RUSSIA: Diverse Opposition to Measures Outlawing 'Religious Extremism'.

Geraldine Fagan and Tatyana Titova, Keston News Service, 17 July 2002

Approved by the upper house of the Russian parliament, the Federation Council, on 10 July and currently awaiting the signature of President Vladimir Putin, "On Counteracting Extremist Activity" is provoking vehement, albeit low-level, criticism from diverse quarters (see KNS 3 July 2002).

At a round table in Moscow on 8 July, approximately 20 representatives of a variety of public spheres as remote from one another as the Orthodox "patriotic" movement and the radical underground press declared the law to be "anti-democratic and anti-constitutional".

A professor at the Russian Academy of State Sciences, Mikhail Kuznetsov, maintained that the law's specific concern with "religious extremism" constituted "an attempt to create a uniform person tolerant of every belief". He was particularly concerned by one of the law's definitions of extremism, "the propaganda of exclusivity, superiority or inferiority of citizens on account of their attitude towards religion": "We Orthodox are against ecumenism: but if we believe Orthodoxy is the only right faith, or if Muslims believe their faith to be the best, why prosecute them?" According to the new law, maintained Kuznetsov, any criticism of "the United States' export of destructive sects to Russia or of Protestant and Catholic expansion" would be regarded as extremism: "This is secularised totalitarianism, we will have to be tolerant of all scoundrels."

Kuznetsov argued that the authorities already have all means necessary to fight terrorism and extremism in the criminal code. From this, he deduced, the law must be being introduced for the sake of formulae not contained in the criminal code, such as one of the other definitions of extremist activity: "the incitement to racial, ethnic or religious discord, or social discord in connection with violence or calls for violence."

Co-chairman of the National Sovereign Party Aleksandr Sevastyanov asked those present to take particular note of the punctuation and grammar in this provision. The link with violence or calls to violence related only to social discord, he said, and had been inserted under pressure from the Communist Party. Consequently, he said, racial, ethnic or religious discord - which, he maintained, was a wholly vague term - could be prosecuted even if entirely unconnected with violence.

Several of those present at the round table noted that the law extended only to organisations and not to state bodies which, they argued, could also be considered responsible for manifestations of extremism. Head of the newly-formed Russian Human Rights Bureau Vladimir Osipov remarked that "our state television channels are constantly showing anti-Russian and anti-Orthodox material - this is extremism". He also questioned why the swastika (which, another speaker pointed out, is a Buddhist, as well as a Nazi, symbol) was banned under the law while the red star - "the five-pointed pentagram" was exempt.

Two uniformed representatives of the Orthodox patriotic movement, Yevgeny Tupikin, head of the Brotherhood of Holy Martyr Tsarevich Aleksei, and Igor Miroshnichenko, head of the Union of Orthodox Banner-bearers, spoke of their fear that the law would be directed against them, possibly at the instigation of the Federal Security Service (FSB). "The FSB know exactly who they want to suppress," said Miroshnichenko. "This law is against the people, and it is well-known that in the patriotic camp we are not indifferent to the fate of the people." He claimed that the law created a form of gulag, "only democratic".

The only representative of a religious organisation present at the round table was David Karpov, chief rabbi at Moscow's Marina Roshcha Lubavich synagogue and editor of the Jewish newspaper "Alef". Rabbi Karpov declined to comment on proceedings, saying that he had not read the law. Kuznetsov made the point that in Russia controversial laws were normally passed on Friday afternoons or, like this one, at the end of a parliamentary session so as not to attract criticism. Perhaps as a result, Keston News Service had some difficulty finding either representatives of religious confessions or lawyers specialising in religious issues who were familiar with and/or concerned about the new law.

On 15 July Damir Khazrat Gizatulin, assistant chairman of the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of European Russia (SDMER), commented to Keston that the law could only help law-abiding citizens, while it was "simply essential" for dealing with law-breaking ones. However, he added, it was most important that the law's interpretation did not affect law-abiding citizens, "and that a fight does not begin against opponents and undesirables". Another representative of SDMER told Keston that Farid Assadulin, who heads the organisation's department for relations with social organisations, had participated in the drafting of the law, especially the parts concerning religious extremism.

On 15 July a lawyer who represents the Mormons in Russia, Professor Lev Simkin, commented to Keston that, as a political step, he could not but endorse the adoption of the law, "since it gives a certain impulse to Russian state organs to fight against the most dangerous phenomenon of our time". From a legal point of view and taking into account the law's possible application to religious organisations, however, he considered the law to be "wholly dubious".

Like Kuznetsov, Simkin was particularly concerned by the definition of extremist activity as "the propaganda of exclusivity, superiority or inferiority of citizens on account of their attitude towards religion". "Any religious organisation considers its doctrine to be the true one, and a state official might find incitement to religious discord in that," he told Keston. "Alas, there are more than a few officials working in the regional departments of the Ministry of Justice who lack tolerance. They could easily apply these norms to 'undesirable' religious organisations. The law even gives them the ability to halt the activity of a religious organisation without going through the courts. There could be a long delay until a case is heard, during which the activity of the organisation will be paralysed."

In Simkin's view, Protestant religious organisations could suffer under the law in many provincial areas, where local authorities "conduct either an open or covert policy of fighting against religious minorities". (END)