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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- When Bad Laws Aren't Enforced

Prague, 9 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The Russian government is not enforcing the provisions of its law on religion, a pattern of behavior that in the short term has encouraged some observers but one that over the longer haul entails more serious consequences.

Many religious leaders and human rights activists in both Russia and the West were concerned that the Russian authorities would move against various minority religious groups after the Duma failed to extend the deadline for their registration with the state beyond December 31.

Because the law places tight limitations on religious groups without registration -- they cannot own property or conduct public services, among other things -- some church leaders predicted that Moscow would use its provisions to close these groups down or drive them underground.

So far, that has not happened.

This week, Lawrence Uzzell, the director of the religious watchdog organization Keston Institute in the United Kingdom, noted that once again "the salvation of Russia is the poor implementation of bad laws." And he predicted that the Russian authorities are unlikely to change their approach dramatically in the run-up to the presidential elections at the end of March.

For the current Russian leaders, Uzzell said, "religious questions simply are not all that important." Instead, he continued, "what they want most is servile silence on issues such as the Russian army's atrocities against civilians in Chechnya, and that they already have."

Indeed, by having on hand a law they are not enforcing, the Russian authorities put themselves in a particularly strong position to affect the behavior of religious congregations. Those who are cooperative won't be touched, while those who show any independence from Moscow's line can be harassed or worse -- and that entirely within the law.

But as Keston's Uzzell notes, "in the long run, the picture is darker."

First, Russia's acting President Vladimir Putin already "has presided over the most startling assault on freedom of the press since the mid-1980s."

Freed from the attention arising from the ongoing election campaign, he is likely to move against religious minorities both to shore up his support with the Russian Orthodox hierarchy and play to the rising tide of Russian nationalism in the population at large.

Second, as Uzzell notes, "in the long run, religious freedom is not likely to thrive if other freedoms are being crushed." That is precisely what is happening now. Putin has demonstrated little interest in defending freedom of the press or the other freedoms that form the foundation of a free civil society.

Putin's regime has "slandered and intimidated journalists whose reports on Chechnya differed from the official line," Uzzell notes, "even swapping a correspondent of the U.S.-funded Radio Liberty for Russian soldiers being held prisoner by the Chechens."

Under Putin's direction, Russian officials have "threatened a Russian journalist specializing in the study of official corruption with forced confinement to a psychiatric hospital," Uzzell says. Moreover, "in the recent parliamentary election campaign, Moscow officials in effect turned news presenters on state-owned television into press secretaries for the party in power."

This pattern of non-enforcement of a bad law subverts the very possibility of a law-based state. Many Western governments have praised Moscow for not enforcing this and other pieces of legislation, and given how pernicious some Russian laws are, their attitudes are entirely understandable.

But over time, such praise has the effect of allowing the Russian government to gain support from those concerned about civil liberties while retaining the ability to change its course at any time via non-democratic means.

If Russian believers and Russian citizens more generally cannot count on the government to enforce its laws and especially if they see that the West praises Moscow for not enforcing some laws, then these believers and these citizens can have little confidence in any laws that the Russian government may promulgate. In the end, they are likely to lose confidence in the meaning of law altogether.

Consequently as welcome as Moscow's nonenforcement of its law on religion may be to many now, the Russian government's continuing ability to decide which laws it will enforce and which ones it will ignore casts a dark shadow over the possibility that Russia will emerge as a democratic, law-based state anytime soon.