Weekly News Update 
WASHINGTON, D.C. January 22, 2016

TO: NCSEJ Leadership and Interested Parties
FROM: Daniel Rubin, Chairman;
Alexander Smukler, President;
Mark B. Levin, Executive Vice-Chairman & CEO

Dear Friend,
Unrest in Moldova continues. Demonstrators stormed the Moldovan parliament building on Wednesday after lawmakers voted in a new government. Close to 10,000 people protested in Chisinau on Thursday, calling for early elections and dissolution of parliament, which many demonstrators say is corrupt. The prolonged political crisis and a preceding banking scandal have led to a freeze in international funding for Moldova, Europe’s poorest country.
President Vladimir Putin met with a European Jewish Congress (EJC) delegation in Moscow. During a meeting with EJC President Moshe Kantor, President Putin invited Europe’s Jews to move to Russia, amid increased anti-Semitism in Europe. “Let them come to us then,” said President Putin, adding “during the Soviet period they were leaving the country, and now they should return.”
I want to highlight two interesting stories in the Moscow Times and the Kyiv Post, analyzing last week’s meeting between U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and top Kremlin advisor on Ukraine Vladislav Surkov. Many speculate that the involvement of Surkov in high-level negotiations, and the appointment of Kremlin insider Boris Gryzlov as a representative to the Minsk peace talks may signal Russia’s readiness to resolve the conflict in Ukraine. These analysts argue that Western sanctions on Russia and deteriorating economic conditions are prompting the Kremlin to reduce support for the Donbas separatists and renew efforts to strike a deal on Ukraine.
The update also includes a story from the Carnegie Moscow Center about the way Russians are coping with the economic crisis. While the new economic reality is hitting the population hard, most Russians are adjusting to a modest lifestyle, rather than taking to the streets to protest. The story gives some valuable insights into Russian society and how the Soviet Union’s legacy continues to impact average Russians.

Mark B. Levin
NCSEJ Executive Vice-Chairman & CEO
Washington, D.C. January 22
, 2016

U.S., British, French Defense Ministers Criticize Russian Role In Syria
RFE/RL, January 21, 2016

The U.S., British, and French defense ministers have criticized Russia's role in the Syria conflict and called on Moscow to stop targeting the opposition forces who are fighting the Islamic State (IS) militant group.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on January 20 that the Russians "are on the wrong track strategically and also in some cases tactically."
He spoke after a meeting in Paris of the seven defense ministers who are part of a coalition fighting against IS in Syria and Iraq.
"We don't have a basis for broader cooperation [with Russia]," Carter added.
His British counterpart, Michael Fallon, said that he was "very concerned" by Russia's use of unguided weapons that have caused "several hundred [civilian] casualties."

Russia displays naval might off Syria’s Mediterranean
By Vladimir Isachenkov
AP, January 21, 2016

A Russian navy missile cruiser is on duty off Syria’s coast to help protect a Russian air base with an array of long-range missile systems.
On Thursday, the Russian military put its naval might in the eastern Mediterranean on display, taking a group of Moscow-based journalists on a rare visit to the Varyag cruiser.
The display of Russia’s military operations in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad comes ahead of planned peace talks Monday in Geneva, which are meant to pave the way for a political settlement for Syria.
To reach the cruiser, journalists boarded a Russian destroyer in Tartus, where Russia has had a supply and repair facility for its ships in the Mediterranean since Soviet times. It’s now the only such support facility outside the former Soviet Union.

Read the full article here.

US gives Ukraine USD 23 mln in medical equipment and military communications
Ukraine Today, January 1, 2016

The United States delivered yesterday USD 23 million in vital military communicatioins and medical equipment to Ukraine, according to the US Embassy in Ukraine.
The shipment included USD 21 million in in secure radio equipment and nearly USD 2 million in battlefield life-saving medical equipment, the Embassy has reported.
The equipment will be delivered to Ukrainian Army units who take part in the US-led drills at Yavoriv and Khmelnytskyi.

Read the full article here.

Kazakhstan Moves up Parliamentary Election to March 20
AP, January 20, 2016

Kazakhstan has called an early election for parliament, moving up the vote to March 20 instead of waiting until next year.
In setting the new date Wednesday, President Nursultan Nazarbayev said it would help the Central Asian country deal with the economic pressures resulting from the low oil price and slowdowns in neighboring China and Russia.

