on December 25 at age 49. He was a good friend of NCSEJ, particularly of Lesley Weiss, who worked with him for many years on heritage and Jewish issues in Belarus. Please see our statement on his passing.

NCSEJ works to promote and protect the well-being of Jewish communities in the second-largest Jewish diaspora. We hope you will support our work when you make your end of the year donations. Please support our yearly Chanukah Appeal by clicking HERE.

Сердечно поздравляем Вас с наступающим Новым годом!  | Wishing you a Happy New Year!
Mark B. Levin
NCSEJ Executive Vice-Chairman & CEO
Washington, D.C. Deceber 31, 2020

George Blake, Jewish British spy for Soviet Union, dies in Moscow at Cnaan Liphshiz

The Jerusalem Post | December 30, 2020

George Blake, a former British intelligence researcher who served as a spy for the Soviet Union for years, has died in Russia. He was 98.

Blake, who was born in the Netherlands to a Protestant mother and a Sephardic Jewish father who had fought for Britain in World War I, moved to the United
Kingdom during World War II.

He was recruited to the intelligence community and later offered to spy for the Soviet Union, betraying hundreds of agents until his capture in 1960. He served six years of a 42-year term before escaping to Moscow.

Blake died last week, receiving praise from Russian President Vladimir Putin as an “outstanding professional of special courage and life endurance.”

Blake did not identify as a Jew, but his Jewish background played a major role in his life, according to a 2013 biography. His father, Albert Behar, had initially concealed his Jewish ancestry, but it became known near his death in 1936.
Because of Blake’s Jewish ancestry, he was not able to marry his girlfriend, Iris Peake, who also worked as Blake’s secretary at MI6, the British intelligence’s foreign branch, according to Blake’s obituary in The Guardian published Saturday.

Read the full article here.

Bulgarian synagogue and Halle memorial targeted in spate of crimes on Jewish sites in Europe

Cnaan Liphshiz

JTA | December 24, 2020

(JTA) — Vandals struck a synagogue gate in Bulgaria and a monument to the victims of the shooting attack last year near a synagogue in Halle, Germany, in a spate of unrelated incidents this week in Europe.

In Bulgaria, the words “Free Palestine Israel=Nazis Antifa Bulgaria” were spray-painted Wednesday on the gate to the synagogue of Plovdiv, a city situated about 100 miles southeast of Sofia the capital, the Jewish organization Shalom wrote on Facebook.

In Halle, a Plexiglas panel on the monument of the shooting was smashed. The vandals also tried to set fire to a flag of Israel under the Plexiglas, the Jewish Community of Halle wrote Tuesday on Facebook.

A 28-year-old far-right extremist killed two people near the Halle synagogue in October 2019. He targeted a kebab shop and a passerby after failing to break through the synagogue’s armored door on Yom Kippur, when the synagogue was full of worshipers.

Police have no suspects in the vandalism cases.

Russia To 'Return' Icon Gifted To Lavrov In Balkans Amid Signs It's Stolen Ukrainian Heritage
Radio Free Europe | December 19, 2020

Russia announced on December 19 that it is returning a centuries-old Orthodox icon that was given to Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during a visit this week to the Balkans after revelations that it might have been a protected cultural treasure stolen from Ukraine.

The embarrassing episode began when Milorad Dodik, the Republika Srpska representative of Bosnia-Herzegovina's tripartite presidency, presented Moscow's top diplomat with the artwork on December 14.

"The icon will be returned to its donors for further clarification on its history via Interpol," the Russian Foreign Ministry told journalists five days later.
A shared image of the artifact and its seal had suggested it might be from the Ukrainian city of Luhansk, which has been mostly controlled by Russia-backed separatists since 2014.

Its seal appeared to clearly state that it was Ukrainian "cultural heritage" under protection of authorities in the Odesa region.

The Ukrainian Embassy in Sarajevo quickly sent a letter to the Bosnian Foreign Ministry demanding a "public, immediate, and unambiguous denial by the state leadership" of the reports that suggested it had possessed or transferred an important cultural, historic, and religious artifact originating in Ukraine.

For Jews from the former Soviet Union, New Year’s Eve always involves a Christmas-style tree

Ashley Zlatopolsky 

JTA | December 29, 2020

(JTA) — Growing up in metro Detroit, I used to watch my Jewish mother, who immigrated from Riga, Latvia, decorate a tree in our living room each December. 
“But we’re Jewish, so why do we have a Christmas tree?” I recall thinking.

While I didn’t understand the tradition at first, I grew to understand it over time. It wasn’t about assimilation, and it wasn’t even a Christmas tree: It was a yolka, a secular symbol connected to Novy God, or the Russian New Year.

Across the former Soviet Union, Novy God was a spectacle that kicked into full swing at the start of December. Families served plates of mandarins and bowls of candy. Children sang songs and held hands and danced together in a circle to traditional music. Statues and ornaments of Snegurochka, a Russian snow maiden popular in fairy tales, and Ded Moroz, or Grandfather Frost, glittered in nearly every home. 

Yet above all, the Novy God tradition was anchored by the mighty yolka, a lavishly decorated holiday tree, sometimes complete with a star on top, that was not Christian (nor Jewish). It symbolized the beginning of a fresh start for the people of the former Soviet Union, a celebration of health and happiness in the new year.

An unending year
Vladislav Inozemtsev
Riddle.io | December 28, 2020

There are only a few days left before the end of the “worst year ever“. However, if we look at what is happening now in Russia, there is no sense of this year’s trends drawing to any sort of close. Whichever “direction” you take, 2020 looks more like a prelude to something no less dramatic.

