News Analysis: Battle over Russian Religion Bill Signals Struggle with Democracy

A president agonizes over whether to sign a bill. It is popular, but under attack from human rights groups, who call it discriminatory and undemocratic, and from his allies, who threaten to cut aid if the bill becomes law.

With the Parliament in recess, the president decides to veto the law and send it back to the legislature.

The communities who would be affected by the legislation are split over the decision.

A mundane occurrence in a democratic country, right?

Yes, but this time the country is Russia — and the issue is freedom of religion.

As the fight over the legislation, titled “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Association,” shows, Russia’s struggle with democracy is an uphill one.

At issue here is how to ensure basic freedoms intrinsic to any democratic nation — such as freedom of religion — in a land that has such a long undemocratic tradition.

Indeed some opponents of the legislation said that by vetoing the bill, Yeltsin has prevented Russia from returning to its totalitarian past.

At the same time, those who hailed the decision — including several Russian and American Jewish groups — cautioned that the battle is not yet over.

Until his surprise announcement last week, it appeared that Russian President Boris Yeltsin would sign the controversial legislation.

Ostensibly designed to protect Russia from the threat of religious cults and sects, the law calls Russian Orthodoxy an “inalienable part” of Russia. It allots to four established faiths — the Russian Orthodox Church, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism — the status of “traditional” Russian religions.

All other religions are required to prove that they have officially existed in Russia for at least 15 years, even though under the Communist regime, religious freedom was harshly restricted and many religions had to operate clandestinely.

Religions, or denominations of religions, that cannot meet the 15-year requirement could face limitations on their ability to obtain a legal identity, own property or publish literature.

The bill was passed by overwhelming majorities in both houses of the Russian Parliament earlier this month and was actively supported by the Russian Orthodox Church.

Reports from the Kremlin last week had suggested Yeltsin would sign the law, but try to modify its more restrictive clauses.

But in the end, he vetoed it.

Yeltsin, who issued his decision while on vacation, was quoted as saying that he is obligated to guarantee the constitution.

“It was a difficult decision, but many of the features of the draft infringe on the constitutional rights and freedoms of people and citizens, establish inequality of different confessions and contradict international obligations accepted by Russia.”

Human rights groups and the Vatican had attacked the bill, saying it went far beyond its stated goals of protecting Russia from cults that have gained popularity in recent years.

Critics of the bill described it as discriminatory against most religions — evangelical Christianity and Catholicism were among the faiths that could have been restricted — and said its provisions would handicap the activities of a number of foreign and non-mainstream religions now active in Russia.

The proposed law also sparked fear of some Jewish activists who worried that it could threaten the activities of branches of Judaism, such as the Lubavitch and Reform Judaism, which did not enjoy official status in the former Soviet Union and, therefore, could not meet the 15-year requirement.

Father Gleb Yakunin, who heads the Public Committee to Protect Freedom of Conscience, said the veto was largely due to the West’s opposition to the bill.

The U.S. Senate had threatened to cut Russia’s $200 million aid package if it became law.

Human rights activists were swift in applauding Yeltsin’s decision.

“We are very happy with the decision,” said Diederik Lohman, Moscow director of the Human Rights Watch/Helsinki group.

But among Jewish groups, there appeared to be a split. Several Jewish groups had protested the legislation, including the Va’ad, the Jewish Federation of Russia.

But Russia’s chief rabbi, Adolph Shayevich, had supported the bill.

Shayevich said that although the draft contained “some imperfections,” it was worthy of presidential approval.

Although Shayevich did not participate in a news conference in Moscow last week organized by the Russian Orthodox Church to express its disappointment over the veto, Shayevich said he agreed with the church representatives who stressed Russia’s need to weed out what they described as dangerous foreign-based sects.

Other Jewish leaders welcomed Yeltsin’s veto.

Zinoviy Kogan, leader of Moscow’s Hineini, Russia’s largest Reform congregation, called it a “victory of democratic forces.”

And Berel Lazar, chief emissary of the Lubavitch movement in Russia, said, “We support completely the veto.”

Lazar said that while Jewish groups could have benefitted from the bill — since it put restrictions on organizations such as Jews for Jesus that have been very active in the former Soviet Union — he believed that such monitoring is not the job of government.

In Washington, Mark Levin, the executive director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, praised Yeltsin’s veto, but cautioned that this is just “the first step.”

Indeed, the fight is far from over.

Yeltsin’s veto sets the stage for a confrontation with the Parliament, which is likely to gain the two-thirds majority necessary to override his veto when it meets again in September.

According to the Russian Constitution, if the veto is overridden in both houses, the president has to sign the bill into law.

But Yeltsin could again refuse to sign the bill and send it back to Parliament, which is what he did with the recent “trophy art” bill, which prevents Russia from giving back art to Germany and other European countries looted after World War II.

Should the battle over the law be referred to the Constitutional Court, Yeltsin may invoke the constitution’s Article 14, which contains guarantees of freedom of religion.

“It’s important that the international community continues to monitor the fate of the law,” said Yakunin of the Freedom of Conscience committee.

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