Issue 4, Article 14, 14 April 2000

Immediate reporting on violations of religious liberty and on religion in
communist and post-communist lands.


by Geraldine Fagan and Lawrence Uzzell, Keston Institute

In church-state relations as in other areas, observers are reporting mixed signals
from the new administration of president-elect Vladimir Putin. Putin himself is
spending the period leading up to his official inauguration in May by visiting the
Russian armed forces, presiding at prize-giving ceremonies and the like rather
than openly discussing new policy initiatives, let alone implementing them.
However, the two concrete steps which he has taken so far in this area point in
entirely different directions. The disparate media coverage which these steps
have received is striking.

The mainstream media gave comparatively wide coverage to Putin�s signing of
the March law extending the deadline for reregistration of religious
organisations. This suggests a conscious attempt by the new administration to
appear to be in favour of religious freedom. In fact this was a largely routine
amendment supported and heavily lobbied by the de facto established religious
bodies (the Moscow Patriarchate and the old-line Muslim spiritual directorates);
it means nothing as a sign of a new policy or of tolerance toward religious
minorities. Especially important to remember is that Russia�s most egregious
violations of religious freedom have little to do with such legalistic questions.
For example, the indigenous Protestant congregations (and also, increasingly,
religious bodies connected with foreign churches) that are refused the right to
rent public halls for their worship services often have full-fledged legal
registration and all the formal rights that ostensibly flow therefrom. Having all
one�s paperwork in order provides no sure protection from the petty despots of
Russian officialdom.

In contrast, the elements of religious policy buried in the lengthy decree on a
new national-security policy signed by Putin on 10 January received almost no
media attention, even though they may be more representative of the new
administration�s future policy. The now-superseded December 1997 document
on national-security policy had emphasised the �important role of the Russian
Orthodox Church� in preserving spiritual values; the new text omits all
reference to the ROC, instead stipulating that the �spiritual and moral education
of the population� should be regulated by state policy. The 1997 text viewed the
main threat in the religious sphere as the �destructive role of various types of
religious sects�; the new one instead stresses �the negative influence of foreign

This new policy has already made itself felt in moves to curb the practice of so-
called Wahhabism, an Islamic movement depicted as the root cause of the
Chechen problem - ignoring the fact that the Wahhabi settlements in Dagestan
did not support the 1999 invasion of Dagestan by Chechen militants. The
Central Spiritual Directorate of Muslims, the centralising tendencies of which
are in line with Putin�s, has actively promoted this view. The very term
�Wahhabism� has become a tool for discrediting anyone of Muslim background
who is out of favour with the government for any reasons, regardless of his
actual doctrinal views or actual connections with terrorist activities. It is likely
that nonmainstream followers of Islam in Russia will continue to be special
targets for restrictions on their religious freedom.

The new national-security policy could also result in increased restrictions on
western Christian missionaries, especially those from the United States. It is
difficult to pinpoint the precise extent to which such missionaries are now being
pressured to scale down their activity or leave Russia. Some maintain that they
do not encounter any difficulties, especially if they keep a low profile and if it is
in any case their strategy to encourage involvement of Russian nationals in their
churches. Those who do encounter difficulties are often extremely reluctant to
report these problems to the U.S. Embassy or speak candidly with journalists -
even on a not-for-attribution basis -for fear of what will happen to their
congregations as a result. However, judging by known cases which are
confidential at the time of writing, it appears that the federal intelligence service
the FSB pays special attention to such missionaries and believes missionary
activity to be a particularly effective cover for the CIA. Such suspicions are only
exacerbated when missionaries attempt to enter Russia with visas stating non-
religious purposes for their visits, as many now do.

Given Putin�s roots in, and continuing close identification with, the security
agencies, it is likely that local FSB departments will interpret the religious
aspects of the new Security Policy as a signal to step up intimidating actions.
Having observed that it is usually possible to do this without the missionaries
making any public complaints, the methods used to restrict missionary activity
will thus continue to be intimidation or attempts at prosecution under criminal
law (e.g. for nonpayment of taxes, smuggling foreign currency into or out of the
country, and so on). Russia�s officials clearly realise that western governments
- especially the U.S. - are extremely sensitive to obvious, flagrant violations of
religious freedom, and so they are unlikely to expel a western missionary
explicitly on the grounds that he has conducted missionary activities formally
contrary to the 1997 law.

