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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Church, State And Democracy

  • Paul Goble

Washington, August 7 (RFE/RL) - A renewal of the close alliance between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexiy II may solve one of Moscow's most immediately explosive political problems.

But this reassertion of Russian caesaropapist traditions of close links between the state and one church is likely to become one of the most important obstacles to the possibility of creating a democratic system, one that provides political and religious freedoms to all Russian citizens.

On Wednesday, Yeltsin and Alexiy met at a ceremony devoted to the consecration of the newly-built Chapel of St. Boris and Gleb. The two men pledged to work ever more closely together.

Yeltsin was particularly explicit: He said that "No obstacles shall separate us, because we know the role and the importance of the restoration in Russia of Orthodox Christianity and the Orthodox Church."

The two men, close political allies even before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, have recently been split by their very different attitudes toward a Duma-passed measure on the status of religion in Russia.

That bill, strongly backed by Alexiy II, would have given the Russian Orthodox Church a special status, pledged to respect Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism, and openly discriminated against all other religious groups.

Indeed, the law's provisions would have imposed harsh restrictions not only on foreign missionaries, the measure's ostensible targets, but also on indigenous Christian and Jewish groups not currently registered with the state.

In response to complaints from Western governments and human rights activists, Yeltsin refused to sign the measure, although his veto message suggested that he generally approved the bill's thrust and called on the Duma to revise it so that he could approve it.

Just before Yeltsin took this step earlier this summer, Alexiy II publicly warned that a veto could lead to an open conflict between church and state, something totally foreign to the Russian tradition.

That did not happen, and now Yeltsin and Alexiy have pledged to form a joint conciliation commission to come up with a draft law that both can support.

Once again, Yeltsin has demonstrated his enormous political skills. But this solution to an immediate political problem is likely to entail some serious and negative consequences for the future.

First, Yeltsin's willingness to link his government to the Orthodox Church reaffirms the Russian caesaropapist tradition in which the religious community serves as a major prop for the state.

Not only does this run counter to the separation of church and state that is both the source and cornerstone of liberties in Western democracies, but it suggests that Yeltsin is willing to defer to the patriarch in ways that will limit freedoms in Russia.

Second, Yeltsin's new coziness with the Russian Orthodox Church will certainly cost him support -- at home from those who are members of other denominations and abroad from those who believe that the separation of church and state is a precondition for an open society.

And third, and perhaps most seriously of all, Yeltsin's actions may in fact weaken the moral authority of the Church itself, a moral authority needed more today than ever before as the Russian people struggle to recover from communism.

By linking itself so closely with the Russian state and even more with a single Russian politician, the patriarch and his hierarchy will inevitably be tarred with responsibility for what that state and that leader do.

Many Russian Orthodox believers hoped that in post-communist times, the church would remain sufficiently independent of the state that it could serve as a critic and guide.

The embrace of Yeltsin and Alexiy II on Wednesday suggests that this opportunity may have already been missed, a fact that both sides may come to regret in the future.