Mixed signals from Kremlin about Jehovah's Witnesses


by Leonid Nikitinsky

Novaia Gazeta, 8 February 2019


On 7 February, two signals sounded from the tentative Kremlin, and the difference between them reveals the mechanism of cooperation between the administration of the president and the judicial system. Both messages were connected with the harsh sentence (6 years incarceration) issued the day before in Orel to the leader of the congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, Danish citizen Dennis Christensen. The Administrative Center and local organizations of Witnesses are banned in the Russian Federation. By decision of the Supreme Court in April 2017 they were ruled to be extremist, specifically citing the fact that their god, according to the literature presented to the court, is considered by Jehovists to be the only one (on this basis it is possible to find all Abrahamic religions and all of their versions, including Orthodoxy, to be "extremist").


The deputy head of the presidential administration and press secretary of the president, Dmitry Peskov, told news media on 7 February that in the list of orders of the president being prepared on the basis of results of his meeting with the Council on Human Rights (CHR) on 11 December 2018 there will be a point "pertaining to the topic of the organization of Jehovah's Witnesses," which is forbidden in the RF. Peskov did not hold any open press conferences on that day, but the day before at a forum of Kommersant Media Day he acknowledged that he had started the practice of "conference calls" during which he communicates the most important news to some news media, considering such a practice to be more effective than traditional press releases. Reflecting on the fate of Pastor Christensen, Peskov noted: "We do not have the right to comment on a decision of a court that ruled this organization to be extremist."


That report appeared on the news feed TASS at 12:48, and at 15:27 Mikhail Fedotov, an advisor to the president and chairman of the CHR, in an interview with Interfax, stated a somewhat different opinion: the decision of the Russian Supreme Court of 20 April 2017 about the effective ban of Jehovah's Witnesses "of course can be reviewed." Interfax also quoted Fedotov's commentary made with clear satisfaction: "If a person professes the teachings of the Jehovah's Witnesses, he is acting on his own right and is not violating the law."


The procedure established in the presidential administration, it seems to me, excludes the possibility of an accidental appearance of these two such different statements within a space of less than three hours.


This means that Fedotov could have been asked about the addition either by Peskov himself, or somebody who ranks higher than both he and Fedotov.


Here we find ourselves in the position of the observer at a "black box": we see only the "exit," although we can also construct a suggestion about the mechanism of action.


Let's pay attention to the speed with which the "box" took action. Most likely, it is connected with the fact that the Witness who was sent to jail the day before is a citizen of Denmark, and information about the Orel verdict (routine for such a precedent for a citizen of the RF) was immediately sent somewhere upstairs. But it is also likely to expect from the "box" the usual brief answer: "We do not interfere in the activity of the judicial system."


In order to understand why the other answer jumped out, we must return to the meeting of the president with the CHR on 11 December, during which the topic of the Jehovah's Witnesses was heard twice. First, Ekaterina Shulman raised the question about the list of extremist organizations, in which of the 489  positions, 404 by her information are congregations of Jehovists. To this the president responded: "It is also necessary to take into consideration the country and society in which we live. To be sure, this does not mean that we should classify representatives of religious communities as some kind of destructive organizations. Of course, this is complete nonsense. . . ."


Then Vladimir Riakhovsky took the floor and described administrative prosecution for "covert missionary activity" (which is in and of itself nonsense). He did not mention the Jehovists, but the president himself again recalled them: "Jehovah's Witnesses also are Christians, and why they are persecuted I do not understand very well. . . . I will talk with Viacheslav Mikhailovich (Lebedev, chairman of the Russian Supreme Court)."


This promise by the president could mean exactly what he himself previously has often warned about—"pressure on the court." On 7 February Peskov also added, in the context of talking about Jehovists, as it were in passing, that "in the period after the meeting with the CHR, the president met with Lebedev." Although there was no need for such clear "pressure." The chairman of the Russian Supreme Court read the transcript. The Orel court understands the message, and although the local judge could not simply issue a verdict of acquittal against the background of the Supreme Court's decision banning the Witnesses, still six years, for a Dane, at that—what kind of way out is this?


This somewhat dramatic, somewhat comic, partly covert, partly explicit story permits one to make a supposition about the reconfigurations in the "black box." Immediately after the president's meeting with the CHR on 11 December, we noticed that Putin used the standard cliché "The court will figure it out" less often than before and not so emphatically. Apparently this formula has ceased to persuade even the president himself: it turns out that the court is not so able to "figure it out."


The noise will not be raised in the presidential administration to no purpose. Of course, a check-mark is merely placed somewhere "in the mind," but it may be evidence of a desire to change something in the judicial (and the whole law enforcement) system, and to somehow partially neutralize the "extremism" idiocy. But as the earlier arrangements of the "box" were produced not with the help of clear laws but with the help of unclear "signals," so now the persons responsible for this at the very top are trying to give new signals. But real judicial reform is necessary, just like, by the way, a more transparent means of communication by the presidential administration with the press. (tr. by PDS, posted 9 February 2019)

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