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Editorial: Democracy, Faith And A People Betrayed

Democracy Betrayed, Faith Betrayed, A People Betrayed


Scoop Editorial

Russia has had a terrible century. In fact Russia - and certainly the Russian peasantry - have arguably had a bum deal for as long as anyone can remember.

Now with three weeks to go to Presidential elections the future for the Russian people again looks rather bleak.

The former spy-master, and now acting President of Russia, Vladimir Putin's success in the forthcoming election is now regarded almost universally as a fait-accompli. He in effect has no opposition and is expected to waltz into the Kremlin office that he already occupies.

In the west the attitude towards Putin is increasingly schizophrenic.

On Friday at the daily State Department Press Conference James Rubin was at great pains to explain that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had not described Putin as a, "leading reformer".

Rather, Rubin explained, she had said that there were two strains to Putin's background. Firstly that of a former spy-master and secondly as a reformer in the St Petersburg city administration. She had said that he would have to be judged by what he did, Rubin said.

Meanwhile in the western media Putin is treated as if with kid gloves.

It is acknowledged that his election will likely shape the security situation in the world as a whole for most of the coming decade.

It is also understood fairly widely that Russia under Putin will be less compliant and more active on the international stage. Putin stands for increased military expenditure and new relations -scary if not alarming so far as the west is concerned - between Russia and Iraq, North Korea and China.

Any hope that the UN Security Council might at last become an agent for promoting peace is in effect dashed. Rather we are looking down the barrel of a renewal of the cold-war.

On the other hand Putin has a knack of saying things that the West likes to report.

And perhaps because we in the west are fundamentally scared of him - our media is want to report these statements rather enthusiastically. Consequently the Western public can be forgiven for ending up with a skewed impression of what is going on.

Last week for example Putin said he was going to crack down on corporate corruption.

"Yes, yes, that sounds good," all the media and security relations experts crowed when reporting this.

However, Putin has already said that he will not be investigating any of the giant Russian privatisations - which have seen enormous economic power concentrated in the hands of his close allies Boris Berezozsky and Anatoly Chubais. He has also given the former president Boris Yeltsin a pardon and an assurance that he and his family will not be investigated.

Yesterday Putin granted an interview with the BBC and told Sir David Frost that he would not rule out Russia joining NATO.

Given that only a matter of weeks ago Russia's relationship with NATO was squarely in the deep freeze, this observation came as something of a surprise, and is being reported today, like the comments on corruption, with great enthusiasm.

And on its face it does seems quite encouraging that Mr Putin has an open mind on the subject. Except for one thing - Putin has a history of saying things he clearly does not mean.

NATO and the Russian Military disagree about just about everything - Chechnya, Kosovo and NATO expansion to name just four issues - and the chances of Russia joining NATO are in reality about as realistic as the proverbial snowball's chances of survival in hell.

In reality, behind all the glad-handing between NATO's Lord Robertson and the Presidential candidate, there is very real consideration underway in NATO's high command on what NATO's response will be if Russian tanks shortly start the long march back westwards - starting with Georgia.

Meanwhile inside Russia fear is back in the air, the police have been placed under KGB control, and post ballot day on March 26th - once Putin has a free hand to implement whatever he really has planned - there is likely to be a feeling of profound déjà vu.

How could Russia again find itself in effect in the thrall of what in effect is another dictatorship? Why didn't anybody stand up against Putin's putsch?

This seams a good question and one of the first organisations which ought to share the blame is the Russian Orthodox Church.

In the 1990s Russia's Christian leaders lobbied successfully for a law which seeks to outlaw foreign religions from establishing themselves in Russia. Religious groups must seek registration under the law and they are not entitled to it unless they are already established. Thus a form of "Catch 22" for new religions in now in effect in Russia.

This has been justified by the Patriarchs as being necessary because the Russian church was left so weak in the wake of the communist years. It needed protection against competition and in time the law would no longer be needed.

This law says a great deal about the state of the Russian church. Formerly a victim of the Russian State it now seeks State protection and patronage.

Meanwhile in Chechnya a religious war - similar in many ways to a crusade - is in effect underway against the Islamic Chechens. Designed to make Putin popular the war has proved spectacularly effective in its aims. As the Indonesian army has long known, promoting religious hatred is always a highly effective tool for keeping the people afraid and the need for a strong leader uppermost in their minds.

Back in Moscow Mr Putin professes to be a Christian and is photographed prominently with church leaders taking mass.

He tells the BBC that the war against the Chechen rebels is justified by a need to root out terrorism and banditry. It is nothing to do with religious intolerance, he says.

Leaving aside the irony inherent in a former career member of the KGB ("religion is the opium of the masses") claiming to be a Christian, we now have one of the greatest Christian Churches effectively in league with a new and dangerous order of violence and inhumanity.

Christianity carries with it clear obligations. Compassion, empathy and love for a start, with justice and righteousness following close behind.

Chechnya has now been completely destroyed in the war. Innocent civilians have died in their thousands and are continuing to die. Television footage shows tortured Chechen men being buried in mass graves. Inhumanity is piling on inhumanity in front of the Russian public, and the Russian Church is tacitly condoning this abuse.

For their part the Chechen rebels, the Mujahadeen, believe that in their conflict with Russia they are engaged in a holy war against "satanic" aggressors. Chechen allies in Kabul are undoubtedly of a like mind ,and the conduct of the Russian war is clearly reinforcing this view in the Islamic world in general.

Now the prospects of a terrorist war extending itself back into the Russian - Christian - heartland are very real. The result, further reinforcing the cycle of hatred will doubtless be followed by the imposition of harsher security laws by the Kremlin in order to "protect" the people.

For the Russian Orthodox Church the results of all this could potentially be disastrous.

Under the Tsars the Church was seen, by the communists at least, as an agent of peasant oppression. Under communism the church was driven underground.

Now, when their own experience of oppression ought to teach them lessons about the dangers of concentrated power, they are turning a blind eye to the oppression of others.

In the end god will judge and the Russian Orthodox Church's legalised monopoly over the spiritual realm in Russia will provide little protection. History will record again that when they were needed the most by their people they were not available to answer the call.


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