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Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Relations Between Russian Orthodox Church and Vatican Take a Turn for the Better

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Vladimir Simonov) - Upon ascension to the Holy See in the spring of this year, Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed universal unification of Christians as a central idea of his pontificate. The Vatican has already started implementing it: this week the Pope sent Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, who is in charge of the Holy See's relations with other states, to Moscow. Lajolo, who had been invited by Sergei Lavrov, will meet with Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, the head of the Moscow Patriarchate's foreign church relations department, as well as a group of parliamentarians. During the talks he intends to discuss raising the status of both countries' diplomatic missions to that of embassies. For both the Russian Orthodox Church and the Vatican, this is a highly symbolic visit, full of hopes for a long-awaited improvement in bilateral relations. In response to the attack launched against the Iron Curtain by Pope John Paul II, the USSR's totalitarian rulers intensified the persecution of local Catholics. The parishes of the Roman-Catholic Church, which was treated as a dangerous sect, were forced to go underground. It was not until April 1991, the peak of perestroika, when the country started adopting democratic norms, that Catholics in Russia became free from persecution. Two years earlier, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Pope granted an audience to a communist party leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, for the first time in Vatican's history. The historic visit marked the beginning of the renaissance of the Roman-Catholic Church in Russia. At that time, Moscow established official diplomatic relations with the Vatican, although their level was not very high. Currently, the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Russia unites 300 communities with over half a million believers, including the country's top-ranking Catholic, - the Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref. The bishops admit that their relations with the Russian authorities have markedly improved. However, the state was unable to eradicate the traditional hostility, with which the Russian Orthodox Church treated local Catholics until recently. The Russian Orthodox Church accuses Catholics of proselytism, that is, luring parishioners from the Orthodox Church on its own traditional, canonical territory. The Vatican denies these claims, saying that the Russian Orthodox Church has "a different and slightly extended" concept of proselytism. The hierarchs of the Moscow Patriarchate, however, are suspicious of such explanations. They recall that when it comes to the interests of the Vatican, it has the same attitude. For example, the Holy See is indignant about "aggressive proselytism" in Brazil, where Catholic parishes sustain serious damage from the activity of Protestant sects, notably, the Pentacostalists. The tension around Greek Catholics in Ukraine - they are called Uniats - that have persisted for decades are another apple of discord. Uniat churches are subordinate to the Vatican but hold Orthodox services. They dream of establishing their own patriarchate in Kiev and have been seeking Rome's blessing. Naturally, all this impeded the dialogue between the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Church. This impediment was especially serious during the rule of the conservative Pope John Paul II, who was inflexible in formulating the Catholic Church's answers to many challenges of the modern age. The leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church expected Benedict XVI to follow in his predecessor's footsteps, since he is famous for his fundamental adherence to Christianity. Fortunately, this is not the case. Relations between the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Church are improving and their ecumenical rapprochement may become a reality. This conclusion can be drawn, in particular, from the recent statements of Cardinal Walter Kasper. "As to the Russian Orthodox Church, the ice is melting," this high-ranking official of the Vatican, who is in charge of inter-confessional dialogue, said at a news conference in Rome. "The ecumenical Ice Age does not exist." Kasper says the Pope is unlikely to make a visit to Russia in the near future, but makes it clear that the Holy See "is making efforts to overcome the obstacles" preventing this historic event. And the current visit to Moscow of Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo proves that. These changes are in tune with the thought once voiced by Patriarch Alexis II of Moscow and All Russia: the accession of Pope Benedict XVI signifies the beginning of a new age that will hopefully help restore relations with the Russian Orthodoxy. In the face of new dangers - terrorism, AIDS, environmental pollution - the world's two largest churches are beginning to realize that they should not refrain from cooperation or abandon the idea of the reunification of Christianity.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Russian expatriates number more than 25 million - ministry

MOSCOW. Nov 3 (Interfax) - More than 25 million Russians now live abroad according to a Thursday report by the Russian Interior Ministry. The report marked the establishment of the ministry's department for compatriots. "The department was formed to cater for the Russian expatriate community, which has topped 25 million, including 16-17 million who reside in CIS member states," the report runs. The ministry defines governmental policy and regulates the protection of the rights, legal interests and support to Russians abroad, the report says. The ministry "is directly responsible for the implementation of support programs for expatriate Russians funded by more than 300 million rubles this year from the federal budget," the report runs. "The timely and rational establishment of a new ministerial department for Russians abroad will systematize efforts taken in the key sphere of Russian foreign policy," the report runs.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

