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#15 - JRL 7038
Natan Sharansky's Whirlwind Visit to St. Petersburg
January 27, 2003

Natan Sharansky recently returned to St. Petersburg for the first time in almost thirty years. Leaving behind the 20-degree heat of the Israeli winter, he had hoped to find a real winter in the northern capital of Russia. However, the city of his romantic youth failed to provide the beautiful winter weather he had been counting on and the former dissident, the famous human rights activist, politician, minister and chess player was met by rain and slush.

Despite the fact that the head of the Israeli committee on the 300th anniversary of Saint Petersburg was brought along 'badly lit streets' for a meeting with City Governor Vladimir Yakovlev at Smolny, he still managed to notice the city's preparations for its 300th anniversary. Of course this is far more obvious in the Smolny district of the city but Mr Sharansky also remarked that the buildings in the city centre looked even more impressive than they had so many years ago.

Having argued with the governor over whether or not the Israeli national chess team was better or not than the Saint Petersburg team, he proposed organising a chess competition for the city's anniversary. He even said that he would take part, provided of course that a Russian politician backs him up and participates too.

Naturally, the Israeli deputy prime minister will not be able to attend unless there are more signs of peace in the Middle East. Mr Sharansky told journalists that at the present time all of his trips abroad were necessarily short. In fact he only spent a few hours in Saint Petersburg, during which time he talked with the governor, attended a press conference and prayed in the synagogue.

The Israeli deputy prime minister said that talks on Israel's preparations for the Russian city's anniversary had been the main focus of his visit. In actual fact Israel contains the largest contingent of Saint Petersburg citizens after Saint Petersburg itself: there are currently more than 80 thousand ?migr?s from Saint Petersburg living there. According to Mr Sharansky 'this proves what the Soviet government could never understand - that those who emigrated from the Soviet Union are bringing two countries together, not causing a division.'

In view of the fact that there are about 1 million former Soviet citizens now living in the country, Israel does not intend to limit its participation in the city's anniversary to purely official events. The Tel-Aviv philharmonic orchestra is expected to arrive here on May 18. Mr Sharansky believes that this orchestra, a large part of which is comprised of former Saint Petersburg residents and Muscovites, is one of the best in the world.

Also attending the celebrations in Saint Petersburg will be actors, artists and literati who began their careers in the Soviet Union and then pursued these creative careers further in Israel. Mr Sharansky said that there is already quite fierce competition to be part of the Israeli delegation for the celebrations, as there are many who would like to take part. He could only promise that the delegation would be very impressive.

Mr Sharansky also said that, in his opinion, relations between Russia and Israel have been improving in recent years. More than anything, he said, this is because 'the Russian leadership has realized the benefit that comes from national minorities living with their national culture and traditions and the fact that those people who have left Russia to live abroad are not necessarily enemies but are rather the country's representatives abroad.'

Mr Sharansky added that a political factor had also brought the two countries together as Russia now has a much more balanced view on the Arab-Israeli conflict. The deputy prime minister said that the third factor in this process was that 'in the free world's struggle against terrorism' many had come to understand that 'the Middle East problem is not a tribal war between Arabs and Jews but a part of the larger struggle against terrorism.'

These issues were discussed by Mr Sharansky and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov when they met on January 17. They had already met each other on several occasions and this suggests that they have reached some level of understanding. One other topic of debate was the question of dual nationality, which Russia and Israel have yet to reach an agreement on. However, this does not alter the fact that there are many Israeli citizens who also own a Russian passport.

Mr Sharansky's visit to Russia met a great deal of interest among journalists and the local community. A large number of people gathered at the international press centre to ask him questions on issues ranging from the city's anniversary to Israel's fight against drugs.

The interest was not really caused by the fact that the Israeli Prime Minister seldom visits Russia nor was it caused by the charisma of Mr Sharansky on both a personal and political level. The fact is that the current situation in and around Israel has more questions than answers. Some of these questions will be answered within the next week when the Israeli general election is held. Other questions will be answered at the next meeting of international arbitrators on the Arab-Israeli conflict, who plan to meet at the beginning of February to outline their next peace plan.

Of course nobody really knows when there will be peace in the Middle East. Let's hope that when Mr Sharansky next visits Saint Petersburg, there will be no need to hurry back to Tel Aviv and that he will be able to answer all our questions.

Vera Haifets Rosbalt

Translated by Nick Chesters

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