In the summer of 1997 the State Duma of the Russian Federation adopted a law ‘on freedom of conscience and religious organisation’ that, after a brief delay, was signed into law by Boris Yeltsin on 26 September. Whereas the law on religion approved in 1991 had effectively created a religious free market in Russia, the new law differentiated amongst religious communities with regard to both their symbolic status and legal rights.
As the Russian text was awaiting the final presidential signature, the author of these lines was in Kyrgyzstan researching the growth of civil society in this newly independent Central Asian republic. Following an interview with the state commissioner for religious affairs he held a conversation with some relatively liberal-minded intellectuals who argued very strongly that the religious sphere could not be one of absolute freedom and that some degree of legal regulation and even restriction was essential.
In both of these countries the discussion of new regulatory frameworks for religious institutions revolved around issues of stability, vulnerability, unfair competition, a desire for order, and questions of national identity. In Kyrgyzstan the argument suggested that here was a fragile society that had only recently achieved independence, and which had since experienced a veritable onslaught by religious and missionary organisations of all sorts. On the one hand there were Muslim purists who wanted to impose their version of the true faith on a society that, whilst retaining a strong cultural attachment to religion, had also been deeply affected by decades of Soviet secularisation – and my colleagues cited above were all urban, educated women, suspicious of Islamicist motives. Against such groups were ranged a wide variety of Protestant, neo-Protestant and new religious movements, some with roots in Kyrgyz society and some attracted by the relatively free religious market created in the early 1990s. Most of these directed their evangelistic work across ethnic and religious boundaries, and it was this latter factor that led my interlocutors to argue for at least a minimal legal regulation of religious activities in order to preserve some degree of internal stability.
Similarly, in Russia – and indeed in other former Soviet bloc countries – the debates that emerged in the mid-1990s centred on the vulnerability