New Law on Mineral Resources

11-03-2005 kommersant.ru - The Duma is likely to pas the first reading of a new edition of the law on mineral resources today, in spite of serious criticism of it from Duma committees. Deputies say that they can make the necessary corrects to it before the second reading comes up. The law has been under development by the Natural Resources and Economic Ministries since 2001. The main innovation of the new law is continuing centralization of almost all authority to manage mineral resources on the federal level and the conversion from administrative to civil law management of the resources. The regions are being deprived of any influence over the use of mineral resources, which are designated as federal property in the new law. While regional authorities will still have the right to use commonly found resources (sand, gavel, etc.), their influence in the use of resources such as gas and oil will be limited to two places on auction commissions along with federal officials. Experts say that it would be much more efficient to divide resource management by size of deposit, since 80-90 percent of deposits are small and account for only 20 percent of annual production. It will be difficult to manage deposits of that type from Moscow. The new law states that "the right to use mineral resources can be provided to legal entities established in accordance with Russian legislation and persons who are Russian citizens and registered as individual entrepreneurs. Natural Resources Minister Yury Trutnev said that that will force foreign companies to open Russian subsidiaries, and thus pay Russian taxes. Strategic (especially large) deposits are not treated in the present text of the law. Amendments concerning them are expected to limit access by foreigner to them more strictly. The law specifies that the state can declare any deposit "strategic" at its discretion.

Twilight of Russia's "red" and "brown" parties

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Peter Lavelle) - For some reason a subterranean belief persists among Russia-watchers and members of the media that the Russian electorate remains enamored with the political extremes of the old Communist left and the seemingly resurgent ultra-nationalist right. A closer look proves the opposite. The majority of voters have supported the Kremlin's middle-of-the-road "party of power" and is set to do so for some time to come. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) and the so-called ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky have declined relative to other parties elected to parliament since 1993. The combined voting returns for both parties in the 2003 parliamentary elections show an astounding 70% percent drop compared to ten years ago. This should come as no surprise: both the KPRF and the LDRP strive to attract voters from essentially the same constituency. The communists have tried to adapt to the post-Soviet reality with little success. The party continues to hold in high regard what it considers to be the best elements of the failed Soviet Union (which is just about everything), with a grafted on element of Russian nationalism. For the rank-and-file former members, this hybrid ideology is not compelling. Those who are attracted to the party's unconvincing embrace of Russian nationalism have other parties to choose from, and have voted with their feet (and votes). Zhirinovsky's "cult of personality" party suffers from similar woes. The LDRP is often called an ultra-nationalist party, but its voting record in parliament demonstrates that it supports the Kremlin's party of power (whatever party that happens to be at the time) more times than not and basically is a proponent of the prevailing status quo. Zhirinovsky can be counted on for a star performance on television standing up the "average Russian" and conjure up amazing one-liners that entertain and are often even hard to disagree with. But in the end his party's platform is a near reflection of the communists with more stress on the nationalist issue. The LDRP's populism differs little from the KPRF's socialism and both parties leadership appear more than happy to play a role in a political game they know they can't really change or be bothered to understand. The writing is on the wall for the communists and Zhirinovsky's one-man show. During the last four parliamentary elections the "red-brown" vote has traveled south from 35%, to 33%, to 30 percent, to finally 24%. Given this trend, the 2007 election result could expect a return of approximately not more than 20% (and could be as low as 15%). Dmitry Rogozin's Rodina (Motherland), is of course, somewhat of an exception. Garnering an unexpected 9% of the vote in the 2003 parliamentary election, it claims the mantle of a more strident Russian nationalism. Be that as it may - for now. The fact is that Rodina is dealing with its own internal divisions - one faction appears to want to take on its former Kremlin sponsors in opposition and the other opting to adopt a more Kremlin-friendly position akin to the LDRP. It should not be forgotten that Rodina came into being not to capture the ultra-national card, but to steal voters away from the communists. During the 2007 election, Rodina may not expect official patronage, but it surely has to reckon with new election laws: a party now has to win at least 7% of the vote to make it into the Duma, parties cannot form electoral blocs (which Rodina is), and the minimum number of members is 50,000 and requires parties to have organizations in at least half of the country's regions. Rogozin's Rodina has its work cut out for it if it hopes to be well represented in the next parliament. The fate of all three parties is probably irrelevant in the scheme of things. None can compete with the party that most of the electorate has supported since 1993 - the perceived "party of power." Today the "party of power" is United Russia. Its previous incarnations include Russia's Choice in 1993, Our Home Russia on 1995, Unity/Medved (meaning "bear") and Fatherland/All Russia in 1999, and finally United Russia in 2003. Victory or defeat for the "party of power" actually had little to do with "administrative resources," "political spin," or invention of "artificial opposition parties." The final outcome was determined with whom the establishment politician supported as its representative: voters deemed Yeltsin as a loser and later Putin as a winner. Importantly, this determination had little to do with a candidate's "populist" or "nationalist" credentials. Russia's "red" and "brown" parties are facing a slow, but steady decline. Since 1993, voters have supported parties to deal with the post-Soviet collapse - sometimes it has been to recapture a sense of a fondly remembered past normality, but most of time it has been to get on with the job of creating a modern Russia. Russia's "reds" and "browns" offer neither in any meaningful way. The next step is to watch how United Russia - full of differences and contradictions - deals with the same issues. (The author gratefully thanks Patrick Armstrong, defense analyst for Canadian government, for his in-depth analysis and insight on Russia's political parties).

