RUSSIA: Kremlin Doesn't Trust Orthodox Leadership, Says Top Official.

by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 10 September 2001

At the highest level of the Putin administration there are a handful of decision-makers whose brief includes religious issues. Maksim Meyer is one. After working on Vladimir Putin's presidential campaign with foremost public relations specialist Gleb Pavlovsky, Meyer became deputy director of the new administration's internal policy department. The post's main task of political planning, according to Meyer, requires an awareness of 'what is going on in religion', upon which subject he gave Keston News Service a wide-ranging interview in Moscow on 30 August.

Church-state relations

Contrary to popular belief in the West, the Putin government's relations with the Moscow Patriarchate are currently 'strained', according to Meyer, and have been so since the publication of the Russian Orthodox Church's Social Doctrine last summer. The particular bone of contention in that document, he explained, was its originally monarchist slant, which had concerned the new government: 'The Russian Orthodox Church is so close to the state that they ought to consult us - we are constantly supporting them.'

On 6 September Fr Vsevolod Chaplin, secretary of the Moscow Patriarchate's Department for External Church Relations, told Keston that no changes had been made at any stage to the Social Doctrine's position on the monarchy. Meyer, however, maintained that the monarchist sentiments were toned down, and suggested that the Church had consequently introduced a statement spelling out legitimate circumstances for civil disobedience, which had further strained relations. 'You can interpret that in any way you like, they could demand all pre-revolutionary church property and we could resist, to which they could respond that we are applying an anti-church policy and cite that part of the social doctrine.' Currently, said Meyer, 'our leadership thinks that the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church is dishonest and doesn't trust them.'

Church in society

Russia is a 'ritual nation' ('obryadnaya strana') without deep faith, according to Meyer. During Lent, he pointed out to Keston, expensive restaurants are empty: 'People fast but they don't go to church.' In that case, asked Keston, why does the government evidently consider the Church to be a significant political factor, especially since sociological polls consistently put the percentage of devoutly practising Orthodox in low single figures? The number of true believers evidently does not impinge upon the Church's influence, said Meyer, since Patriarch Aleksi II scores high ratings in the opinion polls. 'Many people trust them - we know what is going on in the Church in reality, but the people don't. The fact that they are not influential in matters of faith is unimportant - they are a social instrument, a moral authority.' In Meyer's view, however, the Church's high public profile should not give it cause for complacency. 'The Church just involves itself in intrigues, money and relations with the state, while its core is crumbling away and trickling out. In the provinces people are dropping into sectarian practices - this always was a very sectarian country. They need to set up an Inquisition.'

Who will be next patriarch?

One of the main difficulties concerning the Church, volunteered Meyer, is that the Putin administration cannot see a strong candidate for future patriarch. (Stating that Patriarch Aleksi was in 'great shape', he nevertheless maintained that this was an issue which had to be constantly borne in mind.) Meyer described Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad as a 'difficult passenger' and 'too complicated'.

Nevertheless, Metropolitan Kirill remains the church figure with whom the Kremlin conducts its main dialogue, he said, and indicated that this was due to the blinkered outlook of all the others. Keston tentatively suggested an alternative in Metropolitan Mefodi of Voronezh and Lipetsk, who last November represented the Church at a high-level meeting with Meyer's colleague in religious matters, Sergei Abramov. According to Meyer, however, 'it wouldn't actually be very likely to be him'. Another figure reputedly close to the Kremlin, Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov) of Moscow's Sretensky (Presentation) Monastery, was, in Meyer's view 'ideologically closer' to the government but ranked among those church representatives with whom it was difficult to maintain dialogue. 'They are supposedly ready to support the state, but they also have high ambitions - and they aren't actually that influential.'

In Meyer's view, the Church's 'personnel crisis' would mean that the next patriarch would in all likelihood be an interim figure. A strong, dynamic figure in the Caucasus who 'really understood the situation there would make a very good patriarch,' commented Meyer, 'but there just isn't anyone.'

