In Kyrgyzstan, anti-Semitism erupts in the wake of the president’s ouster
When protestors in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek violently seized the executive office building and evicted its occupant, President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, on April 7, they draped the massive, Soviet-era structure in signs befitting their revolutionary fervor. Opposition to Bakiyev’s corrupt and increasingly oppressive regime had been simmering for years in this central Asian nation and reached a boiling point in early April when Russia increased duties on gas and diesel exports. Bakiyev had visibly enriched himself and his family since taking office in 2005 after leading the country’s “Tulip Revolution,” one of the lesser-known “color revolutions,” in which popular movements peacefully ousted pro-Russian regimes in former Soviet republics. Judging from the posters draping the White House—as the executive office building is known—the anger at Bakiyev was white hot. “The Bitch Bakiyev, Get Out,” was a particularly popular motto that I saw spray-painted in several different locations. After decamping to his native village in the southern part of the country, Bakiyev fled to Kazakhstan a week after his downfall and is now residing in Belarus at the behest of its authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko.
Alongside the anti-Bakiyev scrawlings, another slogan seemed oddly out of place: “Kyrgyzstan has no place for dirty Jews and the likes of Maxim.” This imprecation was directed at Maxim Bakiyev, the erstwhile president’s youngest son. In November of last year, the then-president of Kyrgyzstan appointed Maxim to head the Central Agency for Development, Investment, and Innovation, a body that was supposed run the country’s lagging, agriculturally based economy. The call for Jews to leave the country hanging on the gate outside the White House was a reference to Eugene Gourevitch, a shadowy, Kyrgyz-born businessman with American citizenship who was rumored to be a close associate of Maxim’s.
Attacks on the country’s small Jewish community—which numbers no more than 2,000, down from 40,000 at the end of World War II—did not end there. On the evening of April 8, a small group of vandals launched a Molotov cocktail into the courtyard of Bishkek’s synagogue. Fortunately there was no damage, and the house of worship’s neighbors—gentiles, as the head of Kyrgyzstan’s Jewish community, Rabbi Arieh Reichman, was sure to tell me—prevented a fire from breaking out. While the traumatic political events in Kyrgyzstan have shaken the entire country, they have especially affected its Jewish community, which throughout its two millennia of history has never experienced the pogroms or violent harassment that have scarred the Jewish Diaspora. (Soon after it gained independence from the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan established diplomatic relations with Israel, and relations between the two countries have generally been warm.)
It is perhaps because of this lack of knowledge about and experience with Jews that Eugene Gourevitch makes such an easy hate figure in a moderate-Muslim country whose leaders have had a hand in the till. Gourevitch, who was born in Kyrgyzstan, acquired American citizenship in 1990. In July of 2008, he founded the financial services firm MGN Capital, which enjoyed a consultative role with the government agency operated by Maxim Bakiyev, as well as in the privatization of the country’s electric and telecommunications utilities. MGN grew to have around 50 employees by the time of last month’s tumult and “became very successful in just a year,” one former employee told me last month in Bishkek. Though Gourevitch denied having any ties to Maxim Bakiyev, MGN’s nickname in Kyrgyzstan was “Maxim, Gourevitch, Nadel,” (this last being for Mikhail Nadel, a business associate of Gourevitch’s). Following Bakiyev’s downfall, according to him and several of his erstwhile colleagues, the company is now in utter disarray.
On March 9, less than a month before Bakiyev would be swept from office, Gourevitch wasindicted, along with 55 other co-conspirators, in an Italian court for defrauding a telecommunications company of $2.7 billion. According to the 1,600 page arrest warrant, Gourevitch “created, managed and used a series of companies through which he moved an enormous quantity of money constituting the ‘cuts’ destined for the various members of the conspiracy.” The next day, he resigned as head of MGN, citing “personal problems,” in the words of a former employee. In the weeks leading up to Bakiyev’s April 7 ouster, what remained of Kyrgyzstan’s independent press reported on the alleged ties between Gourevitch and Maxim, adding yet another layer to the well-developed narrative of the president’s corrupt family. One newspaper featured a cartoon depicting Gourevitch pushing around various members of the Bakiyev regime in a baby stroller.
According to former employees, Gourevitch began traveling with two or three bodyguards earlier this year, and juggled four cell phones. He was rumored to live next door to the prime minister in Bishkek’s toniest neighborhood. Russian television, one of Gourevitch’s former workers told me, “portrayed him like a warlord,” criticism that many say helped to bring down the regime itself. The Russians had grown angry with Bakiyev last year after he reneged on a promise to evict from Kyrgyzstan an American air base—the Transit Center at Manas—that supplies the war effort in Afghanistan. Bakiyev made the initial announcement after receiving a $2 billion loan guarantee from Moscow, and it was widely understood that the threat to kick out the Americans was a quid pro quo. But four months later, after the United States offered to more than triple the amount of money it was paying to “rent” the land on which the base sits, Bakiyev reneged.
Gourevitch’s current whereabouts are unknown. Rumors swirling around Bishkek had him taking a private plane to Moscow, Tel Aviv, or New York. Maxim, who had landed in Washington, D.C., for a U.S.-government sponsored development conference by the time his father had been ousted, is suspected to be in Latvia.
The recent disturbances are something that Reichman is visibly uncomfortable talking about. When I meet him at the dingy, cramped, and gated compound that serves as the headquarters for the country’s Jewish community and that houses its only synagogue, he waves off speculation that they are in any way indicative of a deeper problem in the country. “The Kyrgyz people are very hospitable and warm-hearted,” he insists. “This is supported by the fact that Jews have lived here untroubled.” Yet when asked whether or not it is fair to say that the alleged ties between a Jewish businessman and the corrupt family that ruled Kyrgyzstan are responsible for the expression of anti-Semitic sentiments, Reichman notes, “The people did not come to Gourevitch’s house. They came to the synagogue.”
Reichman recently wrote a letter to the leaders of the interim government expressing the community’s concern about potential anti-Semitism, but the hastily arranged group of 14 former opposition politicians now running the country have yet to respond. Given the tasks facing them, that’s understandable. And Reichman dismisses concerns about the safety of his flock. “We don’t see a constant threat, a danger for future attacks or assaults,” he tells me. “We think that this was a singular act of aggression, and we hope that it won’t happen again.”