Russia has won back ownership of the Sergei Courtyard, its former property in Jerusalem, and now looks to recapture two other Jerusalem landmarks: the Alexander Nevsky Church in the Old City's Christian Quarter and the Elisabeth Courtyard.
In their meeting last Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin mostly discussed Iran. Putin nevertheless used the meeting to once again thank the prime minister on transferring ownership of the Sergei complex to Russia and to remind him of two related tasks: returning ownership of the Alexander Nevsky Church in the Old City's Christian Quarter and purchasing the Elisabeth Courtyard, where the Israel Police's Russian Compound detention center is now located.
On July 18, a ceremony took place in the Sergei Courtyard, celebrating the reopening of the complex to the general public for the first time since ownership of it was transferred to the Russian government.
The ownership transfer promise was made originally by then prime minister Ariel Sharon while an official decision was made during the tenure of prime minister Ehud Olmert as a gesture of goodwill to Putin and as "evidence of the connection between the two states and peoples." Only Prime Minister Netanyahu made good on the old pledge.
The Sergei Courtyard was built in 1890 as part of the larger Russian compound during the reign of Czar Alexander III and was named after his brother. In the past, the compound housed British Mandate government offices and—post-independence—Israeli government offices. The building was returned to Russia some six years ago and has been undergoing renovations since.
Negotiations for the building's transfer were handled by the Foreign Ministry, and it was agreed the historic building's courtyard will remain open to the public. The new complex will also boast a Russian cultural center and a hostel for pilgrims.
The July ceremony was attended by the Minister of Environmental Protection and Minister of Jerusalem Affairs Ze'ev Elkin and former Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin, who has been appointed by Putin to oversee the return of Russian assets in Israel.
Stepashin made it clear Russia considers the Sergei Courtyard to be only the first step, and that it is now interested in once again receiving ownership of the Alexander Nevsky Church, named after the 13th century Russian prince who repelled German and Swede invaders, located near the Old City's Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Stepashin further added Russia has already presented the Israeli Ministry of Justice with documents proving its ownership of the property, built on land purchased in 1857.
Stepashin also noted Russia is interested in recovering ownership of the Elisabeth Courtyard, where a police detention center is now located. The courtyard was a women pilgrim's hostel named after Austro-Hungarian Empress Elisabeth. During the British Mandate, the hostel was used for locking up criminals, similar to the building's usage today.
The Elisabeth Courtyard was given to Israel in the 1960s as part of the famed oranges deal, where Israel received ownership of the property for $4,500,000, some of which were paid in oranges. To this day the Russians insist on receiving ownership back.
Stepashin spoke with Alex Tenzer, an expert on Israel-Russia relations, telling him Netanyahu promised the Russians to sell them the detention center and that the Kremlin is now looking for Jewish oligarchs who'll be willing to buy it. An idea floated in this regard is carrying out a circular transaction, wherein Russia receives ownership of the detention center and in return builds a new center of a similar size somewhere else in Jerusalem.
The possibility of Jewish Russian oligarchs financing the complex's eviction is now a decade old, and Russia even negotiated with Arcadi Gaydamak and Roman Abramovich on this matter. Tenser, meanwhile, fears selling the detention center back to Russia will arouse other countries to call for a return of their former assets.