Toward a Strategy for Engaging a Resurgent Russia on Democracy, Human Rights, and Religious Liberty: Part I

By: Karrie Koesel and Christopher Marsh

EDITOR’S NOTE: This post is adapted in part from a feature-length article that originally appeared in a special open-access issue of The Review of Faith & International Affairs on June 20, 2016. It has been edited with the authors’ permission. Part II is available here.

The promotion of democracy, human rights, and religious liberty is a worthy cause. In Russia, however, these ideas are seen as imposed from the West, not compatible with Russian political culture, or intended to topple the current regime. Over the past several years, Russia has witnessed hundreds of victims of racism and ethno-religious violence. Our argument here is that Russia must still be held accountable for its failings in these areas. We believe that a change in Russia’s foreign policy will only occur if the political system itself returns to the democratic path it embarked upon in the early 1990s.

Like democracy, religious freedom in Russia today is in decline, but this transition has not been altogether linear. In a brief window from 1988 to 1993, religious belief went from being proscribed to guaranteed. However, because of growing concerns, by 1997 a federal law named Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Orthodox Christianity as the four traditional religions of Russia. The new law affords special privileges for the Orthodox Church, and varying degrees of rights for the others. In its preamble, the law recognized “the special contribution of Orthodoxy to the history of Russia and to the establishment and development of Russia’s spirituality and culture,” fundamentally altering the Russian model of religion-state relations from separation to collusion.  

It was not, however, until Vladimir Putin’s rise and consolidation of power that these laws seriously threatened democracy, human rights, and religious freedom. Putin’s brand of populism mixed with nationalism, Orthodox Christianity, and anti-Western sentiments stoked the fires of xenophobia and extremism, allowing Orthodox Christianity to expand into many facets of political, economic, and social life. There are multiple examples. The government has actively funded the construction of new Orthodox churches, while other religious groups fight long legal battles to reclaim lost property. The government has introduced a core curriculum on the “Fundamentals of Orthodox Culture” into public schools. Military chaplains are almost solely Orthodox clergy. The Church plays a symbolic role in official state ceremonies. The Patriarch, for instance, is involved in the inaugurations of all post-Soviet presidents, which curiously resemble tsarist coronations. While these activities may be dismissed as mere ceremony, the Church’s access to draft legislation and its active collaborative with the Ministry of Health on “women’s reproductive health, the promotion of family values, and the prevention of abortion” demonstrate the far-reaching collusion of church and state.

The quasi-establishment of the Orthodox Church, however, is only part of the story, as its primacy often comes at the expense of others. The violation of human rights and religious freedom in Russia today is being conducted largely as a lawfare campaign. Rather than liquidating an organization, the state uses legitimate laws to systematically violate groups’ freedom of belief.

There are four pieces of legislation that make religious communities particularly vulnerable. The first is a 2002 law on countering extremist activity in Russia, that is, activity of social or religious organizations directed toward inciting “social, racial, nationalistic, or religious animosity.” It is typically invoked against groups when there is a claim to a particular group being either inferior or superior to others. The extremism law has also produced a public list of banned “extremist” literature, which currently identifies 3,278 materials. Although sacred texts are supposedly exempt from the law, this has not always been the case.

 The second legal mechanism is the so-called foreign agents law, signed into force in 2012. It requires non-profit organizations that receive foreign donations and engage in “political activity” to register as “foreign agents,” opening themselves up to inspection. Putin signed follow-up legislation in 2015 known as the “undesirable organizations” bill, granting Russian authorities the ability “to target foreign groups which they deem to present ‘a threat to the Russian Federation.’” The law also allows for the possibility that religious communities may also be considered undesirable organizations. In this sense, legal uncertainty functions as a kind of control over religious minorities. A final legal mechanism is the 2012 law on offending “religious sensibilities,” allowing the government to punish individuals and groups for offending the religious sensibilities and feelings of others. Under the law, Russian citizens could face punishment for displays that cause “offense to religious sensibilities,” and up to three years in jail for desecrating religious sites.

Another challenge facing religious communities is the quiet reforms, those day-to-day incidents of marginalization and discrimination of many religious groups. Such forms of discrimination are pervasive in Russia but not necessarily systematic or evenly distributed among religious minorities. The pervasiveness of these forms of intolerance makes them difficult for religious groups to counteract. Moreover, even when acts of discrimination are explicit, there are very few civil society groups in Russia willing to intercede on the behalf of targeted religious actors.

While this is a problem, we do, however, recognize that these changes are impossible to impose from abroad. Thus the million-ruble question, if you will, is how does the international community, and the U.S. in particular, promote such a change? We will attempt to answer this question in Part II of this blog series.


Karrie J. Koesel is an associate professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame and an associate scholar with the Berkley Center's Religious Freedom Project.

Christopher Marsh is professor of National Security and Strategic Studies at the US Army School of Advanced Military Studies and the president of the Special Operations Research Association and editor of its professional journal, Special Operations Journal


**All views and opinions presented in this essay are solely those of the author and publication on Cornerstone does not represent an endorsement or agreement from the Religious Freedom Institute or its leadership.**

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