Staunton, December 17 – Vladimir Putin’s suggestion that describing the Jehovah’s Witnesses as an extremist organization is “complete rubbish” and that Moscow should pursue a more liberal approach with regard to religious minorities has given rise to some but not very much optimism among Russia’s hard-pressed Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Yaroslav Sivulsky, the press secretary of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, says that “we are surprised about the reaction of the president. If he is in the course of the entire situation, then certainly his reaction could change something. We hope that he will give an order to investigate and that something will happen” (bbc.com/russian/news-46598425).
“Although knowing the realities of our government, there isn’t any great optimism,” the religious representative says. “It is difficult to call [Putin’s] remark support but the very fact that he expressed his point of view may be a sign that accusing the Jehovah’s Witnesses of terrorism and extremism are without foundation.”
Sivulsky pointed out that this is not the first time that Putin has been asked about the fate of the Jehovah’s Witnesses under his rule: German Chancellor Angela Merkel pressed him on this in May 2017. Moreover, members of the denomination have sent numerous letters to him but none has received a response.
“It is hard to judge,” he says, “what in fact will happen; but we have the modest hope that it will be possible to release those now in detention who have committed no crimes but simply have read the Bible. This is the first thing the law enforcement organs must do” if Putin’s words are to be taken seriously.
There is as yet no indication of movement in that direction, however.
Putin spoke of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in response to a question from Yekaterina Schulmann, a Moscow political analyst, at the Presidential Council on Human Rights on December 11. (For the text of the meeting, including his remarks on the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which was released today, see kremlin.ru/events/president/news/59374.)
The Kremlin leader promised to look into the situation and declared that “we can and even must at a certain moment be much more liberal toward representatives of various religious sects,” using the derogatory term Russians often employ for religious groups other than the four “traditional” faiths the authorities recognize.
Putin, of course, is trying to have it both ways: On the one hand, he can count on his words about a more “liberal” approach to be used by those who suggest he really is a democrat; while on the other, he can allow or in this case almost certainly order or at least approve the repressive actions of his subordinates.
He is all too rarely held to account for what he says and does and the ways in which those are at variance. That needs to change if there is to be any hope that he will in fact change for the better. The next few weeks are critical for the Jehovah’s Witnesses: If they aren’t released and the charges dropped, the world will have yet another reason not to trust Putin.
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