RUSSIA: Draft Policy Authors to be Rivals Or Partners?

by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 27 June 2001

On 21 June several employees of the religion faculty of the Russian Academy of State Service (RASS) were astonished and annoyed when they learned from Keston News Service for the first time that their draft religion policy had been published on the Internet site on 8 June. `It transpires that [head of RASS religion faculty, Nikolai] Trofimchuk gave it to [head of the Institute for State-Confessional Relations and Law, Igor] Ponkin to be published,' RASS employee Remar Lopatkin told Keston later the same day. As far as the RASS employees were previously aware, initial publication of their draft policy had been scheduled for the 27 June edition of NG-Religii, the religion supplement of national daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

Speaking to Keston on 22 June, Ponkin referred to his `excellent relations' with Trofimchuk, with whom he said he would start work on a text of a joint policy. Ponkin criticised the RASS draft policy as `not a Concept or legal document, but a historical discourse', while maintaining that `there is no confusion in ours'. Lopatkin, he claimed, believed that a secular state should be antireligious, `but that is in violation of the Russian Constitution, according to which no ideology may become a state ideology or obligatory.'

 Ponkin told Keston that he and Trofimchuk had agreed to publish both draft policies at once, since their existence was already generally known, `and we want discussion, to take into account constructive criticism'. Speaking of his own draft, he repeatedly stressed that it was `work in progress' and that its authors did not wish it to contradict either the Russian Constitution or international law. While opposed to the extremes of both a state religion and a laisser-faire attitude to religious activity by the state, explained Ponkin, he favoured state cooperation with religious organisations, `but within the framework of the law'. The aim of the ISCRL draft was thus to translate the de facto existence of traditional religion status into law, he maintained, which did not violate the constitutional provision of equality of all religious organisations before the law. `All Russian citizens are equal before the law according to the Constitution,' Ponkin pointed out to Keston, `but those declared legally incompetent or with limited competence do not exercise the same rights.'

Questioned more closely by Keston about the ISCRL policy's traditional religion status, Ponkin emphasised that it was `not a law but a scientific-legal (`nauchno-pravovoi') ideal', and declared that it was for a state federal body containing religious representatives - possibly the recently reshuffled presidential Council for Cooperation with Religious Organisations - to decide which religious organisations would be termed traditional. Like the introduction of a Council for Religious Affairs successor body - of which he is in favour - Ponkin said that comprehensive specification of which religions could be considered traditional had been intentionally omitted from ISCRL's draft policy. `We didn't want to raise tensions at this early stage.' In his personal view, Catholicism would not be confined to the category of traditional religion relating to particular nationalities (Polish and German), while Baptists and Pentecostals could be regarded as traditional. When Keston pointed out that a conflict of interest would inevitably arise at some stage if both Russian Orthodox and Pentecostals, for example, were granted equal traditional status, Ponkin replied `but that will be without us'.

Also speaking to Keston on 22 June, one of the group of authors of the RASS draft policy, Lopatkin, rejected the charge that he believed a secular state should be antireligious. `Since we are officials in a state body we put forward the position of the state,' he pointed out to Keston, `while the Church forms their own position - they have already produced their own Concept.' The RASS draft, explained Lopatkin, was simply the first stage in the state's task of formulating a religious policy; the positions of religious representatives would be taken into account before drawing up a final version - which, he stressed, `is also the task of the state'.

Lopatkin believed it is legitimate for the state to take into account the impact of religions on tradition and culture and set varying scales of cooperation with different confessions as a result. `Of course the Orthodox will have more opportunities, but rights will not be taken away from others - all will have a certain minimum.' While viewing a clear division of the spheres of state and religions as necessary for such cooperation to work, however, he regarded the current main problem not as the present law but widespread `legal nihilism - the Church is acting as if there is no law or Constitution'.

While reluctant to be interviewed, Trofimchuk nevertheless confirmed to Keston on 22 June that he had taken the decision to release his department's draft policy in order `to air it to public opinion', and added that it would in due course be discussed by the presidential Council for Cooperation with Religious Organisations, of which he is a member. Trofimchuk evaluated the ISCRL draft policy as `very dry' and said that he would have to `see what people think' before considering preparation of a joint text with Ponkin. (END)