So far no foreign government anywhere has lost even one dollar of U.S. foreign aid specifically because of its religious freedom violations. But the threat of such cuts helped make a difference in Boris Yeltsin’s Russia, which in 1997 enacted a harsh statute restoring state control over religious life—the first explicit, statutory rollback of the human rights reforms that Yeltsin himself had helped secure earlier in the decade. The unexpectedly strong reaction in Washington included an appropriations amendment crafted by Senator Gordon Smith (R-Oregon), which created a real possibility that the Kremlin would lose most of its bilateral aid from Washington.
Though the State Department was predictably horrified at the Smith Amendment, some of its own diplomats told me that they used it as a tool in their talks with the Russian government. The amendment set up a classic “good cop/bad cop” scenario, with the U.S. Embassy coaxing Russians for concessions to show hard-liners on Capitol Hill. What followed was a dramatic watering down of the 1997 law in its concrete implementation, especially as it affected Western missionaries and their Russian partners. The episode fits a larger principle noted by Allen Hertzke of the University of Oklahoma; as he put it to me in a telephone interview, “quiet diplomacy and ‘blaming and shaming’ are mutually reinforcing.”
Unfortunately, the overall lesson of Yeltsin’s religion law and its selective enforcement is that the game of “divide and rule” works. Since 1997 the Yeltsin and Putin administrations have discriminated not just between religions but within a single religion. For example, we now see both favored Baptists and disfavored Baptists in Russia, with the same fault line between them as in Soviet years. The disfavored are the independent “initsiativniki” Baptists, who split from the semi-establishment Baptist Union four decades ago because of its compromises with the Soviet state such as agreeing not to teach religion to children. The major American missionary organizations, such as those sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention, prefer to deal with the larger and better connected Baptist Union. Usually they have not spoken up for the increasingly isolated “initsiativniki—nor has the State Department. ”
Lawrence Uzzell is president of International Religious Freedom Watch, Waldorf, Maryland. Edited excerpt reprinted with permission from In the National Interest 3 (3 March 2004).
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© 2004 East-West Church and Ministry Report