Russia's new president proves to be an enigma

The latest political intrigue in Russia may be bad for democracy and freedom of religion.

...A surprising Jan. 18 deal that allows the Communist Party to retain control of the Speaker's seat in the Duma, or parliament, and several other key Duma positions, is "very, very bad," attorney Lauren Homer, who has worked for religious rights in Russia, told Religion Today. "It confirms my worst fears."

...Acting President Vladimir Putin directed the deal creating a majority coalition that includes the Communist and Unity parties, The Washington Post said. Communist Party Chairman Gennady Seleznev was re-elected speaker. Centrist and reform groups were blocked from key leadership posts.

...The deal throws Putin's real intentions into question. He has portrayed himself as a reformer who will support the social and economic reforms of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, who resigned Dec. 31. Opposition leaders called the deal a "conspiracy" and a "profanity" and led more than 100 legislators in a boycott of the speaker's re-election.

...Reform-minded leaders had been led to believe that the Unity Party, closely affiliated with Putin, would form a ruling coalition with them, breaking the grip of the Communists on the Duma, the Post said. Putin's action has sinister undertones because "there is no reason to make this deal unless Unity leaders are thinking along the same lines as the Communists," Homer said. "They could have had a majority by aligning instead with more moderate groups."

...Yeltsin's resignation may have been "a creeping coup, where the bad old guard wearing sheep's clothing came in and took over," she said.

...Christian ministries had been cautiously optimistic about Putin's intentions. In his first presidential address, he pledged to uphold freedom of speech and conscience, and said he is committed to democracy and economic and social reform, Peter Deyneka of the U.S.-based Russian Ministries said.

...Putin appeared to favor religious freedom, Deyneka said. "Apparently, he's taking the same line as Yeltsin did," allowing freedom for Christian evangelistic outreaches. It remains to be seen whether that translates into policies, he said.

...Putin has publicly embraced the Russian Orthodox Church. He invited Patriarch Alexy II to attend Yeltsin's resignation ceremony and asked for a blessing after assuming the presidency, Reuters said. He recently attended the first major service held at Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, which was destroyed in 1931 by the Communists but is nearly rebuilt, Ecumenical News Service said.

...Putin is an enigma to political observers and the U.S. government, which is "scrambling" to learn more about him, The New York Times said. Outside of his public statements, little is known of his political philosophy or motivations, an intelligence official told the Times.

...Putin was in the KGB for 15 years before accepting a post at Leningrad State University, where he got involved in politics, and served as an aide to the mayor of St. Petersburg until 1996.
He then joined the Yelstin administration and made a rapid rise to the top, culminating in his appointment as prime minister last August.

...The Unity Party is similarly mysterious, Russian analysts said. The party "has no organization, no program, no nothing, not even people you can name," Vyacheslav Nikonov, a political analyst said. "It is the first time we have a virtual party in Parliament." The Kremlin formed the party three months ago as a political vehicle for the popular Putin, then prime minister, the Times said. With his backing, its candidates took 24% of the popular vote in the December elections, solidifying his support in the Duma.

...Putin and Kremlin operatives used hard-ball tactics to get Unity members elected, Nikonov said. While the election was seen in the west as democratic, "it is completely the opposite," he said. "In my mind it is a defeat of civic society." The government used unconstitutional means, including suppressing opposition media, to win the election, Homer said. Unity posed as a democratic political party open to reform but "it looks like Unity was elected under false pretenses," she said. "It appears to be authoritarian, anti-democratic, and highly nationalistic."

Religion Today - January 20, 2000

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