The replacement of non-specialist state representatives on Russia's
presidential council for religion by secular academics from the religious
studies field (See KNS 23 March) appears to indicate a resolve to balance
church and secular interests on Putin's part. The fact that he has entrusted a
secular body to draw up a religious policy also suggests a move towards
greater secularisation.


by Geraldine Fagan and Lawrence Uzzell, Keston News Service

The recent replacement of non-specialist state representatives on Russia's
presidential council for religion by a strong contingent of secular academics
from the religious studies field (See KNS 23 March) appears to indicate a
resolve to balance church and secular interests on Putin's part. The fact that
he has entrusted a secular body to draw up a religious policy - and that its
defining feature will reportedly be a strong emphasis on the secular nature of
the Russian state - also suggests a move towards greater secularisation under
Putin. However, more than a year has passed in which Russia's new
president has made few clear pronouncements on religious policy, and it
should thus be born in mind that religion is evidently not among his highest

Unlike Party apparatchiki Gorbachev and Yeltsin, Putin's background is with
the security services, and state security is his natural concern. Thus religion
usually becomes a priority only when it seems to impinge upon security
issues. In such instances the response of the new administration is
uncompromising. Serious concern is shared by the security organs and some
respected experts in the religious studies field that foreign missionaries
(particularly those from the US) are allegedly agents of western powers,
even participants in a plot to take over Russia's Far East. Fuelled by the
suspicion frequent at local government level that foreign missionaries aim to
re-orientate citizens towards 'anti-Russian' values, this concern has resulted
in visa refusals and expulsions of foreign missionaries over the past year, as
well as the adoption of one new provincial decree regulating missionary
activity. Although it should be noted that this trend started well before Putin
came to power, his National Security Concept made specific warning of the
negative impact of foreign missionaries. Significantly, it was adopted within
just weeks of his becoming acting president.

This emphasis on state security is part of a policy of consolidation in every
area of Russian life, which may be considered the defining feature of Putin's
government. During the Yeltsin era the power of provincial governors and a
flood of foreign influences went largely unchecked. This resulted in the
formation of a Russia perceived by many to be disconcertingly close to
disintegration. In the religious sphere, Islamic identity has been held up by
some with separatist tendencies when seeking to emphasise their 'difference'
from Russia. In Bashkortostan, for example, Islam is considered the
foremost 'traditional' confession in the region's own religion law. However,
while Putin has publicly condemned the 'religious extremism' of Islamic
fighters in Chechnya, he has not attempted to introduce legal measures in the
field of religion in order to neutralise Islam, as in Central Asian states. In
view of his policy of consolidation, he cannot afford to alienate large
numbers of Muslims within the Russian Federation, not to mention Islamic
states outside it. Putin has thus been careful to pinpoint Islamic militants as
the threat to state security and has attempted to deal with them using the
armed and security forces.

On a local level, however, the two main factions of the Islamic community
have had differing degrees of success in enlisting the authorities in their
attempts to undermine one another with charges of religious extremism.
Ostensibly in order to protect the region from 'Wahhabism', Tatarstan's local
religion law permits only the spiritual directorate under the auspices of Ravil
Gainutdin to be registered as a Muslim centralised religious organisation;
mosques under his rival, Talgat Tadzhuddin, have not been reregistered in
the region. In Ulyanovsk, by contrast, a minority Muslim group has had all
its mosques reregistered, despite being branded 'Wahhabis' by adherents of
the dominant spiritual directorate in the region, which is pro-Tadzhuddin.

Although Putin has not yet adopted a religious policy, there are already
signals of the direction which it will take. The Soviet-style inter-religious
peace forum of November 2000 could not have taken place without explicit
government approval. In keeping with his policy of consolidation and in
continuation of the latter phase of the Yeltsin era, Putin can be expected to
encourage the formation of such a coalition among Russia's 'traditional'
confessions. Loyalty to the presidential position will be an obligation for
those organisations deemed to represent such confessions, and their leaders
will make joint public pronouncements in favour of peaceful co-operation
for the consolidation of the nation, even when there are sound theological
reasons for Orthodox and Buddhists, for example, to have nothing to do with
one another. Such groups are unlikely to encounter obstruction to their
activities from the authorities.

A couple of significant nuances should be noted here, however. Within the
Jewish community, one structure has been marginalised by a newer body,
and the Kremlin has clearly sided with the latter. Since the now-marginalised
chief rabbi, Adolf Shayevich, has been unfailingly loyal to both the Soviet
and post-Soviet state, his sudden unpopularity may be explained by his
proximity to media mogul and Kremlin arch-enemy Vladimir Gusinsky. In
addition to financial considerations, Putin's support for the newer chief rabbi,
Berl Lazar, may also be an attempt to prevent the formation of a unified and
powerful Jewish lobby potentially at odds with his presidency. Government
preference for Lazar is blatant: He recently replaced Shayevich in a re-
shuffle of the Council for Cooperation with Religious Organisations
Attached to the President of the Russian Federation, while both rival Muslim
leaders retained their places. A US citizen not married to a Russian, Lazar
was also swiftly granted Russian citizenship.

