RUSSIA SPECIAL REPORT: Religious Freedom under Putin One Year On.

by Geraldine Fagan and Lawrence Uzzell, Keston News Service, 18 April 2001

The recent replacement of non-specialist state representatives on Russia's presidential council for religion by a strong contingent of secular academics from the religious studies field (See KNS 23 March) appears to indicate a resolve to balance church and secular interests on Putin's part. The fact that he has entrusted a secular body to draw up a religious policy - and that its defining feature will reportedly be a strong emphasis on the secular nature of the Russian state - also suggests a move towards greater secularisation under Putin. However, more than a year has passed in which Russia's new president has made few clear pronouncements on religious policy, and it should thus be born in mind that religion is evidently not among his highest priorities.

Unlike Party apparatchiki Gorbachev and Yeltsin, Putin's background is with the security services, and state security is his natural concern. Thus religion usually becomes a priority only when it seems to impinge upon security issues. In such instances the response of the new administration is uncompromising. Serious concern is shared by the security organs and some respected experts in the religious studies field that foreign missionaries (particularly those from the US) are allegedly agents of western powers, even participants in a plot to take over Russia's Far East. Fuelled by the suspicion frequent at local government level that foreign missionaries aim to re-orientate citizens towards 'anti-Russian' values, this concern has resulted in visa refusals and expulsions of foreign missionaries over the past year, as well as the adoption of one new provincial decree regulating missionary activity. Although it should be noted that this trend started well before Putin came to power, his National Security Concept made specific warning of the negative impact of foreign missionaries. Significantly, it was adopted within just weeks of his becoming acting president.

This emphasis on state security is part of a policy of consolidation in every area of Russian life, which may be considered the defining feature of Putin's government. During the Yeltsin era the power of provincial governors and a flood of foreign influences went largely unchecked. This resulted in the formation of a Russia perceived by many to be disconcertingly close to disintegration. In the religious sphere, Islamic identity has been held up by some with separatist tendencies when seeking to emphasise their 'difference' from Russia. In Bashkortostan, for example, Islam is considered the foremost 'traditional' confession in the region's own religion law. However, while Putin has publicly condemned the 'religious extremism' of Islamic fighters in Chechnya, he has not attempted to introduce legal measures in the field of religion in order to neutralise Islam, as in Central Asian states. In view of his policy of consolidation, he cannot afford to alienate large numbers of Muslims within the Russian Federation, not to mention Islamic states outside it. Putin has thus been careful to pinpoint Islamic militants as the threat to state security and has attempted to deal with them using the armed and security forces.

On a local level, however, the two main factions of the Islamic community have had differing degrees of success in enlisting the authorities in their attempts to undermine one another with charges of religious extremism. Ostensibly in order to protect the region from 'Wahhabism', Tatarstan's local religion law permits only the spiritual directorate under the auspices of Ravil Gainutdin to be registered as a Muslim centralised religious organisation; mosques under his rival, Talgat Tadzhuddin, have not been reregistered in the region. In Ulyanovsk, by contrast, a minority Muslim group has had all its mosques reregistered, despite being branded 'Wahhabis' by adherents of the dominant spiritual directorate in the region, which is pro-Tadzhuddin.

Although Putin has not yet adopted a religious policy, there are already signals of the direction which it will take. The Soviet-style inter-religious peace forum of November 2000 could not have taken place without explicit government approval. In keeping with his policy of consolidation and in continuation of the latter phase of the Yeltsin era, Putin can be expected to encourage the formation of such a coalition among Russia's 'traditional' confessions. Loyalty to the presidential position will be an obligation for those organisations deemed to represent such confessions, and their leaders will make joint public pronouncements in favour of peaceful co-operation for the consolidation of the nation, even when there are sound theological reasons for Orthodox and Buddhists, for example, to have nothing to do with one another. Such groups are unlikely to encounter obstruction to their activities from the authorities.

A couple of significant nuances should be noted here, however. Within the Jewish community, one structure has been marginalised by a newer body, and the Kremlin has clearly sided with the latter. Since the now-marginalised chief rabbi, Adolf Shayevich, has been unfailingly loyal to both the Soviet and post-Soviet state, his sudden unpopularity may be explained by his proximity to media mogul and Kremlin arch-enemy Vladimir Gusinsky. In addition to financial considerations, Putin's support for the newer chief rabbi, Berl Lazar, may also be an attempt to prevent the formation of a unified and powerful Jewish lobby potentially at odds with his presidency. Government preference for Lazar is blatant: He recently replaced Shayevich in a re-shuffle of the Council for Cooperation with Religious Organisations Attached to the President of the Russian Federation, while both rival Muslim leaders retained their places. A US citizen not married to a Russian, Lazar was also swiftly granted Russian citizenship.