Naturally, the first thing to remember is the pandemic that defined 2020. In recent weeks, some European countries, which entered the second wave earlier than others, have seen encouraging signs. In others, governments are returning to tough quarantine measures. Overall, the number of deaths in Europe has decreased from the peak values ​​in November (and even more so – in March-April). In the US, the situation remains dramatic; but here they hope for the mass vaccination that has already begun. Manufacturers promise doses for all citizens by April-May next year. Of course, the victory has not yet been won, but the turning point is close. Unlike the West, Russia is entering the new year at practically maximum levels of infections and mortality. And these are obviously underestimated by official statistics. It only has several hundred thousand doses of vaccine to turn the tide. As a result, Moscow is already turning to foreign countries to scale up supplies of Sputnik V or EpiVacCorona.

2020: Eurasianet’s year in review
David Trilling

Eurasia.org | December 28, 2020

Try as we might, 2020 will be hard to forget – in the countries covered by Eurasianet as much as anywhere else.

Beyond the war, upheaval, corruption and repression, it is the pandemic that will leave the most indelible marks. In many places the virus allowed authoritarians to loose their worst instincts. As Central Asia and the South Caucasus began locking down in February, Tajikistan initially blamed swine flu and tonsillitis.

Azerbaijan’s president argued the pandemic required him to persecute his critics. Even as hospitals overflow, Turkmenistan still insists after all these months that its mask mandate is dust-related.

Georgia was a rare success story for most of the year – despite its church stubbornly sharing communion spoons. By fall, however, the country had succumbed to a late outbreak, with some of the highest infection rates in the world.

The region’s economies are being buffeted by the pandemic and, for oil and gas producers, low energy prices. Azerbaijan propped up the manat with a costly peg that will slow reconstruction efforts. Remittance-dependent Tajikistan has struggled to feed itself as migrants’ transfers stalled. Foreign donors have not overlooked the country, but the aid bonanza has been accompanied by predictable shenanigans. Turkmenistan is using police to scatter lines for food.
There are concerns about aid being stolen in Uzbekistan, where reforms have slowed and are often accompanied by rollbacks. So much gas is exported that Uzbeks are relearning how to make dung bricks.

Biden, Russia, and the Middle East
Ksenia Svetlova

Carnegie Moscow Center | December 24, 2020

For the last twelve years, U.S. presidents have shared a desire for as little involvement in the Middle East as possible. The U.S. withdrawal from the region has created new opportunities for other powers seeking to expand their influence in the region, and none more so than Russia. In just a few years, Russia has completely changed the course of the war in Syria, built a formidable Mediterranean naval base, and is now setting about creating a second, this time on the Red Sea. It’s also building Egypt’s first nuclear power plant, and has a working relationship with all the regional powers, from Hezbollah to Israel. 
Recognizing that Russia is in the Middle East for the long haul, many countries in the region are actively developing their relationships with Moscow: diversifying their arms supplies, increasing grain imports, and even cooperating in a gray area over the use of private armies and mercenaries.

 This situation creates a contradiction between Washington’s desire to expend fewer resources on the Middle East, and another important priority for the incoming administration: containing Russia, which Biden sees as the biggest threat to the United States. It’s unlikely that Washington is prepared to sit by and watch as Moscow fills the vacuum that has formed in the region. The United States will mostly likely resolve this contradiction by continuing to wind down its presence in the Middle East, while imposing sanctions on countries that try to use the situation to draw closer to Russia.

Read the full article here.​​​​​​​

Russia opens new criminal case against Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny
Reuters | December 29, 2020

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian state investigators said on Tuesday they had opened a new criminal case against Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, accusing him of fraudulently spending public donations to organisations he controls on his personal needs.

The move is likely to be seen as the latest sign that the Kremlin does not want Navalny, who is convalescing in Germany, to return to Russia after what Berlin and other Western nations say was an attempt in August to murder him with a nerve agent.

Navalny is one of President Vladimir Putin’s leading critics and the Kremlin has said he is free to return home just like any other Russian citizen, something he has said he plans to do.

It has said it has seen no evidence he was poisoned however and has denied any involvement in the August incident which saw him collapse on a plane before being airlifted to Germany.

Read the full article here.

Veiled Counter-Balancing: The Peacekeeping ‘Arrangement’ Between Turkey and Russia in Karabak
Can Kasapoglu

The Jamestown Foundation | December 18, 2020

In the wake of Azerbaijan’s successful offensive against the dug-in Armenian forces in Karabakh and surrounding Azerbaijani districts, the defense ministers of Turkey and Russia, General (ret.) Hulusi Akar and General Sergei Shoigu, respectively, met on November 11 and penned a memorandum of understanding to broker the ceasefire process in the war-torn region. According to the deal, Ankara and Moscow have, in principle, agreed to establish a joint peace-monitoring headquarters. The Russian foreign policy community has been extremely uneasy to see the Turkish Armed Forces suddenly operating in the South Caucasus, once considered Moscow’s undisputed hinterland (Milliyet, December 3).

The Turkish press reported that the final agreement between Moscow and Ankara secures multiple monitoring contingents on Azerbaijani territory. A week after the two sides signed the memorandum, the Turkish Parliament approved the motion to send troops to the peacekeeping mission (Anadolu Agency, November 17).    

New year, new rules Putin has signed approximately 100 laws ahead of 2021. Here are the main ones, in a nutshell

Meduza | December 30, 20201, 2020 

Heading into the new year, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been busying signing a flurry of new legislation into law. As a result, in 2021, there will be updated rules governing everything from NGOs and protests, to the Russian Internet and more. Meduza sums up the most important pieces of legislation, in a nutshell.

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 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.