RUSSIA: Successor Organ to Council for Religious Affairs Imminent?

by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 10 May 2001

Russia's 1990 law on religion ruled that `no executive organs of state control are to be set up which are specifically intended to deal with questions relating to the realisation of citizens' rights to freedom of conscience'. The Council for Religious Affairs (CRA), the Soviet-era organ which controlled religious life, was thereby abolished and could not be revived. Russia's current religion law contains no such provision, however, and speculation over the creation of a successor body to the CRA has increased markedly since its passage in 1997, especially as almost every other CIS republic now has some sort of centralised body devoted to religious affairs.

Those in favour of a CRA successor body maintain that religious affairs in post-Soviet Russia have become unacceptably chaotic. `During the Yeltsin era this was a neglected sphere left to run its own course,' Veronika Kravchuk, a staff member of the religion faculty of the Russian Academy of State Service, told Keston News Service on 15 March. The lifting of controls with the introduction of the 1990 law did not lead to the realisation of religious freedom, she maintained, but rather to arbitrary rule in the provinces, typically involving oppression of non-Orthodox by pro-Orthodox governors. A CRA successor body would regulate this and so facilitate freedom of religion for all, she argued: `Freedom does not mean absence of control (bezkontrolnost).'

Responsibility for dealing with religious issues at the federal level is currently shared between four different organs - committees attached to the president, the government and parliament, and the Ministry of Justice. It is consequently impossible for the national authorities to manage (`upravlyat') religious affairs effectively, director of the Moscow-based Institute of Law and Justice, Anatoli Pchelintsev, maintained to Keston on 27 March. In many subjects of the Russian Federation responsibility for religious issues has by contrast been allocated to a single organ, he said, such as the Department for Religious Affairs in Kalmykia. Since the fragmented arrangement at the federal level in effect meant these provincial bodies were not answerable to anyone except their local governor, Pchelintsev argued, `the creation of a federal body is simply inevitable'.

A further argument for the creation of a CRA successor body was put forward to Keston in March by an anonymous Moscow-based source with a professional involvement in religious affairs. `Priests need to be grabbed by the beard,' he argued, `if they take power they'll start another revolution.' The source believed a CRA-type body would be a mechanism to curb what he saw as the excessive influence of the Russian Orthodox Church on secular authority.

The Orthodox Church currently leads the opposition to a federal body regulating religious affairs. `The revival in one or other form of a state organ controlling the activity of the Church or regulating its various ties with different spheres of state and public life appears to have little prospect,' Patriarch Aleksi II wrote in a letter to clergy and government officials participating in a 17 November 2000 meeting to discuss church-state relations. Although not referring to the CRA by name, he argued that the experience of the Soviet period in particular `testifies to the harmfulness of such an approach'.

Anatoli Krasikov, chairman of the Russian branch of the International Religious Liberty Association, told Keston on 27 March he was also categorically against the creation of a CRA successor body, maintaining that such an organ would always tend to interfere in religious affairs. Although acknowledging that in the short term a CRA-type body would be staffed by `good people', he feared that in the long term `it could be very dangerous', especially if the Communist Party returned to power. Even were the communists to revive a CRA with repressive functions, asked Keston, how did this future danger constitute an argument against a more neutral regulatory organ at present? If a benign federal body with responsibility for religious affairs already existed, explained Krasikov, `the communists could easily transform it if they came to power and no one would protest'. If they attempted to set it up anew, he maintained, `there would be a major scandal'.

When Keston visited the corridor of offices occupied by Ukraine's CRA successor body, the Committee for Religious Affairs, in September 2000, its chairman Viktor Bondarenko rejected the charge that his department bore any hallmarks of its Soviet-era predecessor. `Successive owners of the same car will take it to different places,' he argued. `No one criticises the current post of an ombudsman for human rights, although - had there been one - an ombudsman for human rights in the Soviet Union would undoubtedly have restricted them. The same is true of the CRA.'

Citing France and Spain as examples of democratic countries with state departments devoted to religious affairs, Kravchuk and Pchelintsev also maintained that a Russian successor to the CRA would not necessarily adopt its functions. Pchelintsev even argued that, on the contrary, such a body could `propagandise international religious freedom standards' by informing provincial officials about these and drawing up bills to resolve questions such as alternative military service.

Despite their criticism of arbitrariness by those in charge of religious affairs at the provincial level, however, neither Kravchuk nor Pchelintsev could suggest how a CRA successor body at the federal level would resist the lure of religious organisations with money or influence looking for preferential treatment. Both thought that representatives of religious organisations would have to be excluded from its staff if it were to have any chance of being unbiased. Pchelintsev additionally suggested that guarantees ensuring the organ's neutrality could be formally written into its functions, but admitted that `anything is possible, of course'. (END)