RUSSIA: Salvation Army Victims of Unethical Practice?

Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 21 January 2002

The Salvation Army's serious predicament in Moscow appears to be due at least in part to its refusal to use the services of a particular law firm, Keston News Service has discovered. The state official responsible for registration of religious organisations in the Russian capital has recommended the use of the same law firm - of which he used to be president - in a further two known cases. When one of the religious organisations in question subsequently employed the services of the law firm, Keston has learned, its protracted legal difficulties were swiftly resolved.

By the postponed 31 December 2000 deadline for re-registration of religious organisations throughout Russia, the Moscow branch of the Salvation Army had had not only its re-registration application rejected, but a court appeal against the reasons for rejection and a legal protest against this appeal decision similarly turned down. Since the next step was liquidation of the organisation, its commanding officer in the CIS, Colonel Kenneth Baillie, told Keston on 1 November, he and four other representatives of the organisation visited the official responsible for re-registration of religious organisations at Moscow's Municipal Department of Justice, Vladimir Zhbankov, on 31 January 2001 "to see if we could negotiate a compromise solution."

Zhbankov, he said, raised the issue of the organisation's legal representation and suggested that it use a more qualified legal firm. According to Baillie, Zhbankov at first did not name a firm, "but I queried him twice until he gave a clear answer - the Association of Legal Education ('Assotsiatsiya Pravovogo Prosveshcheniya')." According to Baillie, the Salvation Army did not follow up this recommendation, however, "believing that we had employed competent counsel, and that the 'recommendation' from Zhbankov was itself improper, or at least suspect."

A year earlier, St Andrew's Anglican Parish in Moscow was in an identical position. Having received a rejection in response to its second re-registration application on 24 December, the parish submitted a third just days before the original 31 December 1999 deadline. According to Russia's religion law, Moscow's Municipal Department of Justice had one month to consider it, and liquidation proceedings would follow if it was not accepted.

On 23 January 2000 Fr Simon Stephens related to his congregation how he and the British ambassador's deputy had had a meeting at the Justice Department on 21 January, during which Vladimir Zhbankov had hinted that a third rejection was likely. In response, he said, he had asked Zhbankov to recommend a lawyer who could check through the parish's application and correct any mistakes before a decision was reached. Fr Stephens then announced that he had agreed to pay Zhbankov's suggested lawyer 35,000 roubles (then approximately 900 pounds sterling or 1400 US dollars) for this service. Just a week later, on 28 January, St Andrew's Anglican parish had its third re-registration application finally accepted.

On 29 November 2001 Fr Stephens told Keston that the law firm used by the parish at Zhbankov's suggestion had been the Association of Legal Education.

In a third case, the Jewish community at Moscow's Choral Synagogue - which re-registered as a local religious organisation without difficulty - last year attempted to transform itself into a centralised religious organisation. Although some at the Ministry of Justice considered this legally possible, the community's lawyer, Anna Satanovskaya, told Keston on 10 December, Moscow's Municipal Department of Justice rejected the proposal: "The rejection letter said that there were other lawyers who would give legal advice, but no names were given." In a subsequent discussion, however, said Satanovskaya, "Vladimir Zhbankov told us that those who had written our charter were not sufficiently qualified, and that the Association of Legal Education was created by him especially to assist those given refusals in understanding what they had done wrong." According to Satanovskaya, Zhbankov maintained that he was no longer head of this law firm.

Satanovskaya told Keston that the community neither contacted nor used the Association of Legal Education in any way, "as we have our own lawyers."

When Keston contacted Moscow's Municipal Department of Justice on several recent occasions, Vladimir Zhbankov was not available for comment. Speaking to Keston News Service by telephone on 15 January 2002, however, the specialist in legal issues pertaining to religious organisations at the Association of Legal Education, Oksana Pakhomova, maintained that Zhbankov had been president of her firm only until he left to work at the Justice Department some three years ago. Asked by Keston what legal problems were usually encountered by religious organisations, she maintained that there was "really only one - they are refused registration or re-registration and go to unqualified lawyers who say that they will sort it out, but they don't know the law.' (END)