Vienna, October 11 – Because of the weakness of parties and NGOs, religious communities now play a growing role in Russian elections, a development some Russian officials back as long as it is limited to getting out the vote but one that others fear may violate the separation of church and state or allow religions to challenge the powers that be.
In advance of tomorrow's regional voting, Vladimir Churov, the head of the Central Election Commission, told religious leaders in Yekaterinburg that they could “play a major role in increasing the electoral activity of citizens,” not by pushing “specific candidates” but by “raising the social consciousness of Russians” (www.islamonline.ru/m/nov/?i=3730).
The religious leaders to whom he spoke there welcomed his words. Father Flavian Matveyev, who heads a local monastery, said that the Yekaterinburg eparchate of the Russian Orthodox Church “for a long time already” has encouraged Russian citizens to fulfill their civic obligation and vote.
Yakov Soskin, the rabbi of the Yekaterinburg Jewish community, echoed his words. “We consider,” he said, “that religious people should participate in electoral campaigns, express their will and their relationship to the existing authorities and vote as their soul, heart, and faith in God directs them.”
And Yekaterinburg mufti Hazrat Sibgatulah haji added that “before elections, we tell our believers that they will show their consciousness and civic activity by voting for whomever they consider necessary. Civil society is in a difficult position; therefore we bear especial responsibility to be active.”
Not all people of faith agree with Churov’s position. Some religious leaders fear that the involvement of their communities in electoral politics violates what they believe should be the separation of church and state. In Kurgan oblast, for example, 11 religious leaders signed a joint declaration opposing any get out the vote effort as unconstitutional.
But the bigger problem for many, according to an Ekho Moskvy commentator cited by Islamonline.ru, is that some religious leaders go beyond calls for their followers to participate in elections and specifically endorse particular candidates, a practice that at least potentially could create problems for both the religious communities and the state.
Several days ago, the Moscow station reported, Archbishop Vikenty of Yekaterinburg and Verkhotursk received one candidate for mayor of Nizhniy Tagil and wished him “success in the elections,” an action that a local analyst said was not a violation of any law, although he acknowledged that some believers might not be pleased by it.
There is “nothing terrible” and “nothing illegal” in such advocacy, Ilya Zakharov, the chairman of the Yekaterinburg Electoral Commission, said. But he acknowledged that it could cause problems for the Church itself if parishioners objected to being instructed on whom they should vote for.
Zakharov did not discuss the possibility that such advocacy might be harmful to the state, but another analyst, Eduard Abelinskas, who heads the Institute of Strategic Analysis and Social Prediction alluded to it when he pointed out that religious groups had played a major role in supporting pro-government parties and in elections more generally “in the national republics.”
But none of these commentators discussed what might happen if religious leaders spoke out on behalf of candidates from opposition groups or having ideas the government does not approve. Would officials move against the religious communities in that instance or hold off lest they provoke a reaction?
To date, religious leaders in Russia have not risked finding out, but their influence, given the Kremlin’s destruction of most political parties and the weakness of existing non-governmental organizations means that groups based not on interests but rather primordial ties may soon have more influence over the voters than any institution other than the state.
And that in turn means that the government’s moves against civil society could have yet another unintended consequence: the rise of parties and politicians whose political bases are not communities of interest but communities of faith, groups that historical experience suggests will find it far more difficult to find common ground.