Russia begins war on corruption in courts

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Vasily Kononenko.) It is widely rumored that the Russian authorities are preparing for a major attack on corruption. Anton Ivanov, the chairman of the Supreme Court of Arbitration, said recently that judges would soon be instructed to declare their expenses. A bill based on Western polling experience making amendments to the current law on the status of judges may be submitted to the State Duma by year-end. Judges will be instructed to report regularly on their personal relations, including with neighbors who may want to discuss "in a friendly way" the circumstances of a case with them. Ivanov did not say if candidate judges would be subjected to a lie detector test, as is already done in some regions. He said judges would have to keep a special book in which they would enter all appeals (including unofficial ones) by people with a personal interest in the outcome of a case. These surprise revelations by a high-ranking judge can be viewed as a campaign to protect the judges' esprit de corps. Several weeks ago three judges guilty of fraudulent housing schemes were sentenced to long prison terms in Moscow. It was a high-profile trial because it was the last straw that broke the back of public tolerance regarding bribe-taking judges. Vyacheslav Lebedev, the chairman of the Russian Supreme Court, admitted that 60 judges were sacked for bribery last year. But the real scale of corruption in courts is much bigger. Finally, during administrative reform, which is the baby of the president and the government, it turned out that non-transparency of courts could effectively bury any anti-corruption measures. In a word, enough is enough. However, Georgy Satarov, the head of the INDEM foundation, which regularly runs bribery surveys, said corruption was a system. An offensive against judges would not change the situation in the country much. According to the latest data of the anti-corruption research center Transparency International - Russia, judges, with $210 million in bribes a year, only rank fifth on the scale of corruption. Sixth place is held by the hated traffic inspectors, and the top places are occupied by bureaucrats of all levels, medical staff, members of the admission commissions of higher schools, and the staff of military recruitment offices. Extraordinary actions are needed in a country where "everyone takes bribes whenever possible." This time the authorities will not limit their attack to judicial reform. German Gref, the Minister of Economic Development and Trade, said large-scale work was underway in the Interior Ministry, the Prosecutor General's Office and several other departments to create a system of anti-corruption measures. The minister refused to cite examples for reasons of secrecy but, judging by what he said, there is the political will at the top to deliver a deadly blow at corruption. "Breakthrough achievements are impossible in this sphere," Gref said. "But we can at least make progress." Many politicians and deputies agree with the minister. "Life in Russia is impossible without corruption, but the trouble is that corruption has become widespread villainy, so that even the low-income sectors are forced to pay. It really makes life terrible," said United Russia deputy Valery Draganov, the chairman of the State Duma committee on the economic policy, enterprise and tourism. Nikolai Kuryanovich of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia said: "Corruption cannot be erased; it can only be minimized." It is impossible to say which weapon the Russian authorities may invent for the war on corruption. Most experts say that repressive measures alone would not win the war. Russia should create anti-corruption incentives for officials, so that they would refuse to take bribes to guarantee themselves a befitting and prosperous place in society for the rest of their lives. Vice Premier Alexander Zhukov said at the World Economic Forum in Moscow that the new standards of state services suggested by the government would effectively reduce corruption. The "punishing sword" would be used only within Russia's obligations under the UN Convention Against Corruption, which Russia signed in 2003 and the State Duma ratified recently. It will help bring officials who abuse their powers to criminal account and demand that they declare their assets and property.

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