Friday, February 21, 2020

Russia’s Religious Divided on Idea of Establishing Ombudsman for Believers

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 15 – Anatoly Pchelintsev, a member of the Presidential Council on Relations with Religious Groups, has touched off a sharp debate on what if any government structure should be created to manage relations between the state and religion with his call for the creation of an ombudsman to defend the rights of believers.

            Representatives of three of the four “traditional” Russian religions – Orthodox Christianity, and Judaism (the fourth from Buddhism weren’t asked) – are generally opposed to the notion, but Protestants, who aren’t in this charmed circle and who often have problems with the state, enthusiastically back it.

            The debate has ranged over the print and electronic media in Moscow during the past ten days. Aleksandr Slabiyev of the DailyStorm portal provides a convenient summary both of Pchelintsev’s proposal and the reactions of religious leaders (

            Pchelintsev says that such a position is needed for two reasons. On the one hand, there is currently no body that directly connects the state and the various religions. And on the other, one is needed to provide guidance and develop policies especially for those religious groups that are less well-known, including Protestants in the first instance.

            Oleg Goncharov, vice president of the Consultative Council of Heads of Protestant Churches of Russia, welcomes the idea given the increased attention the siloviki are devoting to these groups. He says that there re now “about 5,000 Protestant congregations registered with the justice ministry with a total membership of at least several hundred thousand Russians.

            Before 2014, he says, there were few problems arising from the interrelationship of Protestants and the Russian state, but since that time, the regime has moved more actively against the rapidly growing Protestant community. It is obvious that the Kremlin is “trying to drive the Protestants into a definite ghetto.”

            Goncharov says that he believes the attacks on Protestant groups in Russia arise from the deteriorating relationship between Moscow and the US since most Protestants in the Russian Federation have links with the Americans. Moscow wants to punish both and reduce American influence by going after churches inside the country.

            The Russian Orthodox Church is overwhelmingly opposed to Pchelintsev’s proposal, viewing it as opening the door to the restoration of tsarist or Soviet institutions designed to give the government control over religions. The ROC MP is far better off in the existing situation than it would be with an ombudsman, many of its hierarchs say.

            There are some exceptions to this pattern. Sergey Khudiyev, an Orthodox commentator, argues that an ombudsman could block the persecution of smaller religious groups. “I don’t like the Jehovah’s Witnesses,” he says, but “I consider it incorrect when people are put behind bars exclusively for their religious activity.”

            At present, the ROC MP doesn’t need the services of such an official, but the time may come when it will – and preventing it from being established now could be a major mistake, Khudiyev adds.

            Russia’s Muslim leaders are divided.  Ravil haji Seyfetdinov, deputy mufti of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of Russia says that Russia needs a state organ to oversee relations with the religious but that one man couldn’t do that job. He argues that there should be something like a ministry with all the faiths represented in it.

            Nafigulla Ashirov, a member of the presidium of the Council of Muftis of Russia (CMR), disagrees. He says that any notion that believers have special rights that need defending is “absurd.”  Indeed, the mufti adds, he finds it “difficult to imagine” just what those might in fact be.

            And Gershon Kogan, spokesman for the chief rabbi of Russia, says that the rights of believers are sometimes violated in Russia. The “traditional” faiths have fewer problems because they are better known, but smaller and newer groups do have problems and something should be done to address them.

            Just what form that should take, however, is very much an open question.

Putin May Make Concessions on Donbass to Get West to Accept His New Status as State Council Head, Radzikhovsky Says

Paul Goble
            Staunton, February 15 – Changes in the Russian Constitution could have an impact on the Kremlin’s policy toward Ukraine, Leoonid Radzikhovsky says, if Vladimir Putin decides he must make some concessions on the Donbass to get Western leaders to accept him as an equal as he assumes his new role as head of the Russian State Council.

            The pro-Ukrainian analyst says that for Putin, “the transition period toward the establishment of the State Council is important,” as are relations with the West, given that Putin very much wants to continue to be accepted by world leaders as their equal after he takes on that as-yet undefined role (

            The Kremlin leader can’t be sure how Western leaders will view him if someone else becomes Russian president, and so making concessions, even small and cosmetic ones on the Donbass and the Ukraine more generally, is a useful way for him to cement his status with them, Radzikhovsky suggests.

            Putin’s giving up the Donbass, something that by itself he doesn’t need, would infuriate many Russians even as it would be welcomed by many Western leaders. If he isn’t president and doesn’t face the voters, the views of the former become less significant to him while the attitudes of the latter become vastly more important.

            What the Kremlin leader needs and want is quiet in the Donbass like the quiet in Abkhazia and Transdniestria, places that still constitute problems for Georgia and Moldova but attract ever less attention from the West. If Putin can orchestrate something similar in the Donbass by making concessions, he would have a personal victory, Radzikhovsky continues.

            These reflections don’t mean, of course, that Putin will decide to obey international law, return Crimea or stop meddling in Ukraine; but it does mean that the coming weeks and months could see a fresh face on Russian actions regarding Ukraine, especially in the wake of the firing of Vladislav Surkov. 

            Indeed, Surkov’s ouster may be the first step in the game that Radzikhovsky suggests may be about to begin. 

Russia’s De-Industrialization Limiting Moscow’s Ability to Produce New Weapons and Support a Modern Military, Alksnis Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 14 – Over the last two decades, Vladimir Putin has presided over the de-industrializaiton of the Russian Federation, a development that is now limiting the ability of the Kremlin to rearm the country in support of its ambitious foreign policy, according to Viktor Alksnis, an opposition commentator and, as he says, a former military engineer.

            In the current issue of Sovershennno-Sekretno, he argues that the Kremlin has failed to recognize this link or do anything to address the problems it creates, preferring instead to blame shortcomings in military industry on traditional problems like corruption and new ones like Western sanctions (

            Russia can’t have a rearmed army and fleet without having its own basic industries. It can’t do so if it has to rely on imports for key components. And it can’t achieve its goals if it doesn’t have a domestic computer industry worthy of the name, Alksnis says. If it is to have a modern army and fleet, it must also have a revitalized industrial base.

            But instead of moving in that direction, the commentator continues, Putin prefers to show “cartoons” and talk about “hypersonic” weapons that terrify the Americans. What he doesn’t say is that Russia’s own industrial base isn’t capable of producing these or even more fundamental military materiel.

            The gap between talk and ability to act has become most glaring in the case of the navy, although the problems of that branch also affect others, Alksnis says.  It was almost impossible to field a navy group for Syria, and its lead ship, Russia’s only aircraft carrier, limped back to Russia accompanied by tugboats and now may be headed for the scrapyard.

            Some comfort themselves with the notion that Russia doesn’t need an aircraft carrier or that the problems of the Admiral Gorshkov are unique to it, but in fact several weeks ago, yet another ship Moscow sent to Syria also limped home, its engines no longer functional.  That shouldn’t have surprised anyone: it was built in 1968.

            Unless Russia changes direction and soon and re-establishes basic industries, Alksnis suggests, this situation will only be worse the next time the Kremlin decides it wants to project power.