Read the full article here.

Latvia to commemorate Holocaust victims with series of January events
Baltic Times, January 18, 2016

The Latvian Foreign Ministry announced a number of events will take place across the country between January 22 and 29, in relation to International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27.
The program of the events dedicated to Holocaust remembrance in Latvia includes concerts, exhibitions, the launch of a book, and a conference.

Uzbek Foreign Minister, U.S. Officials Hold Talks In Washington
RFE/RL, January 19, 2016

An Uzbek delegation led by the authoritarian Central Asia nation's foreign minister met with senior U.S. officials in Washington on January 19 for consultations on a range of issues, including human rights and security.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Nisha Desai Biswal welcomed the Uzbek delegation, led by Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov, for the sixth U.S.-Uzbekistan Annual Bilateral Consultations.
The two sides were set to address "political developments, regional stability and security, human rights and labor, education and cultural exchanges, and economic development and trade, and other issues of mutual interest," a State Department official told RFE/RL.

Read the full article here.

Ukraine threatens sanctions on Israelis doing business in Crimea
Jerusalem Post, January 18, 2016

Israeli companies doing business in Crimea may be subject to sanctions, the Ukrainian Embassy in Tel Aviv threatened last week.
According to the Ukrainians, Israeli citizens have been traveling to the Black Sea peninsula, which was annexed by Russia in 2014, without permission from Kiev, and Israelis firms have been engaged in “business activity in cooperation with the illegal authorities of Crimea without a permit.”
Such activities, the embassy asserted in a statement, are a violation of both Ukrainian and international law, and should they continue, “relevant information will be transmitted to the competent authorities of Ukraine to further bring to justice perpetrators of violations of the current legislation.”
Companies that continue operating in Crimea without coordinating with Kiev may be subject to “special restrictive measures,” such as sanctions.

Unrest for 2nd day: 7,000 hold anti-govt protest in Moldova
By Corneliu Rusnac
AP, January 21, 2016

About 7,000 people held an anti-government protest Thursday in the Moldovan capital, a day after demonstrators stormed the legislature after it approved a new pro-European government.
Protesters gathered outside government offices and Parliament in Chisinau to protest Prime Minister Pavel Filip, the former technology minister and former candy factory manager, who presented his Cabinet of politicians and specialists to President Nicolae Timofti late Wednesday.
Scuffles broke out Wednesday between police and the protesters who stormed the Parliament and 15 people were injured, including nine police officers.

10,000 protest new government in Moldova as tensions rise
AFP, January 21, 2016

Some 10,000 people massed in the Moldovan capital Chisinau on Thursday as tensions in the pro-Western nation flared following the secret midnight swearing-in of a new government.
Lawmakers of the impoverished former Soviet republic on Wednesday approved a new government amid political turmoil, with protesters storming the parliament building and opposition legislators attempting to block the vote.
The swearing-in of the new cabinet has exacerbated tensions over alleged high-level corruption in the country of 3.5 million wedged between Ukraine and Romania.
Opposition protesters marched along the capital's main avenues in sub-zero temperatures and rallied in front of the parliament building, which was cordoned off by a police cordon which was six rows deep.
Clutching state flags, protesters urged the authorities to hold snap elections as they chanted "down with the government" and "down with parliament."

Putin's Invitation To European Jews Sparks Mixed Reactions
By Claire Bigg
RFE/RL, January 20, 2016

Russian President Vladimir Putin has an unexpected offer for European Jews subjected to what he describes as rampant persecution in the West -- move to Russia.
"They can come to us," he told a delegation of the European Jewish Congress (EJC) in Moscow on January 19. "They left the Soviet Union. Let them return."
Jews in Europe are "trying to hide their ethnicity," he continued, saying that some of them were "afraid of wearing a yarmulke in public."
Putin was responding to remarks by the head of the EJC, Russian-born Viatcheslav Moshe Kantor, who warned that anti-Semitism in Europe had reached World War II levels and that "Jews are fleeing once-prosperous Europe."
European countries, in particular France, have seen a number of high-profile anti-Semitic attacks in recent years, including a deadly hostage-taking in a Paris kosher market two days after a shooting rampage at the satirical Charlie Hebdo magazine in January 2015.
But while the pro-Kremlin broadcaster RT praised Putin for offering "refuge" to European Jews "as a rising wave of anti-Semitic attacks engulfs Europe," his remarks have met with a good deal of skepticism considering Russia's own spotty track record in fighting hate crimes.

