Berl Lazar, one of the country's two competing chief rabbis, on Wednesday said Putin  had sent out a clear signal to officials by making high-profile visits to Jewish events.

   

"It is clear that it was the president who launched this change of attitude by turning up at the opening of our community centre, then at the Jewish festival," Lazar said.

   

Lazar also brushed aside suggestions that legal troubles besetting  some of Russia's powerful "oligarchs" - post-Soviet billionaires - were linked to their  Jewish origins.

 

Confidence

   

"Never before have Jews in Russia felt so confident and been so optimistic about their future here," Lazar told reporters in Moscow.

   

Good-humoured and affable in his traditional black brimmed hat, the Italian-born cleric said the number of attacks on Jews had halved over the last nine months.

 

The rabbi, who only last year had urged authorities to do more to stamp out hate attacks on Jews, said Putin's message had been well received by ordinary Russians who have traditionally held less serious animosity towards Jews than others in Europe.

   

Lazar, who spent many years in the United States, clearly has Putin's ear and receives invitations to the Kremlin - unlike Russia's other chief rabbi Adolf Shayevich, who has held his post since the Soviet era.

 

"Never before have Jews in Russia felt so confident and been so optimistic about their future here"

Berl Lazar
chief rabbi, Russia

Lazar said his conversations with Putin had led him to believe the Kremlin leader was genuinely interested in securing a future for Russian Jews.

   

"Yeltsin ignored the issue of anti-Semitism, it was a taboo word during his tenure," Lazar said of Putin's predecessor, Russia's first post-Soviet president, Boris Yeltsin.

   

"Today the president is ready to fight to eradicate it," he said.

   

Lazar also rejected suggestions there was any anti-Semitic overtones to a row pitting the Kremlin against the head of Russia's oil major YUKOS, Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

   

He said Khodorkovsky, Russia's richest man, had assured him his Jewish background had played no role in the affair.

   

Nor did Lazar see any such undertones in the misfortunes of two other Jewish "oligarchs", Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky, who became wealthy in dubious post-Soviet sell-offs of industry but later fell foul of the Kremlin and fled Russia.

   

Anti-Semitism has a long history in Russia, dating back to tsarist times.