Recently returned from a visit to Russia, Simon Lee assesses the accuracy of the western leaders' appraisal of perestroika
WHILE the British media celebrate the tenth anniversary of Mrs Thatcher's reign, the Soviet media have been reflecting on the fourth anniversary of perestroika. In April 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev took perestroika, or restructuring, as the theme of his address to the plenary meeting of the Communist Party. One of the consequences of Gorbachev's emphasis on the need to observe the rule of law in this process of restructuring was the new constitution, amended in December 1988. The Institute of State and Law, under the auspices of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, invited a delegation of British lawyers to analyse this new constitution. Thus we have just returned from ten days in Moscow and Ashkhabad.
Apart from the conference sessions with Soviet lawyers, we were also given the chance to cross-examine judges of the USSR's Supreme Court and to question the leaders of the government in the Turkmen Republic. Our visit to the capital of that republic, Ashkhabad, demonstrated the strengths and weaknesses of perestroika. The Turkmen Republic borders Iran. Many of its citizens are Moslems. The Turkmen nation has its own culture, as evidenced by the marvellous, colourful national costume which was everywhere in evidence.
Yet the Turkmen nation is part of the Soviet Union. On Lenin's birthday we witnessed thousands of children in their local costumes bringing flowers to the city's memorial to Lenin. The obvious problem for perestroika in the outlying regions of the USSR is how to reconcile the recognition of national, cultural and religious identity.
In the past, the suppression of different cultures seems to have been the preferred approach. But now Gorbachev has renounced these ways and unleashed expectations which he will have great difficulty in controlling. Hence the brutal return to old methods by the army in sonic other far-flung regions of the USSR in the last few weeks.
Whenever our delegation sought to press the Soviets on these developments, the tables were turned and we were asked about the West's own problems of recognising cultural diversity. In particular, there was genuine interest in the United Kingdom's difficulties in acknowledging the rights of Islamic communities in England and the Catholic community in Northern Ireland, and in the universal problem of managing change.
Whatever the merits of any precise analogy, these questions are at least worth pondering. It is quite true to say that the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland in the 1960s, while justified, did raise expectations which could not be fulfilled. What could easily have become a triumph turned instead to frustration and tragedy. Within the Roman Catholic Church, expectations aroused by Vatican II and the Pontifical Commission's recommendation for change in the Church's teaching on family planning, led to disenchantment on the part of some when Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae confirmed traditional teaching.
Liberalisation, the acknowledgement of human rights including the right to dissent, and what Gorbachev has called glasnost or freedom of expression, all these developments have led groups and individuals within the USSR, Northern Ireland and the Church respectively to anticipate a greater pace of reform, or perestroika, than their leaders had anticipated.
So what will happen in the USSR? Perhaps the greatest test for perestroika is going to be the way in which religious groups are treated. This is complicated by the overlaps between religious, cultural, ethnic and national groupings. In theory and on paper, the omens are good. As far as religion is concerned, Article 52 of the USSR's Constitution states that: "Freedom of conscience, that is, the right to confess any religion or the right not to confess such, to perform religious rites, or to carry on atheistic propoganda shall be guaranteed to citizens of the USSR. Incitement of animosity and hatred in connection with religious beliefs shall be prohibited. The Church in the USSR shall be separated from the State and the school from the Church."
As far as nationhood is concerned, Article 72 states that: "The right of free secession from the USSR shall be preserved for each union republic."
In the past, however, both these articles have been flagarantly disregarded in practice. Recent events in Georgia, Azerbaidzhan and Armenia suggest that Article 72 is still mere rhetoric without substance. But there is a genuine window of opportunity for Article 52 and freedom of religion.
The Communist Revolution never stamped out religious practice. It is well known that Gorbachev's mother and millions of her generation continue to practice in the Russian Orthodox Church. It is the spectacular, idiosyncratic Byzantine churches which dominate Moscow's skyline. Inside the Kremlin itself, it is the churches which attract not only foreign tourists like ourselves but also Soviet citizens.
In Red Square, however, it must be admitted that the huge queues arc for Lenin's tomb and not for St Basil's. As with the Turkmenian children we encountered, so in Moscow there was a quasi-religious feel to the veneration of Lenin. Now that the official posters have come . down all over Moscow, now that Stalin is disgraced, and so long as Gorbachev disdains a personality cult around himself. Lenin is the only symbol of Communism to be seen. My impression, then, is of the Soviet peoples (and I use the plural deliberately) excited by the freedom of glasnost, optimistic about perestoika, and yearning for something extra in their lives. In the short term, that somcthing extra may be material goods. The only queues to rival
those at Lenin's tomb are those which occur whenever a new batch of consumer goods reaches a shop. In the medium term, however, it seems likely that perestroika will pave the way, unintentionally, for spiritual renaissance in the USSR.
So what can the West do to help religious freedom in the USSR' The first step, quite rightly, has been to put pressure on the Soviet government to allow Jews who wish to leave the country to do so. A second step, I imagine, will be to satisfy the Vatican's worries about various pockets of Catholicism in the USSR so as to pave the way for a papal visit. But the real stumbling block to full freedom of religion in the USSR will be the question of how to come to terms with the Islamic faith. And that problem, of course, will bring the ussr into the same difficulties as are now experiencxed by the West.
In other words, do we really. believe Vatican It's declaration On the relationship of the Church to non-Christian religions which said that: "Upon Moslems too, the Church looks with esteem." With Iran bordering the USSR, it is far from clear that the Soviet authorities look with esteem upon the Islamic supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini. The West has to decide whether to use its moral leverage to make Article 52 a reality for all religions, Simon Lee is Professor of Jurisprudence at the Queen's University of Belfast.