RUSSIA: Religious-Political Parties to be Banned?

by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 20 March 2001

A draft law prohibiting the formation of political parties dependent upon religious affiliation could be adopted by Russia's lower house of parliament, the State Duma, next month. Such a law would contradict guidelines on the prohibition and dissolution of political parties drawn up in January 2000 by the Council of Europe's Venice Commission, according to which `prohibition or enforced dissolution of political parties may be justified only in the case of parties which advocate the use of violence or use violence as a political means to overthrow the democratic constitutional order'.

The proposed law - which prohibits `the formation of political parties characterised by professional, social, racial, national or religious affiliation, or dependent upon gender or place of origin' (Article 9 Point 3) - passed its first reading in the Duma on 7 February. The second reading is due to take place in early April, assistant chairman of the Duma's Committee for Social and Religious Organisations Aleksandr Chuyev told Keston on 13 February.

Chuyev also heads the Russian Christian Democratic Party (RCDP), which forms part of the pro-Putin parliamentary bloc Yedinstvo (Unity). How, Keston asked, had Chuyev reconciled leadership of a religion-based party with Yedinstvo's unanimous support for the bill? Maintaining that his party was not in fact religious - `it is a secular party but has religious principles' - Chuyev nevertheless expressed some concern that the RCDP could be banned should the current draft become law. Consequently, Chuyev told Keston, he had proposed amendments to the bill according to which membership of a political party `could not be restricted to persons of a particular religion, gender and so on'. He was confident these would be adopted with the bill's second reading.

Speaking to Keston on 7 February, aide to Duma deputy Sergei Kovalyov, Lev Levinson, commented that if the current draft were adopted, the liquidation of Muslim and Christian Democratic parties could result. However, he believed an amendment removing the ban on parties characterised by social affiliation would be introduced with the second reading. Predicting resistance to the ban on religious-political parties from both the RCDP and the overwhelmingly Muslim party Refakh (Welfare) - which is also part of the Yedinstvo bloc - Levinson suggested this provision would be removed as well.

On 14 March, however, Refakh press secretary Andrei Getmanov doubted there would be any major changes to the bill. Specifically, he told Keston, the provision outlawing political parties characterised by religious affiliation would probably remain. He appeared unconcerned by this possibility, however, since he did not believe it would affect Refakh: `We do defend the rights of Muslims, but only in an ethnic sense. There is nothing in our founding documentation to say we are a religious party.' He added that in any case Refakh was reforming as the Eurasian Party of Russia. This new party would have no national or religious basis, he said, and would no longer contain Refakh's `purely supervisory' Council of Spiritual Teachers, which is headed by Mufti Ravil Gainutdin.

Both Chuyev and Levinson concurred that the bill's provision banning religious affiliation had been inspired by a fear of Muslim political parties. Levinson maintained, however, that the presidential administration understands that a ban on such parties is `a double-edged sword - it is better for the authorities to have artificial ones which they can manipulate than ban all of them.' Chuyev also expressed some doubt over the efficacy of a ban: `They will exist of course even if you ban them, just under different names.' Getmanov, however, was wholeheartedly behind the provision: `It is correct because in a multinational state like Russia it could be very dangerous if parties with a religious or national basis are permitted - something very terrible could happen.'

Speaking to Keston on 12 March, Stepan Medvedko, an expert attached to the Duma's Committee for Social and Religious Organisations, claimed that no one in parliament was particularly troubled by the possibility of a ban on religious-political parties: `From the Christian Democratic Party to Refakh, they are all part of larger political groupings, so they are unconcerned.' Nor does Article 9 of the bill appear to cause concern outside the Duma. In an opinion poll conducted in February by the Public Opinion Foundation (Fond Obshchestvennogo Mnenie), respondents were presented with eight of its provisions and asked to choose the three which met with their `outright approval'. The ban on parties created upon lines of nationality, religion, gender or profession achieved second place. (END)