does the banning of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia mean? Part I
Looking back over the past decade what has also emerged in Russia is a governmental intolerance for dissent. It might originate from Putin's early career experience as he served at the Fifth Directorate of the KGB, which combated political dissent in the Soviet Union. Think about what happened to Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. A political dissident that charged that the Russian Secret Service brought Putin to power. The result? He was murdered in London with radio active Polonium-210. I want to add to this by quoting a short section from Wikipedia regarding Russian human rights:
"...some leading international democracy and human rights organizations consider Russia to have not enough democratic attributes and to allow few political rights and civil liberties to its citizens. ...Amnesty International accuses Russia of committing wide ranging human rights abuses, including granting impunity for murderers of human rights activists, imprisoning political dissidents and operating a system of arbitrary arrest. Human Rights Watch claims Russia commits grave human rights violations in Chechnya and allows the systematic abuse of migrant workers. Press freedom in Russia is considered amongst the lowest in the world by press freedom organization Reporters Without Borders and is ranked 141st in their annual survey, on the basis that the Russian authorities "black list" figures that are critical of the government, practice "official harassment", and "gag" potential dissidents."
So what has resulted since the collapse of Russian communism is a Federation with a stronger economy but with government that has no appetite for criticism.
Jehovah's Witnesses current legal battle in Russia
If you went to the Jehovah's Witness official media website today (25Nov2009) you will find the following on their RSS feed:
Russian Supreme Court to hear controversial case examining
internationally recognized publications
Now this battle between the Russian local, provincial, federal government and the Jehovah's Witnesses has been raging since early in this decade.
But you can trace the animosity back much further to the communist era when the communists referred to Witnesses as Jehovists. In my mind this term indicated that the Soviets thought that the Witnesses had the radicalism of fascist extremists.
Indeed the refusal of Jehovah's Witnesses to participate in patriotic service and their allegiance to a foreign government, even if that government is in all probability fictitious, did not sit well with the Soviets and does not sit well with the Russian government. They immediately think of the Witnesses as a subversive element in society and as undesirable.
This has resulted in their banning in various regions in the Russian Federation. Jehovah's Witnesses have responded to the challenge because they have an internal mantra of "legally establishing the good news". So what has ensued is court battles at local, provincial and national level. Unfortunately for the Jehovah's Witnesses it seems as if they have slowly been losing the legal battle and that everything has ended up in appeals courts so far. It has even ended up in the European court of Human Rights and probably it will so again. So the question is, how will this end?
The canary in the Cole mine
I can honestly say I do not know. It depends whether true democratic principles will ultimately triumph in Russia. I have three simple litmus tests for any 'democracy':
How do you deal with political opposition?
Fail on any of these points by dealing harshly with the groups mentioned above and your democracy is not well developed or is in serious trouble. Some countries like Zimbabwe fail these points more obviously than others, but in the case of the Russian Federation I would have to contend that they suffer from an underdeveloped democracy. My hope is that full democracy ultimately wins the day and that the Russian supreme courts constitutionally support the Jehovah's Witnesses to allow them to espouse an undesirable message. If they do not allow dissent in their society I think the Jehovah's Witnesses ultimate banning will be like a canary in a Cole mine. It will indicate that Russia will not be an open democracy in the first part of the 21st century. I believe it would be bad news for Russia and for the world.
In any true democracy the spirit of Voltaire's words is present: "I appose what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it". An example would be what happened to Jehovah's Witnesses during the closing stages of World War I in the United States. The then president of the Watchtower, JF Rutherford and the board of directors were sentenced in 1918 under the espionage act because they severely criticized Protestant and Catholic participation in the war and according to the act you were guilty of espionage if you conveyed information with the intent to interfere with the operation or success of the armed forces of the United States or to promote the success of its enemies. This was punishable by death or by imprisonment for not more than 30 years. After the imprisonment of the governing body of Jehovah's Witnesses the charges were dropped less than a year later. This happened because the government realized that you could only have a true democratic society if you allowed all voices to be heard. Even unpopular voices.
If one wants to understand why the United States maintained the Watchtowers freedom of speech then one must go back to the Great Federalist Debates when the Union was originally formed. In fact the United States democracy depends on minority views and the founding fathers (Specifically Hamilton) viewed the majority view as the view to be feared. If you want a modern day example of majority rule, think of the Iranian theocracy founded in the majority uprisings against the Shah in the late 1970's and the consequences that it has had on the average Iranian's personal freedoms.
In conclusion I would say that the hope I have for the Russian Federation is that it develops further along democratic lines and does not slide back into a more dictatorial regime, not only for the sake of Jehovah's Witnesses, but for the sake of every Russian citizen, and ultimately the world.
Watchtower Information South Africa
Next, Part II: How is the Jehovah's Witness Governing Body playing the Russian situation?