Washington, 25 September 1997 (RFE/RL) - Russian officials have assured Western political and religious leaders that Moscow will not strictly enforce a controversial new law on religious organizations.
That law, now passed by both houses of the Russian parliament and expected to be signed in the near future by President Boris Yeltsin, has been criticized in the West because of the restrictions it imposes on many religious groups on Russian territory.
By suggesting that Moscow will not enforce some of the law's more intrusive and restrictive provisions, the Russian government clearly hopes to defuse Western criticism even while it allows Yeltsin to sign a measure that enjoys broad support among many Russians.
But in fact, this reassurance in itself is extremely troubling on three grounds:
First, the suggestion that the Russian government has no intention of enforcing a law passed by its own parliament and signed by its own president calls into question Moscow's commitment to move toward a law-based society.
Not only do these statements suggest that many in the executive branch of the Russian government are openly contemptuous of the parliament, but they indicate that many of these officials continue to view law as something to manipulate rather than to obey.
Second, the suggestion that the authorities will void some provisions by not enforcing them inevitably raises the larger question of Russia's ability to integrate into the larger international community.
If the Russian government is going to decide unilaterally not to enforce this law, neither Russian citizens nor foreign investors can be confident that Russian officials won't take similar actions on other issues, including the sanctity of contracts.
And third, and perhaps most disturbing to those immediately concerned with religious rights in Russia, the current wave of Russian reassurances that Moscow will not enforce this law leaves many religious groups in Russia in a dangerous position.
On the one hand, they are put in the position of semi-legality, allowed to function because of the whim of the state. That status inevitably gives Moscow a voice in the affairs of religious groups that could harm both the religious communities and the Russian state itself.
And on the other, these religious groups are constantly at risk to a change of Russian government policy against which they have, because of the provisions of the new law, no real defense.
While the Russian constitution guarantees freedom of religion, the new law is in fact the enabling legislation by which the terms of this freedom are in fact defined.
Moreover, whatever senior Russian officials say, many local officials are likely to try to enforce the exact letter of the law both out of conviction and under the influence of the Russian Orthodox hierarchy that has pushed this law forward.
Consequently, whatever promises the Russian government is making today and however encouraging they may be to political figures and religious leaders in the West, this law has the effect of undermining not only religious liberty in Russia but the emerging legal system there.
And because of these dangers if the law goes into effect and regardless of how it might be enforced, many people in both Russia and the West who are concerned about religious and other freedoms are asking why Boris Yeltsin seems willing to sign a law he does not intend to implement.
If its provisions remain as many believe problematic, these people believe, the Russian president should veto this legislation just as he did an earlier version last summer.
If he refuses to do so, these same people fear, the consequences for him and for freedom in Russia are likely to be far greater than either those in Moscow offering reassurances now or those in the West who may be accepting them at face value now believe.