Tuesday, 2 September 1997

YELTSIN'S STAFF PRESSURING HIM TO ACCEPT SECRETIVE 'COMPROMISE' by Lawrence A. Uzzell, Keston News Service     In a repetition of the tactics of secrecy and haste which led to the passage of the parliament's July bill restricting religious freedom, supporters of that bill were pushing hard on 2 September to get President Yeltsin to endorse a 'compromise' text which in most of its key provisions is similar to the July bill which the president vetoed.  But as of late Tuesday afternoon a final version of the text was still not ready for the president's signature, a well-placed source told Keston.  This source said that the president may not make a final decision until Thursday, after he has learned the reaction of Duma leaders to the proposed compromise.     According to a source in the parliament, Yeltsin conferred today with leaders of the various parliamentary parties and suggested that they should vote for the 'compromise' bill  even though the precise text of the bill at that point did not yet exist.     Late Tuesday morning the Moscow Patriarchate released a statement hailing the 'compromise' as 'in essence not changing the concepts and basic provisions of the legislation passed by the parliament'.  But as of mid-afternoon Tuesday, the office of ANDREI LOGINOV told Keston News Service that the final text of the new bill was still not available.   A staff specialist of the Duma's committee on religion, who helped draft the July bill, told Keston on 2 September that 'what we're seeing is the restoration of the pre-1985 norms on church-state relations.'  He predicted that religious bodies less than 15 years old in Russia, such as the two apostolic administrations of the Roman Catholic Church, will lose their status if the compromise becomes law.  The new version of the 15-year probationary period, he said, will explicitly include as a standard that a group must have existed on a legal basis - not just de facto - in order to escape the requirement of frequent re-registration.  'As soon as they have to undergo their first re-registration they will be reclassified as religious groups rather than religious organisations,' he said - meaning that they will lose the rights of 'legal personalities'.     Several parliamentary sources told Keston that there will be no Duma vote on Wednesday, either on the proposed compromise or to override Yeltsin's veto of the original July bill.  Instead, the committee on religion is likely to meet on Thursday to discuss how the Duma should react to the new compromise bill.   At a 1 September session of the president's council for cooperation with religious associations, Yeltsin administration officials who support the parliament's bill succeeded in persuading at least two of Russia's larger minority confessions to drop their opposition to most of its key provisions. Negotiators for the Roman Catholic Church and the Baptist Union confirmed to Keston that they had  to support a bill close to the administration's draft 'compromise' text which the Catholics were still criticising, and the Baptists vigorously rejecting, as recently as last week.  The Pentecostals and the Old Believers continue to oppose the bill.     Participants from different confessions gave conflicting accounts of what happened in Monday's negotiations.  A Catholic source said that the bill which was agreed upon today will be virtually identical to the proposed 'compromise' which was circulated last week by the president's administration, while other sources said that the new text will include some changes.  A Baptist source said that a religious organisation which cannot prove that it has existed for 15 years would now be able to get the status of a legal personality but would be under various limitations on its activities.  A Pentecostal source said that administration officials will be working late this evening to develop a final version of the text, which will then be presented to Yeltsin on Tuesday.     The Catholics and Baptists apparently agreed to give the administration officials a free hand to draft the final version of the bill and then transmit it to the president without returning the finished text for final review and approval by the minority confessions - even though these same minority confessions had earlier complained that the administration officials have repeatedly added written changes to drafts that did not reflect the oral agreements arrived at in previous negotiating sessions.  The Catholics and Baptists also apparently failed to win any concessions by the hard-line Duma leadership in return for their own concessions.  Viktor Zorkaltsev, who attended today's negotiations, did not commit himself to support the 'compromise'.  He remains free, should he choose, simply to push for a straight override of the president's veto - or to combine the most anti-freedom elements of both drafts.   When asked why he was willing to support this bill, a Catholic source said that he had been persuaded by the argument that if the federal parliament did not pass legislation in this area, provincial legislatures would continue passing even more repressive laws.       According to an Interfax report, PATRIARCH ALEKSI made it known on 2 September that he is now willing to meet POPE JOHN PAUL in order to discuss issues such as proselytism.     A Baptist source told Keston that as a practical matter the decision came down to a choice between the parliament's July bill and last week's 'compromise' draft.  Other sources said that the administration officials repeatedly emphasised the 1 September deadline set by Yeltsin.  A Pentecostal source said that most of the minority confessions have abandoned their opposition to the 'compromise' on the ground 'that we've done all we can', but that the Pentecostals disagree: 'We think this law is still not ready, we have 21 points on which we have not been satisfied.' 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