Monday, 7 July 1997

SWITCH BY PRIME MINISTER'S STAFF SPED BILL THROUGH UPPER HOUSE by Lawrence A. Uzzell, Keston News Service     Resistance to a bill imposing harsh new restrictions on religious minorities crumbled in the upper house of the Russian parliament after the office of PRIME MINISTER CHERNOMYRDIN changed its position, a source in the Federation Council told Keston News Service on 5 July.  On 30 June, said the source, the prime minister's office informed members of the upper house that it would prefer to see the two houses form a joint commission to correct the bill's defects.  The aide who conveyed that message was ANDREI SEBENTSOV.  But just four days later, it was Sebentsov himself who spoke on the floor of the Federation Council to urge that it accept the bill in exactly the form passed by the lower house on 23 June.     Sebentsov had expressed his doubts about the legislation not only on 30 June but even before it was passed by the Duma.  On 6 June, just before the Duma's committee on religion met behind closed doors, he told Keston that the draft bill would not and should not become law in the form which the committee was about to approve.  He particularly objected to a provision allowing some religious bodies to have 'all-Russian' status, telling Keston that such a concept is appropriate for political bodies but 'wrong in principle' for religious ones.     On 23 June a source in the Duma told Keston that it was Sebentsov who had insisted on giving existing religious bodies until the end of 1999 rather than 1998 to complete their mandatory re-registration.  Of all the substantive changes in the bill's text between the Duma's 'second reading' on 18 June and 'third reading' on 23 June, this was the only one which tended to make the bill milder rather than harsher.     Sebentsov had been thought by many to be less hard-line than his colleague GENRIKH MIKHAILOV, a former official of the old Council for Religious Affairs.  On 11 June a well-informed source told Keston that Sebentsov had wanted the bill's preamble to give equal status to all four of the specifically named 'traditional religions' (Orthodoxy, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism), but that Communist deputy VIKTOR ZORKALTSEV, chairman of the Duma's committee on religion, had rejected this idea.  Nevertheless, the bill which Sebentsov publicly supported on 4 July was identical to the one which he had wanted to delay on 30 June.     What happened between 30 June and 4 July?  As often in Russian politics, the few who know are not telling. The source in the Federation Council said that two of the upper house's committees wrote reports criticising the Duma's bill, but then withdrew them under pressure.     In spite of Sebentsov's and Chernomyrdin's support for the bill, opponents still see a good chance that PRESIDENT YELTSIN will veto it.  Under Yeltsin's free-wheeling style of leadership it is not unusual for him to take positions at odds with those of his own prime minister, and Chernomyrdin is generally thought to have less influence in the Kremlin today than some months ago. Opponents recall that Sebentsov also supported anti-missionary legislation passed by parliament in 1993, and that the 1993 measure was far less harsh than this year's bill - but that the president rejected it as an assault on basic human rights. (END)     Monday, 7 July 1997 OPPONENTS SEE HOPE FOR YELTSIN VETO     by Lawrence A. Uzzell, Keston News Service     Will PRESIDENT YELTSIN give in to pressures to sign the Russian parliament's new bill on religion even though, according to the bill's opponents, it plainly contradicts the 1993 constitution which was largely Yeltsin's own creation?  Some say that the political situation has changed so much since 1993 that the answer is Yes.  But more optimistic opponents of this year's bill point out that Russia received a clear statement of Yeltsin's views not only in 1993 but as recently as the autumn of 1996. If the president still believes in the arguments expressed in a statement submitted on his behalf to the Duma's committee on religion last September, say these opponents, then he must and will veto this year's bill.     Yeltsin's staff submitted his September statement in response to a bill which had received tentative approval ('first reading') from the parliament's lower house in July 1996.  Virtually all observers and participants agree that this 1996 bill was less restrictive and less problematic from a constitutional standpoint than the one given final approval by both houses this summer. The 1996 bill's chief legislative architect was Duma deputy VALERI BORSHCHOV, who has been the parliament's leading opponent of this year's bill.     The 1996 bill included a section on 'foreign religious organisations' which was far less restrictive than that of the 1997 bill: for example, it did not require that foreign churches or missionaries may operate in Russia only as the guests of Russian religious bodies.  But the Yeltsin administration found even this milder version to be unconstitutional.  Challenging the proposed section's basic premise, the president's September statement expressed 'doubt that a special legal act is necessary to regulate the opening in Russia of representative bodies of religious organisations.   Representative bodies of various foreign organisations are now being opened in Russia: commercial, non-commercial, social and so on.  We suggest that a single legal act regulating the opening of representative bodies of legal personalities would be appropriate.  In our view, this question should be regulated by federal law.  Moreover, the possible existence of a special system, confirmed by an act of the Russian government, for the opening of representative bodies of foreign religious organisations creates doubts about the constitutional principle of the equality of religious associations as secured by Article 14 of the Russian Constitution.'     The president's September 1996 statement went on to criticise that year's proposal for diverging from the principles of Russia's civic code for registering organisations.  It insisted that the bill be 'brought into conformity with the Civic Code of the Russian Federation, insofar as state registration should be carried out above all in accordance with this Code'.  The 1997 bill, with provisions such as its controversial '15-year rule' denying the rights of a legal personality to newly formed or newly registered religious bodies, diverges even further from the Civic Code.   The September statement called for the residential requirements for persons registering a religious organisation to be relaxed, so as not to contradict the constitutional guarantee of freedom of movement for citizens.  The 1997 law's residential requirements are subject to precisely the same argument.     Also, the president's 1996 statement to the legislators insisted that the July 1996 bill violated the constitution by requiring that persons wishing to register a new religious organisation must provide proof of citizenship.  This requirement, said the president's message, contradicted the guarantee in Article 28 of the constitution of religious freedom to 'everyone', not just to citizens.  Instead, said the message, it should be 'enough that a person wishing to register a religious organisation is legally present on the territory of the Russian Federation'.  The 1997 bill, of course, would concede even fewer rights to foreigners than the 1996 bill.     Yeltsin's statement was distributed to religious leaders, journalists and others at a 27 September session of a presidential human-rights panel devoted to considering amendments to the July bill.  Well-informed sources told Keston News Service at the time that the statement had been drafted by the president's legal staff headed by RUSLAN OREKHOV, who has often worked behind the scenes in defence of religious freedom.   Orekhov still holds the same position today as he did in September, and there is no evidence that he has since been rebuked or punished for the stance which he took then.     Even though Yeltsin's health problems in September probably kept him from studying the issue in detail, the fact that Orekhov was able to get the message released in the president's name shows that ten months ago the balance of power within the Yeltsin administration favoured religious freedom.  Does it still?  We will soon know.(END)