RUSSIA: Authorities Silent as Buddhists Protest Dalai Lama Visa Denial.

Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 13 September 2002

Approximately 100 Buddhists - witnessed by Keston News Service - staged their third demonstration outside the Foreign Ministry in Moscow at midday on 10 September demanding that the fourteenth Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso be granted permission to visit Russia. On 16 August a Ministry spokesman announced that "at this stage it has been considered appropriate to cancel the Dalai Lama's visit to Russia" (see KNS 21 August 2002). Approximately 10 and 70 Buddhists were reportedly detained and fined for holding unsanctioned protests at the same location on 17 and 22 August respectively.

Leading the demonstrators, Buddhist monk Dzhampa Tinlei declared that while trade and economic interests with China were naturally important, "the lawful interests of Russian citizens should be placed higher" and the Russian authorities had "spat in the face of its own citizens by ignoring them." A representative of the Moscow Helsinki Committee human rights centre pointed out that the Foreign Ministry's refusal to grant a visa to the Dalai Lama was not just of concern to Buddhists, since Catholics and peace activists had been treated similarly, "this cannot but disturb us." Between these addresses, monastic and lay Buddhists holding placards with pictures of the Dalai Lama chanted slogans such as: "We demand a visa for the Dalai Lama!", "Rights for Russian Buddhists!" and "Shame on the Foreign Ministry!"

Speaking to Keston at the demonstration, the press secretary of Moscow's Lama Tsonkapa Buddhist Centre, Maya Malygina, complained that there had been no official response so far either to a 19 August letter of complaint to President Vladimir Putin from Russian Buddhist leaders, or to subsequent protests. A Buddhist demonstration in the region of Tuva on the border with Mongolia was dispersed on 21 August, she told Keston, and some protesters are still on a hunger strike begun there on 29 August. According to Malygina, 14,000 signatures of protest have been collected in the traditionally Buddhist regions of Buryatia, Kalmykia and Tuva so far.

In a 7 September message to Keston, Buddhist icon painter Aleksandra Dugarova said that two similar protests passed peacefully in the Buryat capital Ulan-Ude on 26 and 30 August, both involving up to 50 demonstrators. Unsanctioned, the first of these took place on the main government square with the participation of a number of middle-ranking state officials, she said, but was not obstructed. The location of the second - sanctioned - demonstration was abruptly changed by Ulan-Ude's mayor on the evening of 29 August, according to Dugarova, which caused considerable confusion since flyers indicating that the protest would take place on the main government square as previously had already been distributed. President Irina Urbanayeva and another member of Ulan-Ude Buddhist community "Green Tara" have now stopped the hunger strike which they began on 25 August, Dugarova reported.

According to Dugarova, the Buryat Buddhists' protests have been ignored by local state newspapers such as "Buryatia", "Pravda Buryatii" and "Buryaad Unen". A journalist from "Buryatia" recently informed her that, although there were advocates of the Dalai Lama on the newspaper's staff, they had been "forbidden from writing about such subjects." While Dugarova had witnessed a brief mention of the second demonstration on local Buryat state television news, she said private local channels such as "Arig Us" and "Tivikom" had covered the protests rather more fully, although the local department of internal affairs had reportedly pressurised their staff for doing so.

On 12 September Vladimir Ashurkov of the Russian Foreign Ministry's press and information department told Keston that there had been no official ministry reaction to the Buddhists' protests so far, and was unable to say whether one was likely. While not informed about the 19 August letter from Russian Buddhist leaders, Ashurkov said that if Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov was in possession of such a letter and considered it necessary to reply to it, "he will do so".

On 10 September Interfax news agency reported Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad as saying that he "greatly regretted" that the Dalai Lama could not visit his followers in Russia. While claiming that part of the responsibility for the current situation could be attributed to the Dalai Lama himself, he called upon the authorities of all states not to link the Dalai Lama's visits with his political activities.

On 20 August a spokesman at the Chinese Embassy in Moscow told Keston that the Chinese authorities consider a purely religious visit by the Dalai Lama to be impossible in principle, however. "He never goes anywhere without political reasons," the press department official commented, "but only for political aims." (END)