This brings us to the second significant nuance within the coalition of
'traditional' Russian confessions. It is likely that the Roman Catholic Church
will in practice be increasingly dealt with as a non-traditional confession,
even if it is formally considered a traditional one. Unlike Lazar, two Roman
Catholic bishops were refused Russian citizenship over the past year and told
by the relevant authorities that the only way they could receive it would be
'to marry a Russian'. As a result, the bishops cannot take legal responsibility
for their apostolic administrations, and the Catholic Church is unable to
register the latter. In addition to ongoing difficulties in winning back
property confiscated by the Soviet authorities, an increase in hostility
towards the Catholic presence in Russia is also indicated by recent incidents
of refusal and curtailment of visas for visiting clergy. Visits by President
Putin and Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov to the Vatican in the course of
the past year, however, suggest that this hostility is not present at the very
highest level.

One very likely and significant change in religious policy under Putin will be
a much more secular orientation. A representative of the state body entrusted
with drawing up the Putin administration's religious policy has told Keston
that its principal features will be a strong emphasis on the secular nature of
the Russian state and the equality of all confessions before the law. Although
a major factor in this is the dependence of US government funding upon
Russia's observance of its international religious freedom commitments, it
appears that Putin is genuinely motivated by secular values. A Russian
president who was a devout spiritual son of Fr Tikhon Shevkunov, as some
have alleged Putin to be, and in favour of Orthodoxy playing a dominant role
in the religious life of the country would have ample material in the Russian
Orthodox Church's recently-unveiled Social Doctrine with which to form a
religious policy and not have referred the task to a secular state body. He
would also not have publicly praised the life of Russia's foremost New Ager
Nikolai Roerich as an example of 'the spiritual closeness that binds all

Even if Putin were bent on the introduction of state Orthodoxy, this would
be impossible from a practical point of view - it would be prohibitively
expensive to maintain. It would also alienate adherents of other faiths -
above all Islam - and thus result in precisely the kind of fragmentation of
Russian society which Putin is trying to prevent. Although seriously
practising Orthodox in Russia are few, the majority of the population
expresses support for Orthodox values, and Putin cannot afford to alienate
them either by pursuing too secular a line. He will therefore continue to try
to maintain a fine balance between upholding a neutral, secular state and
supporting the Russian Orthodox Church. To this end he can be expected to
continue to utilise his great skill at 'spin' - making well-publicised but
essentially symbolic gestures towards the Russian Orthodox Church, such as
holding award ceremonies for Russian Orthodox hierarchs, and thus
ensuring their support with as little expense as possible.

Reluctance to upset the West also lies behind the almost complete lack of
implementation of the 1997 law to the detriment of groups outside the
'traditional' camp. In 1997 one would have expected Article 14 of the law to
be widely used against confessions such as the Jehovah's Witnesses or
Mormons, for example, but this has almost entirely not been the case.
Indeed, over 90 per cent of the communities of both those confessions have
been reregistered at the local level. Reluctance to engage in - if not
obstruction of - implementation of the law in an oppressive direction appears
to have been signalled from above, however. The registration of 'non-
traditional' groups has been more extensive at the federal than the local level,
and the recent decision of a Moscow court to reject charges that the
Jehovah's Witnesses are socially dangerous would not have been possible
without federal approval. Even if one puts re-registration of so-called
'destructive sects' down to western pressure and/or bribery, however, this
does not alter the fact that the ideological will to oppress such groups
possessed by those who proposed the 1997 law is usually not the overriding
motivation of those who implement it.

That said, there continue to be sporadic attempts to restrict the activity of
some groups, particularly Pentecostals and charismatics, at the local level.
Commonly these include repeated refusals to register or reregister on trivial
pretexts and to rent state property. As before, such incidents occur under
provincial administrations which are either pro-Communist, keen to maintain
a large degree of autonomy from Moscow or under strong pressure from an
Orthodox bishop intolerant of other confessions - or a combination of all
three. Such incidents can certainly be expected to continue, and more than
likely increase, as those initiating restrictions on minority groups in such
areas become increasingly resentful of western influence over Russia's
internal policy; specifically, in effecting what they see as the emasculation of
the 1997 law. Their view is bolstered by the absence both of popular support
for US-style even-handed religious freedom and of grass-roots resistance to
anti-sect propaganda. At the provincial level, policies against religious
freedom can be a means of resisting the centre at a time when Moscow is
trying to send reassuring signals to the West. On the other hand, there remain
some provinces, such as Sakha in north-eastern Siberia, which are eager to
maintain their autonomy but which are relatively more open to religious
freedom. The great variety in church-state policies among the provinces
continues despite Putin's stated interest in restoring strong 'vertical' controls.