Read the full article here.

US lifts ban on funding ‘neo-Nazi’ Ukrainian militia
By Sam Sokol
Jerusalem Post, January 18, 2016

Congress is reported to have recently repealed its ban on a Ukrainian militia accused of being neo-Nazi, opening the way for American military assistance.
Last June, Congress passed a resolution intended to block American military funding for Ukraine from being used to provide training or weaponry for the Azov Battalion, an independent unit that had been integrated into the former Soviet Republic’s national guard and was taking part in operations against Russian- backed rebels.
Called a “neo-Nazi paramilitary militia” by Congressmen John Conyers Jr. and Ted Yoho, who cosponsored the bipartisan amendment, the battalion has been a source of controversy since its inception.
With the neo-Nazi Wolfsangel symbol on its unit flash – which resembles a black swastika on a yellow background – and founders drawn from the ranks of the paramilitary national socialist group called “Patriot of Ukraine,” the group would have been a fringe phenomenon in any Western nation, but with its army unequipped to face the separatist threat in the east, Kiev actually integrated Azov into its military forces.

Read the full article here.

Russia Pushing for An Endgame in Ukraine
By Matthew Bodner
Moscow Times, January 21, 2016

The appearance of one of President Vladimir Putin's most enigmatic associates, Vladislav Surkov, at a meeting with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland last Friday has sparked speculation that Moscow and Washington are approaching an endgame in Ukraine after two years of conflict.
"That is was Surkov, and not [Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory] Karasin — Nuland's counterpart — is very significant," said foreign affairs expert Vladimir Frolov. "Surkov is a key decision-maker on the Donbass with the authority to make tactical adjustments to the Russian position."
Though he has allegedly been a major player in the crafting and managing of Russia's Ukraine policy over the past two years, Surkov tends to operate behind the scenes. He has officially not taken part in any previous high-level negotiations with the United States, until now.
Analysts said Surkov's involvement indicates Russia is trying now to bring a resolution to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine as a means of seeking relief from Western sanctions — which have combined with a collapse in global oil prices to deal real damage to the Russian economy.

Timothy Ash: Is Ukraine-Russian peace deal brewing behind the scenes?
Kyiv Post, January 18, 2016

Something significant might be happening in the Ukraine peace process.
First, we had the appointment of Boris Gryzlov, a real Kremlin heavyweight as Moscow’s representative to peace talks. One read is that the appointment of a serious Kremlin insider to such a role suggests that Russian President Vladimir Putin is now willing to seriously negotiate towards some kind of settlement, which might just be acceptable to Kyiv – rather than the previous policy which seemed to be to demand concessions which were never really deliverable in Kyiv, and which were just meant to destabilize domestic politics in Ukraine, or to undermine the security situation and macro stability and financing with it.
Second, President Petro Poroshenko last week spoke about securing control over Ukraine’s borders again this year – with some suggesting that he would not have made this claim unless he thought there was a reasonable chance of delivering on it.
Third, the U.S. assistant secretary of state, Victory Nuland, had a meeting late last week in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, with Vladislav Surkov, another close adviser to Putin. The session was described as a “brainstorming” session over possible resolutions over the crisis in Ukraine, and generally feedback from both sides was that the discussions were “constructive.” U.S. officials also spoke about the prospect of sanctions on Ukraine over Donbas being relieved if they see Minsk implementation – albeit retaining those over Crimea.

Read the full article here.

Cheap oil roils ruble, but Russia bears the pain
By Fred Weir
Christian Science Monitor, January 20, 2016

Russia's beleaguered ruble fell to an all-time low of over 80 per dollar Wednesday. Wags were quick to note that it will soon meet Vladimir Putin's stratospheric public approval ratings, but going in the opposite direction.
This strange juxtaposition, of Mr. Putin's apparently unshakable popularity against the background of economic pressures that even he admits are growing worse by the day, has a lot of pundits scratching their heads in confusion.
The plunging ruble is being driven down by global prices for Russia's main export, oil, that have fallen to 12-year lows. That's well beneath the Kremlin's own worst-case predictions of $50 per barrel just a few months ago; some predict government's main revenue generator may fall to $20 or lower, throwing the state budget into complete disarray. Social spending faces across-the-board cuts of 10 percent this year – with parliamentary elections due in September – which threatens to hit Putin's electoral base particularly hard.
Russia's economy shrank by almost 4 percent last year, and predictions that it might return to modest growth this year have been shelved. Consumers were hammered last year by 13 percent inflation – which many say is much higher for food, transport, and other basic necessities – while business investment has virtually stalled amid double-digit interest rates.

