Religion in Russia


Four years ago today, Moscow was counting its dead after three days of violence in which a battle was fought at the city's television station and the Russian Parliament was shelled by tanks under the orders of President Yeltsin. At the time, the "October Events", as they have become known, were viewed as a valiant defence of democracy by Mr Yeltsin against a mutinous parliament and a communist mob. Time has shown, however, that of the 150 or so who lost their lives at that time only six belonged to the pro-Yeltsin forces. The remainder was made up of reckless, in some cases drunken, supporters of the parliament and representatives of the news media including Mr Rory Peck, a TV cameraman from Derry.

As a result of that political and military convulsion, Mr Yeltsin, with the open support of leading western politicians, was able to put a new constitution in place which greatly reduced the powers of parliament and correspondingly increased those of the presidency. Even this, however, has failed to bring stability. The new State Duma, despite its very limited powers, has consistently delayed legislation emanating from the presidency and on Friday Mr Yeltsin, in words reminiscent of the atmosphere of four years ago, declared: "The Duma must work for Russia. It is too expensive a pleasure for the nation to pay for your irresponsibility. It is time for the deputies finally to realise this."

Nevertheless, in recent weeks the Duma, the Federation Council (Russia's upper house) and President Yeltsin have combined to introduce a piece of repressive legislation whose Orwellian title "The Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organisations" betrays its intentions. The law, in essence, markedly reduces the freedom of those churches which did not register with the state during the communist period in Russia and strengthens the Moscow Patriarchate of the Orthodox Church whose history is a mixed one of persecution by and compliance with the Soviet authorities. Western protests, including those from the United States Congress, resulted in a watering down of much of the semantics of the legislation but its anti-democratic thrust remains.

Ostensibly aimed at new and destructive religious sects, the law can be used to limit the activities of more traditional churches, Roman Catholic and Protestant, and indeed the first actions by local authorities have been taken against Lutherans in Siberia. Human rights organisations, the Vatican and US Vice-President Al Gore have been amongst those who have raised their voices strongly against the law. Mr Yeltsin's response, however, has been verbally to attack not only the Duma but also the United States for the role it is playing in Europe.

Russia's President has learned quickly that he can do what he likes without serious approbation from Western democracies. The unstinted support of the actions of four years ago by the United States and its allies, the constant flow of funds from the IMF which made the waging of the vicious war in Chechnya financially more bearable, have sent messages to Moscow that a blind eye will be turned to human rights abuses in return for suitable economic changes. As a result, the United States and its allies may have been left with greatly reduced opportunities to safeguard human rights in today's Russia.