This brings us to the second significant nuance within the coalition of 'traditional' Russian confessions. It is likely that the Roman Catholic Church will in practice be increasingly dealt with as a non-traditional confession, even if it is formally considered a traditional one. Unlike Lazar, two Roman Catholic bishops were refused Russian citizenship over the past year and told by the relevant authorities that the only way they could receive it would be 'to marry a Russian'. As a result, the bishops cannot take legal responsibility for their apostolic administrations, and the Catholic Church is unable to register the latter. In addition to ongoing difficulties in winning back property confiscated by the Soviet authorities, an increase in hostility towards the Catholic presence in Russia is also indicated by recent incidents of refusal and curtailment of visas for visiting clergy. Visits by President Putin and Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov to the Vatican in the course of the past year, however, suggest that this hostility is not present at the very highest level.

One very likely and significant change in religious policy under Putin will be a much more secular orientation. A representative of the state body entrusted with drawing up the Putin administration's religious policy has told Keston that its principal features will be a strong emphasis on the secular nature of the Russian state and the equality of all confessions before the law. Although a major factor in this is the dependence of US government funding upon Russia's observance of its international religious freedom commitments, it appears that Putin is genuinely motivated by secular values. A Russian president who was a devout spiritual son of Fr Tikhon Shevkunov, as some have alleged Putin to be, and in favour of Orthodoxy playing a dominant role in the religious life of the country would have ample material in the Russian Orthodox Church's recently-unveiled Social Doctrine with which to form a religious policy and not have referred the task to a secular state body. He would also not have publicly praised the life of Russia's foremost New Ager Nikolai Roerich as an example of 'the spiritual closeness that binds all peoples.'

Even if Putin were bent on the introduction of state Orthodoxy, this would be impossible from a practical point of view - it would be prohibitively expensive to maintain. It would also alienate adherents of other faiths - above all Islam - and thus result in precisely the kind of fragmentation of Russian society which Putin is trying to prevent. Although seriously practising Orthodox in Russia are few, the majority of the population expresses support for Orthodox values, and Putin cannot afford to alienate them either by pursuing too secular a line. He will therefore continue to try to maintain a fine balance between upholding a neutral, secular state and supporting the Russian Orthodox Church. To this end he can be expected to continue to utilise his great skill at 'spin' - making well-publicised but essentially symbolic gestures towards the Russian Orthodox Church, such as holding award ceremonies for Russian Orthodox hierarchs, and thus ensuring their support with as little expense as possible.

Reluctance to upset the West also lies behind the almost complete lack of implementation of the 1997 law to the detriment of groups outside the 'traditional' camp. In 1997 one would have expected Article 14 of the law to be widely used against confessions such as the Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormons, for example, but this has almost entirely not been the case. Indeed, over 90 per cent of the communities of both those confessions have been reregistered at the local level. Reluctance to engage in - if not obstruction of - implementation of the law in an oppressive direction appears to have been signalled from above, however. The registration of 'non-traditional' groups has been more extensive at the federal than the local level, and the recent decision of a Moscow court to reject charges that the Jehovah's Witnesses are socially dangerous would not have been possible without federal approval. Even if one puts re-registration of so-called 'destructive sects' down to western pressure and/or bribery, however, this does not alter the fact that the ideological will to oppress such groups possessed by those who proposed the 1997 law is usually not the overriding motivation of those who implement it.

That said, there continue to be sporadic attempts to restrict the activity of some groups, particularly Pentecostals and charismatics, at the local level. Commonly these include repeated refusals to register or reregister on trivial pretexts and to rent state property. As before, such incidents occur under provincial administrations which are either pro-Communist, keen to maintain a large degree of autonomy from Moscow or under strong pressure from an Orthodox bishop intolerant of other confessions - or a combination of all three. Such incidents can certainly be expected to continue, and more than likely increase, as those initiating restrictions on minority groups in such areas become increasingly resentful of western influence over Russia's internal policy; specifically, in effecting what they see as the emasculation of the 1997 law. Their view is bolstered by the absence both of popular support for US-style even-handed religious freedom and of grass-roots resistance to anti-sect propaganda. At the provincial level, policies against religious freedom can be a means of resisting the centre at a time when Moscow is trying to send reassuring signals to the West. On the other hand, there remain some provinces, such as Sakha in north-eastern Siberia, which are eager to maintain their autonomy but which are relatively more open to religious freedom. The great variety in church-state policies among the provinces continues despite Putin's stated interest in restoring strong 'vertical' controls.

