Yeltsin wins new friends with decision on worship

Refusal to curb religious freedom causes anger in Orthodox church

Boris Yeltsin found himself with some strange bedfellows yesterday. The Pope. Human rights activists. The United States Senate. These are not entities whom he has always considered friends. But his refusal to sign a Bill which would have sharply curbed religious freedom in Russia has won him rare international applause.

Observers of this complex man have long puzzled over which component of his character is dominant - despot, pragmatist or (loosely speaking) democrat. Is he the autocrat who bombarded parliament in 1993, and led his nation into a bloodbath in Chechnya? Or is he the man whom the world remembers standing on a tank opposing the failed coup of 1991 - the same man who, for all his errors, presides over a country where the citizenry can read what they like, travel abroad, and (despite a manipulated press) say what they like.

The third, and more convincing, variant is that of a man who simply does what it takes to retain power.

But the freedom of worship issue placed Mr Yeltsin in a genuine quandary. It was a "difficult decision", he said. And he was right. The Bill would have restricted the activities of all but four religions which are classified as "traditional" in Russia - Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism. All other faiths would have to prove that they have been active in Russia for more than 15 years before they received legal rights.

The ostensible targets of the new laws were outlandish religious sects. But it was also an attempt by the Orthodox church to see off established rivals from abroad, such as the Catholics, who claim one million worshippers in Russia. As such, it blatantly violated the Russian constitution which says that all religions are equal.

The Bill forced Mr Yeltsin to make a choice in which he took a hit either way. Signing it would have dealt a blow to his relations with the United States at a time when Russia is still seeking further loans, investment and integration into international structures. The US Senate was poised to withhold $200m (pounds 122m) in aid had he signed.

But, by vetoing it, he has set himself at odds with the Orthodox church, an institution which stands close to the state. Mr Yeltsin is not especially devout, but he has forged close political ties with the church. During his election campaign, he rarely missed an opportunity to appear on television standing next to the Russian Patriarch, Alexy II.

Yesterday, the church maintained a stony silence about the President's decision. But the hierarchy will be displeased. Mr Yeltsin's decision has also intensified his running battle with his Communist-dominated Parliament, with whom he has been fighting on several fronts, notably over removing Lenin from his mausoleum on Red Square.

On the face of it, a stand-off is now looming between the Kremlin and the legislature when the latter returns to work in the autumn. Both houses overwhelmingly supported the Bill; they could override his veto with a two-thirds vote, forcing it into the courts.

Yesterday, there were bullish cries from the Communist camp. Viktor Iluykhin, a leading voice in the party, accused Mr Yeltsin of running a protectorate of the West. Another, Valentin Kuptsov, accused him of caving in to "voices from across the ocean".

However, none of this will worry Mr Yeltsin much. He relishes the opportunity to remind Parliament of its institutional weakness and his strength. And the Communist-nationalist opposition has proved so ineffectual that a debate has begun among Russia watchers over whether it amounts to an opposition at all.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
Ed Miliband and David Cameron are neck and neck in the polls
election 2015Armando Iannucci: on how British politics is broken
Life and Style
Great minds like Einstein don't think alike
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Bristol

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment C...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment C...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power