Russia is becoming more capitalistic but less free. Step by
step it is moving closer to the "Chinese model" that many Russian
leaders openly admire - wooing foreign investors while increasing
state control over institutions such as newspapers.
In July, the Russian parliament took another such step by
voting to repeal one of the landmarks of the glasnost era, Russia's
1990 law on freedom of conscience. Though President Boris Yeltsin
vetoed the parliament's bill, on Sept. 4 he issued a "compromise"
version which is as restrictive as the original.
In coming days the parliament is likely to decide whether to
insist on the July bill, accept Yeltsin's substitute, or weave the
two together. Any version would be a giant step backward in the
effort to make Russia a law-governed country.
The 1993 constitution states that all faiths are equal before
the law. But both bills would divide religious bodies into two
unequal categories. Congregations in the inferior category would
have fewer rights than minority believers anywhere outside openly
theocratic states such as Saudi Arabia.
Whether a religious group receives privileged rank would
depend on the legal status it had 15 years ago and 50 years ago
under the Soviet state - a posthumous victory for Brezhnev and
Religious congregations in Russia today are somewhat like
Jewish synagogues in Germany in the late 1950s: For obvious
reasons, the great majority are less than 15 years old. This is
true of local congregations in every confession, even those of the
Orthodox Christians or Muslims whose roots here go back more than a
millennium. Even congregations that have existed continuously for
decades, especially among the Old Believers founded in the 17th
century or the independent Baptists who arrived in Russia in the
19th century, often lacked legal registration until recently
because they refused to compromise with a totalitarian atheist
The parliament's bill as well as the president's version
would deprive such religious bodies of most of the basic rights
needed to function as corporate bodies in society. They would have
no guaranteed right to publish religious literature, create schools
or mass media, conduct services in places such as hospitals, or
receive tax privileges. Many congregations would be reduced to
little more than private prayer meetings in their members' homes.
Either bill would artificially strengthen established,
centralized hierarchies at the expense of local congregations, even
in confessions whose doctrines favor decentralized church
structures. A local Protestant church, for example, would have a
mighty new incentive to affiliate with the Union of Evangelical
Christian Baptists rather than with its more independent rivals,
because that Union was set up more than 15 years ago as a tool of
state control. …