Considerable international concern has been raised by the deadline for re-
registration of all religious organisations on 31 December 2000. One should
not read too much into the re-registration figures from the Ministry of
Justice, however, not least because they do they not reflect considerable
variations from region to region. What matters is the resolve of the
provincial authorities concerned both to liquidate the some 1,500
organisations which they have not re-registered and to prosecute the
subsequently illegal aspects of their activity. One well-publicised example is
that of the Salvation Army, which was refused re-registration in the city of
Moscow and has had rental agreements curtailed and a programme cut as a
direct consequence. However, this appears to be an isolated case � the
example of a parish of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad in Kursk,
which has not yet even been informed by the authorities that it has not been
re-registered, is probably much more typical. Re-registration is almost
certainly continuing after the deadline, and there has not been a rush by local
authorities to refer groups without re-registration to the courts. The law does
not in fact envisage a timescale for liquidation, and even should groups
which failed to re-register be formally liquidated, it is highly unlikely in
most areas that they will be prosecuted for exercising rights technically
deprived them. The fact remains, however, that local authorities now have
the mechanisms of liquidation and prosecution at their disposal with which
they can intimidate such groups, who will consequently be wary of carrying
out their activities in too overt a manner.

One aspect of Russia's 1997 law which has had a considerable impact on
religious freedom is its centralising tendency within religious confessions. It
is now extremely difficult for a group to form outside an existing structure or
to leave it without a loss of rights. The November 1999 Constitutional Court
ruling which exempts religious organisations registered before the adoption
of the 1997 law or affiliated to centralised religious organisations from the
15-year probationary period will only exacerbate this tendency. Since it
seems to ensure artificial unity and stability in the religious sphere, it is
perceived by the Kremlin as being very much in the national interest. As
another of its features is the creation of top-down command structures, with
which it is much easier for the federal authorities to deal, it is difficult to
foresee Putin resisting its effect. From the standpoint of religious freedom
this policy is especially troubling for faiths with anti-hierarchical,
congregationalist doctrines of church governance - but of course this is not a
primary concern for Putin and his circle.

There are unlikely to be any successful attempts to amend the 1997 law in
the near future. Having taken note of US attentiveness to violations of
religious freedom in the legal sphere, the introduction of legal measures
affecting religious organisations will probably involve giving certain groups
privileges, such as easier access to state education, rather than removing
rights from others. Putin's approach in this field differs significantly from
that of the Yeltsin administration. Whereas a mishmash of interests
dominated by the Moscow Patriarchate concocted the draft law on religion in
1997, Putin has formally entrusted a secular body to produce a religious
policy which will subsequently be discussed by his presidential council on
religion. When this body was set up under Yeltsin, it was composed entirely
of religious representatives, who were thus given a direct lobbying line to the
president. Although some state representatives were added by Yeltsin, these
were not for the most part specialists in the field. Under Putin, these non-
specialists have been replaced in one fell swoop by a strong contingent of
secular academics from the religious studies field. This appears to be a move
to counter the free-for-all of interests which dominated the religious sphere
during the Yeltsin era. Such growing resolve by the federal authorities to
resist the influence of 'clericalism' makes even more likely the foundation of
some sort of Council for Religious Affairs.

The formation of such a body is opposed by the Russian Orthodox Church,
which benefits from the status quo. However, some form of Council for
Religious Affairs now exists in all other CIS countries. In Ukraine this is
understandable, since, unlike that in many western states, the religious
situation there has volatile potential and could easily affect the integrity of
the state. In Russia there is support for such a body even among champions
of religious freedom, who complain that there is currently no co-ordination
of religious affairs on the federal level, with the result that arbitrariness
dominates in the provinces. In addition, it is argued, a complete lack of
regulation on the part of the federal government is irresponsible in view of
the absence of the rule of law in Russia. Others, however, are justifiably
concerned that such a body will take on the same functions as the Soviet-era
Council for Religious Affairs, at least in the long term. Since a truly
oppressive body is in any case inevitable should the Russian political climate
take a sharp turn towards the authoritarian; the main problem accompanying
the creation of such a body at present would seem to be its subjection to
corruption and intimidation by religious groups with money and/or
influence, as well as favouritism towards those with a natural talent for
dealing with government officials. Ukraine's Committee for Religious
Affairs, for example, evidently has an excellent relationship with Patriarch
Filaret's Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kievan Patriarchate) which the church
of the Moscow Patriarchate does not enjoy. (END)

Copyright (c) 2001 Keston Institute. All rights reserved.