Seeking Asylum In Ukraine, Russian Dissidents Get Cold Shoulder
By Claire Bigg and Tetiana Iakubovych
RFE/RL, January 20, 2016

When Russian psychologist Pyotr Lyubchenkov started receiving telephone threats and was detained by the police for 10 days after posting several online comments denouncing Moscow's support of separatists in eastern Ukraine, he knew it was time to leave.
In June 2014, he fled Russia for what he thought would be a better, safer life in Ukraine.
But a year and a half later, his successive applications for political asylum have all been rejected and the Ukrainian authorities are now seeking to extradite him to Russia.
Lyubchenkov, who faces prison on extremism charges in his home country, has a word of warning for other embattled Russian opposition activists. "I strongly advise them against traveling to Ukraine and asking for political asylum," he said in a telephone interview from Odesa. "If you are in danger, you had better ask another country. Ukraine is not a safe place for refugees from Russia.
Amid a deepening Kremlin crackdown on dissent, more than 200 Russians who have fallen afoul of the authorities in their country have fled to Ukraine since the beginning of 2014, according to the Ukrainian State Migration Service.

Chechnya leader calls for war on Putin's critics
By Maria Antonova
AFP, January 19, 2016

The strongman leader of Russia's Chechnya region, Ramzan Kadyrov, on Tuesday threatened to eradicate "enemy" opposition in Russia, raising more concerns about the fate of Kremlin critics and independent media in the country.
Kadyrov, who rules with an iron grip the North Caucasus region that was the scene of two separatist wars, penned a lengthy diatribe in pro-Kremlin daily Izvestiya against the critics of President Vladimir Putin, calling them a "gang of jackals" who "dream of destroying our state."
"We will save Russia if we don't spare the enemy," Kadyrov wrote, calling himself "Putin's foot soldier" and offering to put the opposition in a Chechen asylum where "there won't be a shortage of injections."
The latest broadside by former rebel Kadyrov -- accused by human rights groups of overseeing torture, extrajudicial executions and corruption -- came after he last week called liberal independent media "enemies of Russia" that seek to sow "chaos" in the Caucasus and beyond.

Read the full article here.

The rise of an ultra-Orthodox Ukrainian Jew
AFP, January 17, 2016

Asher Tcherkasski’s life revolved around the traditions of Orthodox Judaism and raising three children to observe these traditions. But the war in eastern Ukraine changed all that.
Asher joined a battalion of pro-Ukrainian volunteers battling pro-Russian rebels at the start of the conflict. With his long beard and his glasses, he quickly became one of the most recognizable figures of the conflict, which enabled him to gain popularity and enter politics.
A native of Feodosia, an historic city in the southeast of the Crimean Peninsula, the 45-year-old who made his living by doing odd jobs did not hesitate for a second to abandon the peninsula after its annexation by Moscow in March 2014, considering that the new status of Crimea was "not in line" with his convictions.

By Bread Alone: Why Poor Russians Aren't Protesting
By Andrei Kolesnikov
Carnegie Moscow Center, January 18, 2016

Russians are tightening their belts and forgoing luxuries to cope with the new economic crisis. But they are conditioned to avoid protest. The government has little to fear, but the result is systemic poverty and economic stagnation.
Wherever Russians eat, they always look for the bread on the table. Russia has a cultural stereotype of bread as something of great value and the stuff of life. Yet, in reality, the cult of bread—and the Russian superstition against wasting it or throwing it out—is a historical consequence of decades of hunger.
As Russia's economy falls on hard times, a significant segment of the Russian population is turning again to subsistence on bread. This doesn’t affect the entire population, just those who have long been mired in poverty and those in the lower middle class who are now joining them. Today, Russia’s social pyramid looks a lot more like a drainpipe than a trampoline.
These people must rely on what historian Oleg Khlevniuk calls an old Russian combination of bread, potatoes, and vodka. Khlevniuk's triad was the nutritional core during the Stalin years and remained so even in later, somewhat more prosperous years.

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Founded in 1971, NCSEJ 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.