Russian immigrants poised for power in Israel Former Soviet citizens might win at least four Knesset seats this week


GIVAT HAMATOS, Israel -- Four years after the last election -- four years for Ludmilla Gasin in a mobile home that swelters in the summer and leaks in the winter -- the Labor-led government now says it will help her buy a home.

Too late, she says.

"The big parties have cheated us. The Labor government didn't do anything. After all this disillusionment, the only thing left for immigrants is the Russian party," said the 58-year-old economist from Kiev, Ukraine.

The Russian immigrants who began flooding into Israel as the Soviet Union collapsed are on the verge of becoming a potent political power in their adopted home.

They are doing so with the inspiration of Natan Sharansky, a balding, cherubic former "refusenik" who spent nine years in the Soviet gulag. The immigrants are expected to elect Sharansky and at least three other members of his new party to the Israeli parliament in Wednesday's balloting.

Though small, the new party might be big enough in the fractured Knesset to become an influential swing vote between the left-wing and right-wing blocs, a role traditionally enjoyed to great advantage by small religious parties.

Moreover, the immigrant voters could decide the race for prime minister. Incumbent Shimon Peres of the Labor Party and challenger Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud are so evenly matched in opinion polls that winning the 14 percent of the electorate that is the "Russian" vote is crucial for both of them.

"For the first time in the history of Israel, immigrants will really become part of the decision-making process of this country," said Sharansky. "They will decide their own fate and the fate of the country."

By his own account, this new-found power is the product of the slow evolution of the immigrant community and himself.

Mathematician Anatoly Sharansky was a bold activist in Moscow campaigning for Jewish immigration from the Soviet Union. He was plucked away from the company of a Sun correspondent by KGB agents in March 1977 and charged with treason and spying.

He spent the next nine years in prison, more than 3,000 days in solitary confinement. He was released in Berlin in 1986 in a prisoner exchange. He immediately came to Israel, where he changed his first name to Natan, and continued to campaign for Jewish immigration to Israel.

It began to happen in 1989, when Soviet restrictions on immigration began to crumble with the regime. In 1990, 185,000 Jews came to Israel; the next year, 150,000. In the last six years, about 650,000 Jews arrived, a massive immigration that fulfilled Israel's promise to gather the world's Jews but also caused wrenching social problems in the tiny country.

Sharansky wants another 1 million former Soviet Jews to come to Israel, and he wants conditions for those in Israel to improve.

"It was never my dream to be in the Knesset," he said. "In this 10 years, I used every possibility of influence that could be done [outside] of the Knesset. I came to the conclusion that to continue being influential, there is no other way but to become a political power."

His party, called Yisrael Ba-Aliya, is a play on the Israeli term for immigration, "aliya," which means "ascent to a higher place."

The immigrants -- universally called "Russians" no matter what republic they came from -- arrived at a country that was something less than their expectations. It did not have enough housing, enough jobs or enough schools for the new arrivals.

Thousands lived for years in "absorption hotels" or mobile homes, like those in the trailer park that sprawls over a sun-baked hillside of Givat Hamatos, outside Jerusalem.

"We are really suffering here," said Gasin, once a ranking civil servant in Kiev, who now sits in front of a fan in her cramped mobile home where she has lived for four years.

Even some who have moved into better housing have found themselves trapped in poverty.

Anatoly Babkin was a dental technician in Azerbaijan until he and his wife fled in 1991 to Israel. At 59, he cannot find work. About 60 percent of the Russian immigrants are professionals and have overwhelmed the professions of doctors, engineers, teachers and even dental technicians.

His wife, Tatayana, works as a maid in a hotel for $525 a month. They rent a two-room apartment in Jerusalem with peeling paint and curtains for doors. They pay $400 a month -- and the landlord is raising the rent.

"In Baku [Azerbaijan], I didn't even know anyone who lived in these conditions," Babkin said bitterly. He said he voted for the Labor government four years ago, but "they did nothing for us. These people only want power."

But the complaints about jobless, destitute immigrants are slowly diminishing. Many of the immigrants are joining the mainstream of society -- with the help of government subsidies, language programs and training courses. They do not subscribe to the goals of Sharansky's party, and many reject the move to separate the Russians from other Israelis.

"To be honest, after five years, we don't even feel like 'olim' [immigrants] anymore," said Michael Dubrovinski, 44. He and his wife, Alexandra, have good jobs as computer programmers. They have bought a bright, airy, two-bedroom flat in Jerusalem. Their son, Mati, is a handsome 15-year-old acclimated to Israeli society; he concedes he has no Russian immigrants as friends.

"When Sharansky talks about the hardships of immigration, he's not our man," said Dubrovinski. But he said he was contemplating voting for Sharansky anyway: "He's the only one who has raised economic issues in this campaign that we think are important."

The two major parties, Likud and Labor, have virtually ignored economic issues. Their campaign themes have played exclusively on the fears of Arabs, the threat of terrorism, the dangers or advantages of the peace process.

On those issues, Sharansky favors the right-wing Likud's Netanyahu, a personal friend. But he strives mightily to avoid taking public sides in the debate, cognizant that his supporters are divided between Netanyahu and Peres.

"The Russians are not soldiers. They don't expect me to prompt them for whom to vote," he pleads in answer to the insistent question about whom he will endorse in the prime minister's election.

The answer is that he will endorse neither man. Sharansky has said his new party will be open to negotiations to join either side in a government coalition. Sharansky himself stands a good chance of becoming a minister.

Such political evasiveness is a new role for the outspoken activist. Sharansky admits as much with self-deprecating humor and an ever-present grin, as though he is amused to see himself a player in this process.

"Ten years ago, it was the triumph of my life," he recalled of his release from prison. "I was a hero. I was loved by everybody. Today, I'm on the verge of becoming another dirty politician that everybody is suspicious of, and nobody thinks they can trust."

Pub Date: 5/26/96

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