RUSSIA: Dalai Lama Bucks Trend.

Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 5 August 2002

Numerous foreign religious workers have been refused entry to the Russian Federation in recent years, including, to Keston's knowledge, three foreign Catholic clergy (Bishop Jerzy Mazur, Fr Stefano Caprio and Fr Stanislav Opiela) and 15 foreign Protestant church workers (see KNS 11 April 2002, 22 April 2002 and 17 July 2002). Tibet's fourteenth Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso has managed to buck this trend: on 26 July a spokesman at the Tibet Culture and Information Centre in Moscow confirmed to Keston News Service that the Dalai Lama would be visiting Russia's "Buddhist republics" of Buryatia, Kalmykia and Tuva for an unspecified period this September. Kalmyk President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov told Russian news agency Interfax on 9 July that the Dalai Lama's visit would be solely devoted to the pursuit of "religious goals".

This development comes as a surprise to Russia's Buddhists, however. Last August the Dalai Lama had to cancel plans to visit Mongolia from 3-17 September after being refused even a transit visa across Russian territory. Dzhampa Tinlei, the Dalai Lama's official representative in Russia from 1994-2000, told Keston on 17 March that the Dalai Lama last visited Russia in 1994. Since then, he said, visits had been impossible "for a variety of reasons" despite annual invitations from Russia's Buddhists. "The [Russian] Foreign Ministry doesn't give specific reasons [for refusals]," he remarked, "but it is due to pressure from the Chinese government."

Also speaking to Keston in the Moscow residence of President Ilyumzhinov on 17 March, Tinlei's interpreter Maya Malygina suggested that last year's co-operation treaty between Russia and China could have motivated the transit visa refusal. Dated 16 July 2001, Article 4 of this treaty obliges the Russian side to "support the policy of the Chinese side in issues concerning the defence of state unity and the territorial integrity of the Chinese People's Republic". The treaty appears to be the only document relevant to the Tibetan situation posted on the official website of the Russian Foreign Ministry (www.mid.ru). In April a Ministry press department spokesman told Keston that all of the public information issued by his department could be found on this website and declined to give any further comment.

On 5 September last year Radio Free Europe reported Khambo Lama Damba Ayusheyev as stating that his community had no plans to lodge a protest with the Russian Foreign Ministry over its refusal to issue a transit visa to the Dalai Lama. Ayusheyev is head of the Buryatia-based Buddhist Traditional Sangha, the successor body to the Soviet-era Central Spiritual Directorate of Buddhists.

According to Malygina, "just about all Buddhist organisations except the Sangha" joined in a more active response to the transit visa refusal. Following its 7-9 September 2001 inaugural conference, the All-Russian Co-ordination Council of Buddhist Organisations for Inviting His Holiness the Dalai Lama sent an invitation to His Holiness to visit Russia in 2002, as well as a request to Russian President Vladimir Putin "to facilitate this purely religious visit". According to the conference participants, "today as never before in our country, a country where Buddhist clergy were almost entirely wiped out during the years of the Soviet regime, the preaching of Buddhist teaching by the Dalai Lama himself and his meetings with believers holds the greatest significance for the renaissance of spiritual traditions. Unfortunately, this state of affairs is not at all taken into account by the current Russian leadership."

On 16 January Keston interviewed Yuri Zabrodin, head of one of the member organisations of the All-Russian Co-ordination Council, the Moscow Buddhist Centre of Lama Tsonkapa. According to Zabrodin, President Putin had indicated in a reply to the Council via the Russian Foreign Ministry that there would not be any obstacles to a purely religious visit by the Dalai Lama in 2002. However, he said, last year's transit visa refusal had "really shocked" Russia's Buddhists, who as a consequence, according to Malygina, "did not have much hope" that a visit to Russia would take place.

For Buddhists, a visit by their highest teacher is not merely a symbolic event, but part and parcel of their religious practice. As Dzhampa Tinlei explained to Keston, only the Dalai Lama and the second highest teacher in Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the Panchen Lama, are able to give the Kalachakra - "a blessing and high teaching" believed to have a strong effect upon the consciousness of those who receive it. In order to receive the Kalachakra, Malygina told Keston, Russian Buddhists came to the view that they would have to travel to the Dalai Lama, "since he can't come here".

In January, therefore, several dozen Russian Buddhists, including 15 from Buryatia, travelled via Moscow to northern India for the Kalachakra, although this entailed considerable effort and expense on their part. Interviewed by Keston in Moscow on 19 February, the oldest of the pilgrims, 78-year-old Dolgor Dalayeva, explained that she considered it vital to see the Dalai Lama in person because "he is a living god, in order to receive his blessing and to have one's sins cleansed - although that depends upon the soul and faith of the pilgrim, of course". There was a great desire in her native Buryatia for the Dalai Lama to visit, said Dalayeva. "We pray constantly for him to come." According to another Buryat pilgrim, when the Russian Buddhists visited the Religion and Culture Department of the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamsala, they were told that Chinese political pressure rather than the passivity of Khambo Lama Ayusheyev was responsible for the transit visa refusal.

The Dalai Lama is not the only Buddhist leader to experience problems in visiting Russia. According to Zabrodin, Bogdo-Gegen Khalkha Jetsun Dampa Huktuku, who is revered as the reincarnation of the pre-communist leader of Mongolia, was refused a Russian transit visa from India to the Baltic States approximately three years ago. Malygina told Keston that Bogdo-Gegen twice applied for a visa to visit Buryatia in the summer of 2000, first with an invitation from the Kalmyk Ministry of Culture and then by personal invitation of Kalmyk President Ilyumzhinov, but was refused on both occasions, apparently at the instigation of the Federal Security Service (FSB). "We made enquiries and found that he had been included on an FSB blacklist," she told Keston. No official reason was given for the refusals. "They never give reasons," said Malygina, "but we think it is due to his close alliance with the Dalai Lama and his status in Mongolia." (END)