Putin's religiosity

Turning to the issue of Putin's personal faith, Keston cited British Prime Minister Tony Blair's proximity to the Catholic faith alongside his stated intention not to challenge Britain's abortion law, since, in his view, it would go against the democratic will of the majority. Was Putin's position on religious matters similar? Currently, said Meyer, it was. With respect to the Russian president's formal links with the Church, Meyer disapprovingly accused Archimandrite Tikhon of purposely spreading rumours that he was Putin's spiritual father. 'It is absolutely not true,' he maintained, 'neither of Putin nor even of his wife.' On a personal level, Putin considers himself Orthodox, assured Meyer, and cited his swift response to the question of what moral values should be reintroduced into Russia - 'Why, Orthodox moral values of course!' On the other hand, stressed Meyer, Putin 'understands that we have other confessions in this country'.

'Traditional' confessions?

A theme to which Meyer repeatedly returned was that of Islam. The Putin administration has yet to come to a proper understanding of Islam, he said, for which task western expertise would be greatly welcomed. Meyer spoke of the need for Russia's own institute for training Islamic clergy 'to stop them going to Saudi Arabia'. However, while he alleged that the Russian Orthodox Church requested government protection from Islam (on 6 September Fr Chaplin denied to Keston that the Church saw any particular threat from Islam), Meyer claimed that both confessions would rank as equals should a status of traditional confession be introduced in Russia. Claiming to be unaware of the two draft religious policies currently in circulation - both of which propose such a status - Meyer envisaged it as extending to Catholics and Protestants. When Keston asked whether Baptists, Pentecostals and Adventists would all be included as traditional Protestants, Meyer began to muse that 'a line would have to be drawn somewhere'. However, he then swiftly changed tack, stating firmly: 'But I am against the whole idea - it is all the intrigues of the Moscow Patriarchate - we don't need such a status. If the Russian Orthodox Church has problems they need to sort them out themselves. It is their problem if people leave parishes and go to the Pentecostals, if they can't attract people.'

Equality versus privileges

During his August visit to Solovetsky Monastery, Putin praised Russian Orthodoxy's historical emphasis on the equality of all peoples which, he said, 'must be made the backbone of Russia's domestic and foreign policies'. Was this an indication of a preference for an even-handed religious policy originating lower down the presidential administration? Meyer told Keston that it was not: 'No, he thought it up himself. He thinks up a lot himself.'

However, while the Kremlin is in favour of a system of concordats with different confessions rather than a traditional confession status, revealed Meyer, the Russian Orthodox Church is opposed. 'They say that they're independent, the CHURCH, and that they don't want to return to the totalitarian period.' Meyer indicated that many of the Church's demands were unrealistic. 'They asked for 20 or 30 large buildings in central Moscow which they could rent to commercial concerns. When we asked what we would do with the present occupants, they suggested that we evict them! Why should the state evict people so that the Church can have those properties?' (On 6 September Fr Vsevolod Chaplin confirmed that the Church had requested - and sometimes received - such properties, and that commercial concerns would be among their tenants.) According to Meyer, the Church is 'a vast, social corporation now - like a trade union - and the state can't have friendly relations with only one corporation'.

Committee for Religious Affairs?

According to Meyer, religious issues rarely cross Putin's desk - a small team within the internal policy department discusses issues as they arise with officials from the lower-ranking Department for Relations with Religious Organisations headed by Andrei Protopopov. Meyer is not particularly happy with this arrangement, however. 'We are always taking approximate decisions. Religious policy is money, property, provincial conflicts between secular and religious bodies, religious extremism. You can't burden the administration with these things - we've got other things to deal with, like industry.' Meyer declared that he is thus in favour of a state committee for religious affairs, while seeing no need for anything as substantial as a ministry. Emphasising that discussion of this issue within his department has yet to reach a verdict, Meyer told Keston that, if it turned out to be in favour of such a religious affairs body, one would be set up 'no matter what the Russian Orthodox Church thinks'. (END)