RUSSIA: Dalai Lama Fails to Buck Trend After All.

Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 21 August 2002

The Russian Foreign Ministry's sudden U-turn on its previous decision to allow a visit by the Dalai Lama next month "is certainly because of Chinese pressure," cabinet secretary of the Tibetan Government in Exile, Desang Pfering, told Keston News Service on 20 August. On the same day, Keston was given confirmation at the Chinese Embassy in Moscow that the Chinese authorities consider a purely religious visit by the Dalai Lama to be impossible in principle. "He never goes anywhere without political reasons," a press department spokesman commented, "but only for political aims."

Since the fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, was denied even a transit visa across Russia last September, local Buddhists were delighted when a planned visit to the historically Buddhist Russian republics of Buryatia, Kalmykia and Tuva unexpectedly looked set to take place (See KNS 5 August 2002). One of the Buddhist representatives involved in the ongoing discussions concerning the visit at the Foreign Ministry, Maya Malygina told Keston on 19 August that the dates 10-20 September had recently been agreed with one of the foreign minister's assistants, Aleksandr Losukov, who also "had our assurances that it was purely a religious visit." On 16 August, however, Foreign Ministry spokesman Boris Malakhov announced to the press that "at this stage it has been considered appropriate to cancel the Dalai Lama's visit to Russia."

Malakhov maintained that, in the course of discussions between Buddhist and Foreign Ministry representatives, "not so much the religious aspects of the visit, as its political direction began to manifest itself." In particular, he pointed to the inclusion in the Dalai Lama's delegation of "members of the so-called Tibetan Government in Exile - artists and other figures." In considering the question of a visit by the Dalai Lama, he added, "the position of the People's Republic of China, whose government holds a fiercely negative view of the political activities of the Dalai Lama, must be taken into account."

Maya Malygina described Malakhov's criticism of the composition of the Dalai Lama's delegation as "an excuse." Desang Pfering was not aware of the content of the Russian Foreign Ministry statement, and sounded surprised when Keston related it to him. "The government is the cabinet, and we have had no discussions about any cabinet members accompanying His Holiness," he said, and laughed. "But since the Dalai Lama himself is leader of six million Tibetans, I suppose you can't really exclude him from the government," he quipped.

Also speaking to Keston on 20 August by telephone from the Dharamsala headquarters of the Tibetan Government in Exile, private secretary to the Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyeyche Thong said that he had not yet spoken in person with His Holiness about the visa refusal, since he was currently in a remote area of Ladakh where communication was difficult, and would not be returning to Dharamsala until 25 August. According to Pfering, however, the Dalai Lama had been fully expecting to visit Russia "as he has been there before."

Malygina said that she could "only guess" why the Foreign Ministry might initially grant permission for a visit and then revoke it, and pointed to the forthcoming visit to China by Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov. The Chinese Embassy spokesman maintained, however, that the Chinese authorities' position on the Dalai Lama was constant, and that China had made no special action or protest in this instance.

Russia's Buddhists have begun a high-profile protest against the visa refusal. On 16 August Russian news agency Interfax reported Buryatia-based leader of the Buddhist Traditional Sangha, Damba Ayusheyev, as announcing that "the ban on the Dalai Lama's entry to Russia will mean the violation of the constitutional rights of all Buddhists in this country." An unsanctioned demonstration by Buddhists outside the Foreign Ministry on the same day was dispersed by police. On 17 August Interfax reported that the leaders of the Buddhist communities in Buryatia, Kalmykia and Tuva - Damba Ayusheyev, Telo Tulku Rinpoche and Norbu-Sambu Mart-Ool respectively - had written a joint letter of complaint to President Vladimir Putin.

Pointing out that Buddhism is considered a traditional religion in Russia alongside Orthodoxy and Islam, the three leaders wrote that, when the Dalai Lama last visited Russia in 1994, "no criteria can measure the spiritual power that we Russian Buddhists received." Now, however, they warned, "our fathers and mothers, our near and dear, are in danger of departing this life without pastoral blessing from His Holiness." (END)