Moscow asks SPNI to vacate capital’s Russian Compound

Request violates contract, must be handled through governments, says nature group.

Sergei's Courtyard 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Sergei's Courtyard 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
A representative of the Russian government has demanded that the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel leave its downtown Jerusalem office in Sergei’s Courtyard – in violation of the contract that transferred ownership of the area to the Russian government on March 22, SPNI announced.
The transfer of property, which occurred ahead of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s visit to Moscow in late March, was contingent on two conditions: the current occupants (including SPNI), would be allowed to stay; and the courtyard would continue to be open to the public.
“Any change in the current occupancy and usage of the property... will be done in agreement between the two governments,” stated a Foreign Ministry memo to the Russian Embassy from March 21.
When the representative and the lawyer approached SPNI Jerusalem, and requested a meeting with the director about a week ago, SPNI Jerusalem branch head, Pazit Schweid, assumed they wanted to talk about the new ownership, or a partnership for the future. According to the agreement, any renovations or changes to the building must be coordinated with the Russian government.
“They came and said, ‘within a half a year you’ll be out of here,’ or, ‘we’re allowing you to stay for an additional six months,’” said Schweid. “They turned to us – in contradiction of the agreement. It needs to go through the government.
I’m an organization, I can’t make these types of decisions.
The property was transferred following a 2007 cabinet decision, before a visit by then-prime minister Ehud Olmert to Russia, that approved the transfer of ownership of the Czarist-era landmark in the center of the capital to the Russian government.
The building was built in 1890 to accommodate Russian pilgrims visiting the Holy Land, and was named after Tsar Alexander II’s son, Sergei Alexandrovich.
Israel acquired some 90 percent of the Russian Compound in 1964, paying the former Soviet Union $3.5 million. The purchase was dubbed the “Orange Deal” because Israel, lacking hard currency, paid the Russians in citrus fruit. Sergei’s Courtyard, however, was part of the remaining 10% not covered in the deal, and Putin made regaining the property a priority when he was Russia’s president.
“The only people that can ask them to leave is the government of Israel,” said Pini Avivi, the senior deputy director of the Foreign Ministry.
“Not even the Foreign Ministry can ask them to leave, it has to be the government itself,” he said.
Avivi said the government had no plans to ask SPNI to leave. However, he added that because SPNI does not have protected tenant status, they could be asked to leave in the future.
The lawyer handling the case for the Russian Embassy, Boris Lamper, declined to comment on the issue, and the embassy did not return phone calls seeking comment.
“The city of Jerusalem considers it extremely important for the courtyard to be open to the public,” said Naomi Tsur, the deputy mayor for environment and planning, who directed the Jerusalem SPNI from 1996 to 2007.
“What is very clear is that even if it’s open to [the] public, the presence of SPNI enhances [the area] with lectures, tours, and the garden,” she added. “There is a real interest in public benefit and inspiration here, and I hope the Russian government sees it in the same way.
We’re seeking to find ways to work with them.”
Herb Keinon contributed to this report.