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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- When Religion, Nationality And Politics Intersect

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 8 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A provision in the Russian draft law on political parties prohibiting the organization of such groups on religious and ethnic lines has sparked a protest from members of the country's largest religious denomination, the Russian Orthodox Church.

A spokesman for the Union of Orthodox Christians, a group representing that denomination's lay members, sharply criticized the Kremlin's draft political party law that the Duma gave preliminary approval to on Wednesday. He said in Moscow on the same day that such a ban, if imposed, would deprive millions of Orthodox Russians of the right to promote traditional Russian Orthodox values.

The spokesman noted further that parties rooted in the Christian tradition play a key role in many political systems, including those of the most developed Western European states. And he said that parties promoting religious values can play an especially important part in the revival of Russian society.

This criticism of draft legislation developed by the administration of President Vladimir Putin is especially important for three reasons:

First, it provides an important clue as to how the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox church intends to expand its already large political role. By church rules, priests and hierarchs are prohibited from directly participating in political life at any level. But the ban does not extend to lay members of their congregations, and consequently, the Union of Orthodox Christians could easily become a political vehicle for the patriarchate itself.

Given the Orthodox Church's tradition of closely allying itself with the state and given the important role of priests in the lives of believers, the organization of such an Orthodox Russian party could thus become a powerful support for the central leadership, even if it offended many other groups.

Second, it suggests that the new draft law, one for which some four alternative drafts and more than 500 amendments have already been proposed, may face a more difficult future during upcoming discussions in the Russian parliament than many now expect.

Over the last several weeks, the Moscow press has been full of articles noting the objections of this or that political faction to the draft legislation but arguing that the Duma would certainly pass the bill in almost the same form proposed by the Kremlin. The objections from the Union of Orthodox Christians, however, may provide some important assistance to those who object to the bill for other reasons.

And third, the objections of the Union of Orthodox Christians highlight another instance of the law of unintended consequences. Those involved in drafting the law on parties and those commenting on its prospects have suggested that the ban on organizing parties based on religious or national lines was inserted to limit the political possibilities for small, non-Russian, and especially Islamic groups.

But now that members of the largest confession have discovered that this ban could affect them as well, many in Moscow and elsewhere are likely to be forced to confront a problem familiar to many other countries around the world.

Government attempts to restrict minorities in ways that end by restricting the rights of a majority group have typically generated a reaction among the majority that has often proved far more threatening than any of the minority actions would have been. In Canada, for example, earlier efforts to restrict the assertiveness of French-speaking Quebec residents have had the unintended consequence of helping to power Anglophone counter movements.

And efforts at restricting such minority rights, especially when they are lifted under political pressure from the dominant group, sometimes serve as the occasion for greater not lesser nationalist assertion by the dominant communities. Indeed, many minority groups often see such a pattern as both a reason and an opportunity for greater activity on their parts. If the draft parties law is revised, some minorities in Russia may thus organize precisely because that happened.

And to the extent that occurs, the chance of clashes along religious or ethnic lines are likely to increase -- precisely the opposite outcome the drafters of the original bill intended.

While those members of the majority group who first object to these restrictions at first may be doing so on human rights grounds, as appears to be the case with the Union of Russian Christians, others in that majority community may then seek to use any change in such restrictions to promote their own, more openly nationalist agendas. And that in turn could provoke a nationalist and religious response from the minorities as well.

In short, the Kremlin's effort to exclude national and religious elements from Russian political life could well end by promoting the inclusion of some and the further exclusion of others, a trend with potentially explosive consequences for the future development of a unified civil society in that country.

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