RUSSIA: Radical Overhaul of Presidential Religious Committee.

by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 23 March 2001

An as yet unpublished 17 March decree signed by President Putin makes significant changes to both the composition and functions of the Council for Cooperation with Religious Organisations Attached to the President of the Russian Federation. The Council was set up in 1995 as a consultative body with the purpose of providing the Russian president with preliminary reviews and proposals concerning religious issues. It is comprised of 17 religious and 12 state representatives.

Subsequent to the 17 March decree the composition of religious figures remains largely unchanged. As before, the Council includes Metropolitan Alimpi of the Old Believers (Belokrinitsa Concord), Damba Ayusheyev of the Traditional Buddhist Sangkha, Ravil Gainutdin of the Council of Muftis of Russia, Talgat Tadzhuddin of the Central Spiritual Directorate of Muslims, Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz of the Roman Catholic Apostolic Administration of northern European Russia, Vladimir Pudov of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church, Pyotr Konovalchik of the Evangelical Christian-Baptists, Vladimir Murza of the Pentecostals and Vasili Stolyar of the Seventh-Day Adventists. Also as before, the Russian Orthodox contingent includes Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, Metropolitan Sergi of Solnechnogorsk, Metropolitan Yuvenali of Krutitsy and Kolomna and Archbishop Yevgeni of Vereya.

Representatives of two minority confessions, Tiran Kyuregyan of the Armenian Apostolic Church and Aleksei Khvalkovsky of the Old Believers (Pomorye Concord), are no longer members. Two more changes are more sensational, however. Especially in the light of the inclusion of both major Muslim leaders, the omission of one chief rabbi, Adolf Shayevich, and the inclusion of the other, Berl Lazar, appears to be a further attempt by the Kremlin to marginalise the state-serving - but Gusinsky-backed - Shayevich. On 21 March Shayevich was quoted by Interfax as describing his expulsion as 'interference in the affairs of the Jewish community.' In the 22 March edition of Russian newspaper 'Segodnya', however, the new secretary of the Council, Aleksandr Kudryavtsev, countered that it was 'only a routine rotation.'

The second surprise is the inclusion of Metropolitan Mefodi of Voronezh and Lipetsk. Metropolitan Mefodi won renown throughout the Church following a scandalous 1992 report in Russian emigre newspaper 'Russkaya Mysl', in which Archbishop Khrizostom of Vilnius branded him 'a KGB officer, an atheist, a vicious man foisted upon us by the KGB' - allegations which Metropolitan Mefodi has neither confirmed nor denied. At a round table of representatives of the presidential adminstration and the Russian Orthodox Church which met to discuss church-state relations in Moscow on 17 November 2000, commentators were surprised to see that Metropolitan Mefodi headed the Church's delegation, while neither Metropolitan Kirill nor any other employee of the Church's Department for External Church Relations was present.

A more substantial change to the Council's now 24 members, however, has been made to the state representation. Other than the chairman of the Council, Aleksandr Voloshin, and government representative to Russia's Federation Council, Andrei Sebentsov, every single one of the state officials has been replaced. Whereas previously these were figures with an indirect relation to both religion and the president - such as V. Shchadrikov, assistant to the Minister of Education, or Murtuza Rakhimov, president of the Republic of Bashkortostan - the new members are either weighty specialists in religious studies and/or direct representatives of the presidential administration.

Perhaps most notable of the religious studies academics is Nikolai Trofimchuk, head of the Religious Studies Faculty of the Russian Academy of State Service, which has already been entrusted by Putin with drawing up the government's religious policy. He would appear to be fulfilling a coordinating role between the two bodies, since 'participation in the drawing-up of a contemporary concept of interrelations between state and religious organisations' is also one of the major functions of the Council according to the 1995 presidential decree creating it. The additional religious studies specialists now on the Council are Igor Yablokov and A. Ignatenko, respectively head of the Philosophy, Religion and Religious Studies Faculty and leading expert at the Social Systems Scientific Research Institute of Moscow State University, Yaroslav Shchapov, head of the Centre of the History of Religion and the Church within the Russian Academy of Sciences, and Miran Mchedlov, director of the independent research centre 'Religion in Contemporary Society.'

The representatives of the presidential administration are the aforementioned secretary of the Council, Aleksandr Kudryavtsev, formerly head of the Department of Registration of Religious Organisations at the Ministry of Justice, and Sergei Abramov, who is assistant chairman of the Council and, like Kudryavtsev, an assistant head of the Main Department of Internal Policy of the President of the Russian Federation.

The changes to the membership of the Council appear to indicate that presidential interests and a well-argued, secular line will feature more forcefully in its activities, themselves made somewhat more wide-ranging by the 17 March presidential decree (See separate article). (END)