After another leadership change, Jewish group hopes to raise profile
The new leadership of the Russian Jewish Congress says it has the expertise to help the group raise more money for domestic Jewish needs and better represent Russian Jews abroad.
But whether the new leaders will be able to catapult the RJC back into the forefront of Russian Jewry remains to be seen.
The change at the top took place Nov.10, when more than 100 donors and leaders of the RJC unanimously accepted the resignation of Vladimir Slutkser, a financier and member of Parliament.
The new president, chemical magnate Vyacheslav “Moshe” Kantor, was approved in a near-unanimous vote. He’s awaiting a formal approval at the group’s next national convention, tentatively scheduled for early next year.
Moscow native Kantor, who was unavailable for comment, will be the fifth president in the RJC’s relatively short history. In January the group will mark 10 years since it was founded by Vladimir Goussinsky, a media mogul who was later expelled from Russia over a conflict with President Vladimir Putin and his entourage.
The RJC has raised more than $70 million from domestic donors to support various Jewish projects since its founding. The group also aspires to represent Russian Jewry to the government on political and social issues, but its role has diminished in recent years.
Some leading RJC donors last month accused Slutsker, who served as president for a year, of conspiring with the Russian government to deny Moscow’s chief rabbi, Pinchas Goldschmidt, re-entry to the country after he visited Israel in September. Slutsker denies the charge.
Most of the RJC’s leading members also said they were unhappy with how Slutsker ran the organization, which many said had withdrawn from serving the community.
Slutsker, who is known for his close ties to top Russian officials and to the country’s prosecutor general, rejected the group’s offer to stay on in an honorary capacity.
Kantor is a well-known figure in the Russian business community and also enjoys close relations with top political figures, a prerequisite for business success in post-Communist Russia.
Those who backed Kantor’s nomination said his presidency could make a difference for the RJC, which once was the leading voice of Russian Jewry.
“He has extensive experience in the Jewish world and in top-level international Jewish politics, and he also brings in a new team of managers who have western business experience,” said Yevgeny Satanovsky, a former RJC president who was replaced by Slutsker last year and now is making a comeback in the group’s leadership circle.
Similar to most Russian business tycoons, Kantor, 52, made his fortune in the first years of Russia’s new capitalism, relying largely on connections he made with top government officials under former President Boris Yeltsin.
His main business asset is Akron, a chemical holding firm regarded as one of Europe’s largest fertilizer producers. Akron owns two of Russia’s biggest plants in the industry, and recently acquired massive production facilities in China.
Kantor enjoys a reputation as a patron of the arts, and experts rank highly his collection of contemporary art, which includes a number of top-quality works by Russian Jewish artists.
“He certainly has this air of aristocracy that no other Jewish leader after Goussinsky had,” Satanovsky says.
Like many Russian business magnates, Kantor lives mostly abroad, making Geneva his home. Those who know him well say he aspires to become a Jewish leader of international scale.
Outside Russia he goes by his recently acquired Jewish first name, Moshe. He made several attempts in recent years to assume key roles in of international Jewish politics — first in the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress and most recently in the European Jewish Congress, where he was appointed chairman of the board of governors.
“His presidency at the RJC will most likely bring about his new attempt to enter the door of Europe, now with the backing of one of the continent’s largest Jewish communities,” a source who insisted on anonymity told JTA.
Last week, Kantor received the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit from Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski for his role in financing a conference on the Holocaust in Krakow earlier this year that was attended by world leaders, including Putin.
“We hope that those donors who used to give to RJC will continue their support, and that Kantor will be a better stimulus to increase their giving,” said Solomon Bukingolts, whom Kantor picked as the group’s new chief executive officer.
Bukingolts, a Latvian American and an economic adviser to Latvia’s president, said that aside from supporting humanitarian, educational and charity Jewish causes in Russia, the new RJC leadership will work to strengthen Russian Jews’ relations with Western European and U.S. communities.
“RJC will become a more visible and more meaningful part of Jewish affairs internationally,” he told JTA.
Like many members of Russia’s business elite, Kantor is not free from allegations of unscrupulous business dealing and of utilizing his Kremlin connections to advance his business interests.
His name was mentioned among those who actively sought to take over some assets of the Yukos oil company and its founder, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, when the Kremlin launched its campaign against Yukos in 2003.
“This is the reality with the world of Russian business, and when the Jewish community of Russia gets a new leader from these circles, it’s almost guaranteed that this new figure has had some problems with reputation,” a Russian Jewish leader who asked that his name not to be published told JTA. “This is the nature of Russia’s young capitalism, and the Jewish community has to live with it.”
Some participants in last week’s meeting insisted that the RJC issue a statement concerning the situation of Rabbi Goldschmidt, whom Russian authorities refused to allow back into the country after he visited Israel in late September. The government hasn’t given any explanation for its action.
Mikhail Fridman, the RJC’s main donor, said the sensitivity involved in the situation required abstaining from public statements, and that he was working to help Goldschmidt obtain the necessary permission to re-enter Russia.