Vienna, April 23 – The retirement of two senior Russian officials, one who had been involved with religious affairs since Soviet times and a second who earlier had clashed with the Moscow Patriarchate, opens the way for a further tightening of relations between President Dmitry Medvedev and the Russian Orthodox Church.
These latest developments continue a trend that Medvedev and especially his wife have pushed since he came to office, but they are especially important because they open the way for steps, like the introduction of a new national holiday on the Baptism of Kievan Rus, that will exacerbate relations between Moscow and followers of other faiths, including Islam.
In an article in today’s “Nezavisimaya gazeta,” Elina Bilevskaya points to the retirement of two senior Kremlin officials as an indication that “the Kremlin is seeking new models of interrelations with religious organizations” in general and with the Russian Orthodox Church in particular (www.ng.ru/politics/2010-04-23/3_rpc.html).
In both cases, the journalist says, the “formal” explanation was that the two had reached retirement age, but she argues that most observers think far more is in fact involved. The first of the two, Aleksandr Kudryavtsev, the referent for internal policy, had primary responsibility who oversaw the presidential Council on Interrelations with Religious Organizations.
Kudryavtsev was involved with religious affairs since Soviet times. From 1988 to 1990, he worked in the Council on Religious Affairs of the RSFSR Council of Ministers. Then, he supervised the registration of religious communities in the justice ministry and headed the department for humanitarian policy and social ties of the Presidential Administration.
In all these positions, he was committed to the idea of the complete separation of church and state and to the notion that the state should treat all religions equally, positions that inevitably brought him into conflict with the Moscow Patriarchate which, especially under Kirill, has sought to raise the status of Russian Orthodoxy to something more than primus inter pares.
The second departure is that of Andrey Sebentsov, who until recently was the White House’s responsible secretary for the commission questions of religious organizations and who has been at odds with the Moscow Patriarchate since at least 1997 when he opposed federal legislation that would have legalized Kirill’s concept of the four “traditional” religions of Russia.
Worse, from the point of view of many in the Orthodox hierarchy, Bilevskaya continues, Sebentsov is “considered as a supporter of broad democratic views concerning the relationship of the state with religious organizations,” something that protects non-Orthodox groups but that undermines the Patriarchate’s sense of primacy.
A source in the government said that he “did not exclude” that these retirements could be “connected with the search for innovative ideas in the development of dialogue between the state and religious organizations,” all the more so because “innovation” is all the rage in that sector along with all others.
But a source in the Kremlin itself told “Nezavisimaya gazeta” that there was more to this. Medvedev, he indicated, currently views “the question of relations of the state with religious organizations” as a “priority” matter. Consequently, personnel changes in this area likely point to policy shifts as well.
Aleksey Makarkin, the deputy head of the Moscow Center of Political Technologies, agrees. He suggested to “Nezavisimaya gazeta” that “the retirements of Kudryavtsev and Sebentsov could be connected with the activity of Kirill, the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia.”
Both of those sent into retirement, he said, were “supporters of a model which presupposed that the state relates to all spiritual communities in the same way without giving supremacy to any one of them.” That clearly did not and does not please the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church.
And Makarkin suggested that “cooperation [by the government] with the Russian Orthodox Church will be strengthened,” a reward for the Patriarchate’s support of the government during the crisis and its success in preventing splits by “extreme conservatives” whose views might threaten popular unrest.
Such cooperation, not surprisingly, will please the Orthodox but only at the cost of offending other religious groups. An indication of that danger was on view this week. On Wednesday, the Duma passed on first reading a government-proposed measure that would make July 28 the Day of the Baptism of Rus (www.pravo.ru/news/view/28759/).
A backer of the measure, Sergey Markov, said that the Baptism of Kievan Rus was “the most important moment in the history of Russia” and that the celebration of this event which took place in 988 will promote the rapprochement of Russia and Ukraine, whose capital by tradition was the site of this event.
But one deputy, Just Russia’s Semen Bagdasarov, suggested that this latest indication of a rapprochement between Moscow and Orthodoxy not only contradicts the Russian Constitution which mandates separation of church and state but could generate serious problems, including instability, in a country, “more than 20 percent” of whose population is Muslim.