Considerable international concern has been raised by the deadline for re-registration of all religious organisations on 31 December 2000. One should not read too much into the re-registration figures from the Ministry of Justice, however, not least because they do not reflect considerable variations from region to region. What matters is the resolve of the provincial authorities concerned both to liquidate the some 1,500 organisations which they have not re-registered and to prosecute the subsequently illegal aspects of their activity. One well-publicised example is that of the Salvation Army, which was refused re-registration in the city of Moscow and has had rental agreements curtailed and a programme cut as a direct consequence. However, this appears to be an isolated case – the example of a parish of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad in Kursk, which has not yet even been informed by the authorities that it has not been re-registered, is probably much more typical. Re-registration is almost certainly continuing after the deadline, and there has not been a rush by local authorities to refer groups without re-registration to the courts. The law does not in fact envisage a timescale for liquidation, and even should groups which failed to re-register be formally liquidated, it is highly unlikely in most areas that they will be prosecuted for exercising rights technically deprived them. The fact remains, however, that local authorities now have the mechanisms of liquidation and prosecution at their disposal with which they can intimidate such groups, who will consequently be wary of carrying out their activities in too overt a manner.

One aspect of Russia's 1997 law which has had a considerable impact on religious freedom is its centralising tendency within religious confessions. It is now extremely difficult for a group to form outside an existing structure or to leave it without a loss of rights. The November 1999 Constitutional Court ruling which exempts religious organisations registered before the adoption of the 1997 law or affiliated to centralised religious organisations from the 15-year probationary period will only exacerbate this tendency. Since it seems to ensure artificial unity and stability in the religious sphere, it is perceived by the Kremlin as being very much in the national interest. As another of its features is the creation of top-down command structures, with which it is much easier for the federal authorities to deal, it is difficult to foresee Putin resisting its effect. From the standpoint of religious freedom this policy is especially troubling for faiths with anti-hierarchical, congregationalist doctrines of church governance - but of course this is not a primary concern for Putin and his circle.

There are unlikely to be any successful attempts to amend the 1997 law in the near future. Having taken note of US attentiveness to violations of religious freedom in the legal sphere, the introduction of legal measures affecting religious organisations will probably involve giving certain groups privileges, such as easier access to state education, rather than removing rights from others. Putin's approach in this field differs significantly from that of the Yeltsin administration. Whereas a mishmash of interests dominated by the Moscow Patriarchate concocted the draft law on religion in 1997, Putin has formally entrusted a secular body to produce a religious policy which will subsequently be discussed by his presidential council on religion. When this body was set up under Yeltsin, it was composed entirely of religious representatives, who were thus given a direct lobbying line to the president. Although some state representatives were added by Yeltsin, these were not for the most part specialists in the field. Under Putin, these non-specialists have been replaced in one fell swoop by a strong contingent of secular academics from the religious studies field. This appears to be a move to counter the free-for-all of interests which dominated the religious sphere during the Yeltsin era. Such growing resolve by the federal authorities to resist the influence of 'clericalism' makes even more likely the foundation of some sort of Council for Religious Affairs.

The formation of such a body is opposed by the Russian Orthodox Church, which benefits from the status quo. However, some form of Council for Religious Affairs now exists in all other CIS countries. In Ukraine this is understandable, since, unlike that in many western states, the religious situation there has volatile potential and could easily affect the integrity of the state. In Russia there is support for such a body even among champions of religious freedom, who complain that there is currently no co-ordination of religious affairs on the federal level, with the result that arbitrariness dominates in the provinces. In addition, it is argued, a complete lack of regulation on the part of the federal government is irresponsible in view of the absence of the rule of law in Russia. Others, however, are justifiably concerned that such a body will take on the same functions as the Soviet-era Council for Religious Affairs, at least in the long term. Since a truly oppressive body is in any case inevitable should the Russian political climate take a sharp turn towards the authoritarian; the main problem accompanying the creation of such a body at present would seem to be its subjection to corruption and intimidation by religious groups with money and/or influence, as well as favouritism towards those with a natural talent for dealing with government officials. Ukraine's Committee for Religious Affairs, for example, evidently has an excellent relationship with Patriarch Filaret's Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kievan Patriarchate) which the church of the Moscow Patriarchate does not enjoy. (END)