Friday 2 October

CLERGY STRUGGLE TO COPE WITH RUSSIA'S ECONOMIC CRISIS



by Tatiana Titova, Keston News Service



The collapse of Russia's banking system has affected everyone,

both Russians and foreigners residing in Russia - but it has

affected them in various ways. Ironically, the organisations

which turn out to have been best-prepared are those which in the

past expected nothing but oppression from the Russian system. The

least well-prepared are the organisations which had long since

reached understandings with the authorities for mutual

cooperation and which had thus come to trust the state. A

special category - those religious organisations which exist on

the basis of western support - have not suffered at all.



As compared with most secular institutions, religious bodies have

turned out to be better prepared because of their long-

established tradition of not exposing their income to public

scrutiny. Their expenses have likewise been met not by means of

easily traced bank transfers, but by quiet payments in cash.

During the years of the Soviet regime this tradition, for obvious

reasons, only grew stronger.



The newer religious bodies which have appeared during the last

decade had to show their bank account numbers when they applied

for state registration--but they usually kept only the tiniest

sums in those accounts since people made fearful by many years

of religious persecution conducted all payments in cash. True,

some 'prudent' heads of religious organisations decided to keep

their money in private bank accounts - in retrospect, a huge

mistake.



Representative bodies of foreign religious organisations, as

Keston learned from an employee of a large American religious

organisation, acted quickly to withdraw all the money in their

accounts, down to the last kopeck. 'We are in good shape', he

said, 'we even have hired new staff'.



Of course, many religious organisations now rely on secular

sponsors-but these too come in various forms. Many of the

Russian banks and firms which were providing money for the

construction of churches, chapels or rectories suddenly no longer

exist - unlike foreign sponsors.



So what can we expect? Banking specialists from one of the few

banks to have survived the recent avalanche told Keston that

they expect a return to the old system of the Soviet period, when

individuals were not legally allowed to exchange roubles for hard

currency. Of course a full such return, including formal criminal

penalties, is impossible. A firm exchange rate will be

established for converting dollars which have been deposited into

bank accounts and which are to be sold to the state. Whether or

not this measure improves the health of the economy, it will

shrink the flow of dollars from the West to Russian religious

organisations. It will become possible to monitor every dollar

in these flows, and this will be unwelcome to many. This measure

will immediately give birth to a black market in hard currency,

including the earnings of the corrupt structures which play no

small part in the economy of today's Russia.



Yet another problem made more acute by the banking crisis is that

of relations between the centre and the regions. One result of

the crisis is that some regions have taken an unprecedented

decision to conduct their financial operations completely outside

the official banking system. On 17 September the governor of

Krasnoyarsk province, ALEKSANDR LEBED, had a meeting with PRIME

MINISTER PRIMAKOV in order to discuss the future demarcation of

powers between the centre and the regions. If in the past the

local authorities always had to take the centre into account

because of their financial dependence on Moscow, now the collapse

of the banking system has made the powers of local leaders almost

unlimited.



What basic problems now face the church in this crisis? FR

ANTONI GEI, pastor of the Roman Catholic parish of Ss Peter and

Paul, says 'the fundamental problem is poor people. They are

flooding into the church to beg for help. We could collect

clothing and food for these people, but we don't have a place to

store such things and from which to distribute them. Immediately

the problem of repairs would arise-nobody wants to do anything,

builders refuse to work because nobody has any idea how much a

construction project would cost.' Moscow's Roman Catholics have

only the small, dilapidated Church of St Louis and the Church of

the Immaculate Conception, which was used as a factory during the

Soviet period and which is now being restored. The cathedral

church of Ss Peter and Paul has still not been returned to

believers.



Orthodox priest GEORGI EDELSHTEIN told Keston that 'The crisis

doesn't affect me-I don't have any money at present because I

managed to spend it all on repairing my church and on the nine

ex-convicts who live with me. There's always something to spend

money on.'



Duma aid LEV LEVINSON gave Keston a political forecast:

'Politically things will not get worse, but economically it

depends on the situation in the banking sphere. As for religious

organisations, the Primakov government will be neutral toward the

Patriarchate.' Asked by Keston to comment on the appointment of

the communist MASLYUKOV as first vice-premier, Levinson replied,

'As distinct from CHERNOMYRDIN, the government of Maslyukov will

not lobby for the interests of the Patriarchate. Things were

quite different with the previous government: whenever they

engaged in robbery, the Moscow Patriarchate stood first in line.

The Russian Communist Party has cold relations with the

Patriarchate. Of course the nationalistically inclined ZYUGANOV

has connections with certain forces within the Moscow

Patriarchate, but as a whole they are not allies.' (END)