Staunton, March 18 – Vladimir Putin’s call for a new agency to supervise inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations is part of his effort to tighten control over all religious groups in the country, to ensure a uniform approach to religions across the country, and to make religious leaders responsible for their followers, according to Vladislav Maltsev.
As such, the new agency that Putin has directed the government to organize before April 15 represents among other things a partial restoration of the notorious Soviet-era Council on Religious Affairs and a major defeat for the Russian Orthodox Church which has consistently opposed any such institution as an infringement on its rights and powers.
In the new issue of “NG-Religii,” Maltsev, who writes frequently on religious issues, says that the idea of re-establishing something like that has been discussed for years by various government officials and experts but nothing had come of it because of opposition from the Moscow Patriarchate (ng.ru/ng_religii/2015-03-18/1_kremlin.html).
Andrey Sebentsov, who earlier served as secretary to the Russian Federation Commission on the Affairs of Religious Groups and now works as a consultant to the Duma on related issues, says that Moscow needs such an institution because many government agencies charged with making decisions about religion don’t have adequate information to do so.
The only one that does have good information, he says, is the justice ministry, but as he drily puts it, that organization “does not work from the position of studying” the issue. Instead, it is involved in registration and control, and those are only part of the problems that religious groups present the state.
Aleksey Malashenko, a religious affairs expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center, agrees, adding that what the new agency will have to focus on in the first instance is on reports from the regions in order to ensure that they are accurate and thus serve as early warning indicators of possible violence.
Malashenko’s comments, Maltsev says, suggest that the new agency will include the monitory centers that Moscow had ordered created in the regions almost two years ago. But it will also have to create others in the regions to ensure consistent application of central policy, according to Aleksandr Kudyavtsev, head of the Russian Association for Religious Freedom.
Aleksey Makarkin, first vice president of the Moscow Center for Political Technologies, tells Maltsev that the new agency will also have to ensure that religious leaders control their followers. At present, he says, the leaders say one thing; and their subordinates and the faithful do other things. That must end, he says.
In addition, Markarkin suggests, the new agency will have to ensure that the religious hierarchies themselves help the state in other ways as is the case in Kazakhstan with its Agency for Religious Affairs, an institution he argues should serve as a model. That will give the state access to the expertise only religious leaders have.
Exactly how things will work out, Maltsev says, will depend on the nature of the agency to be set up and on its leadership; but the Kremlin clearly feels that it must exert more control over religious groups because the latter have demonstrated their “shortcomings” as far as “self-organization” and control are concerned.
But there are two other and potentially more serious consequences if Putin moves in the direction he appears to have chosen. On the one hand, such arrangements will tighten the relations between the various religious hierarchies and the state to the point that they will alienate many believers and cost these hierarchies support from below.
And on the other, and in a related development suggested by Soviet history, that alienation will lead in turn to the formation of underground religious groups set up to avoid such state interference in religious affairs, ranging from the catacomb churches of Christian groups to underground mosques among Muslims.
The Russian government, like its Soviet predecessor, will find it more difficult to root these out, and it is likely to find as well that those who choose to form such groups will present a more serious challenge to Putin’s ideological and power pretensions than anyone in the Kremlin now recognizes.