One of Putin�s main concerns at present is to consolidate centralised power in
Moscow and to weaken the provinces; his apparent stance in favour of religious
freedom must be seen in this light. By enforcing some democratic principles he
is able to subdue regional governors opposed to such principles. Religious
freedom is a convenient principle to support, since, unlike freedom of speech, it
is of immediate concern to a far smaller number of people and is easier to
control. As long as Putin purports to uphold religious freedom, it is likely that
there will be attempts to restrict it in provinces where the administration is eager
to maintain a large degree of autonomy from Moscow, or is procommunist, or
is under strong pressure from an Orthodox bishop intolerant of other
confessions (or is a combination of all three). Thus we are likely to see an
increase of incidents such as the recent liquidation of a church in Tatarstan due
to its alleged violation of local regulations governing religious organisations, or
the creation by a local decree of an expert committee of religious analysts in
Kostroma. In reaction to the provincial governments� efforts to preserve the
degree of decentralisation which they achieved during the 1990s, Putin will push
for more centralised structures in all areas of life, almost certainly including
religion. The new administration will probably create some kind of structure
along the lines of the Council of Religious Affairs-which is no longer barred by
law as it was from 1990 to 1997--in order to make local officials answerable to
Moscow and not to local mayors and governors.

After the initial, largely symbolic portrayal of a close relationship between Putin
and Patriarch Aleksi in early January, the new presidential administration is now
maintaining a greater distance from the Moscow Patriarchate. This seems likely
to continue. At present Putin is cultivating the image of a lukewarm Orthodox
believer and no longer making public statements supporting Russia�s
�traditional� confessions in the same way as, for example, the Communist Party
leader Gennady Zyuganov. A close alliance with the Moscow Patriarchate is
now politically risky due to continued revelations of the Church�s illicit trading
activities and the increasingly public close relationship between the patriarch and
the shady figure of Gulya Sotnikova. Although Putin receives unstinting support
from the Moscow Patriarchate for the war in Chechnya - Patriarch Aleksi
recently upbraided the West for double standards in its criticism of the Chechen
war - the Patriarchate appears to have received little in return other than a
presidential guard for Aleksi.

At some point Putin�s claim to uphold democratic principles is going to be
difficult to reconcile with his primary image as a promoter of a powerful state,
which is what allowed him to attract such a large share of the communist vote.
When it becomes impossible to maintain this balance, the Kremlin will probably
switch to a nationalist, pseudo-Orthodox model more in keeping with Putin�s
primary, populist image. One likely moment for this switch to take place will be
after the new reregistration deadline at the end of 2000.

A harbinger of what may then happen came during the three-month period, just
ended, between the elapse of the old reregistration deadline and the introduction
of the new one. This period provided a window during which liquidation was
technically possible. The dramatic, albeit isolated, case of the move to liquidate
13 religious organisations in the Voronezh region of Central Russia may be a
foretaste of what will happen in 2001, when all local justice departments will be
legally obliged to do what the one in Voronezh chose to do.

The latest events in Voronezh therefore deserve special attention. Clearly
angered by the fact that the local justice department had chosen to ignore its
written warning that the deadline was likely to be extended, the Ministry of
Justice has forced Voronezh department of justice to withdraw all 13 court
actions. The department now intends to reregister the 10 organisations whose
cases had not yet reached court. Of the three (Pentecostal) congregations whose
cases did reach court, two did not send representatives to the hearings; the
justice department suspects that they no longer exist. The third has already been
liquidated and the town judge is refusing to annul the verdict, maintaining that
the new law extending the reregistration deadline does not have retroactive
effect. The justice department plans to register the recently liquidated
organisations as if they were new, if they request it. Suspicions that the whole
procedure was initiated by the Voronezh Orthodox diocese are strengthened by
the fact that none of its four monasteries�still without reregistration�were
touched. There is no reason to suppose that Voronezh justice department would
have made such a U-turn in the absence of the extension to the deadline and the
ensuing pressure from the Ministry in Moscow.

Something like this scenario is likely to be played out in every region of Russia
at the end of the year 2000 and the beginning of 2001. The question is whether
the Putin administration will allow this, or introduce a further change in the law
to prevent it. This in turn depends upon how long Putin chooses to continue
cultivating an image of favouring religious freedom.


Copyright (c) 2000 Keston Institute. All rights reserved.