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The Russian Orthodox Church As An Instrument of Soft Power in the Balkans

"... the soft power of (Russian) Orthodoxy has already become one of the foundational components of Putin's Balkan policy. This spells serious trouble for the two-decade long U.S.-NATO Euro-Atlantic project in the Balkans."

The author is a geopolitical Newsbud-BFP Analyst, university professor and the chairman of the Movement for Neutrality of Montenegro.

Christian church split in 1054 into the Western and Eastern branch. The Western branch with its center in Rome came to be known as the Catholic church (further splitting during the Protestant Reformation several centuries later). The Eastern branch with its center in Constantinople (Istanbul) was not able to maintain unity as long as the Western branch. Already with the fall of Byzantium and the conquests by the Ottoman Turks, it split into more than a dozen churches tied to the particular monarchs and nations. The Eastern equivalent of the pope, the ecumenical patriarch, remained a politically weak figure.

<figcaption>It's powerful (click to enlarge)</figcaption>
It's powerful (click to enlarge)

The same situation persists to this day. The leaders of the national Orthodox churches, 14 in number, are much more powerful in influencing the domestic and foreign policy agenda of their respective countries than the current ecumenical patriarch, Bartholomew I.[1]

Since the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the unshackling of religious expression in the former Soviet political space, the Russian Orthodox church has tried to assert its authority within the community of Orthodox churches. Though this process already started during the last years of the tenure of the patriarch Alexy II (1990-2008), it attained its full public expression in the current mandate of Alexy II's successor, Kirill I. It has closely matched the strengthening of the Russian state and its geopolitical position in the world engineered since mid-2000s by Vladimir Putin.

In fact, as I will argue in this article, the Russian Orthodox church is one of the primary instruments of soft power that Putin has at his disposal to influence political elites and populations in the majority Orthodox states in the Balkans, such as Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro, Macedonia, and the Serb entity within Bosnia-Herzegovina, Republika Srpska. This carries a great deal of geostrategic significance since both Bulgaria and Greece are members of the increasingly anti-Russian NATO military alliance and the rest are in various stages on the NATO membership path. The recent events which I will chronicle in this article show that the soft power of the Orthodoxy (православие) has already become one of the foundational components of Putin's Balkan policy. This spells serious trouble for the two-decade long U.S.-NATO Euro-Atlantic project in the Balkans.

Playing the Orthodox Card

The essence of soft power is its ability to sway the "hearts and minds" of the other states' elites and populations to support particular domestic and foreign policy goals without resorting to military power or any other kind of coercion. During the Cold War, the U.S. political and intelligence establishment has successfully used the products of popular culture, such as Hollywood movies, rock and roll, blue jeans, and Coca Cola, to create dissatisfaction with the conditions and quality of life in the enemy Communist Bloc. However, the destruction, suffering, and pain brought on by the process of neoliberal economic transition proved to be overwhelming and, in many cases, outweighed the benefits of the supposedly democratic political transition, which was in itself incomplete and corrupt. The norms and habits established during the Communist period crumbled and there was very little that neoliberalism offered as moral and spiritual compensation. As the result, most people began looking for psychological support and comfort in the past religious traditions and beliefs. Hence the strong resurgence of the Orthodox religious feeling and trust in the church institutions all across the former Communist Balkans.

In fact, if we take a look at public polling across the majority Orthodox states in the Balkans, we will see that the Orthodox church is generally considered the most trustworthy and credible public institution. While the approval of politicians and political parties is hardly beyond 20 percent, the Orthodox church has consistently had the approval rating of around 50 percent. In some states, such as Montenegro, the approval rating has been even higher.[2] This means that the "hearts and minds" of the majority populations are open to being swayed by the policy positions of the Orthodox church, including its strong anti-NATO stand.

If more than 20 years of the intense, well-financed NATO integrationist propaganda has not been able to reverse this trend, it is clear that the future does not bode well for the NATO advocates in the Balkans. The sweeping infiltration of the political elites, the militaries, and the intelligence structures has not paid off. The millions of U.S. and West European taxpayers' dollars, which could have been spent in fixing severely underfunded social, educational, and health care programs, have been wasted. The Western military-industrial-intelligence complex has grown exponentially, enriching the scores of executives and contractors in the process, but its expansionist foreign policy agenda in the Balkans is being subverted from the inside by the traditional grass-root political forces.

Notwithstanding the self-congratulatory rhetoric of the pro-NATO Balkan political leaders, we may witness their fall from power in near future. The first on the list appears to be the corrupt, seven-time prime minister of Montenegro, Milo Djukanović. The recent strengthening of the ties between the Russian and Serbian Orthodox church points to one of the key channels for the Russian support against Djukanović. In fact, in late December 2015, the Russian patriarch Kirill I wrote to the metropolitan Amfilohije, the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro, that he "could always count on the help of the Russian Orthodox church, which knows and respects [him] as an old and dear friend."[3]

Putin on the Throne of Byzantine Tsars

During his state visit to Greece at the end of May 2016, Putin visited the Russian Orthodox enclave on Mount Athos. He was joined by Kirill I who, as the key holder of the soft power of the Orthodoxy, appears to have assumed the role of the Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov with regard to the Balkans. The formal occasion was to celebrate the thousand years of the presence of the Russian monks in Greece. However, the political subtext was much broader. It involved the narrative that the Russians, as the most populous Orthodox population and the most powerful majority Orthodox state, are the "natural" and indispensable protectors of all Orthodox Balkan populations from hostile foreign influences, whether they come from the West or the East.

In this respect, what was generally passed without comment in the mass media, but had a great deal of political significance, was the fact that all the Orthodox monks (not only the Russian monks) served the liturgy in Putin's honor while he sat on the throne that allegedly belonged to the Byzantine tsars.[4] This meant that Russia's successor status to the Byzantine empire was publicly confirmed and affirmed in present time. Geopolitically speaking, this may be the most dramatic event since the collapse of the Soviet Union and it is likely to have long-term consequences that will affect not only the balance of power in the Balkans and the Middle East, but also in Europe and Eurasia in general.

It is important to keep in mind that even though there seems to be some kind of rapprochement at this time between Putin and the embattled Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, if Russia was to assume the Byzantine geopolitical project, then the hostilities between these two former empires appear to be inevitable and will be readily exploited by their opponents in the West. This has happened many times in the past, the most bloody examples being the Crimean war (1856-1859) and the Russo-Turkish war (1877-1878). In both cases, first Russia, then Turkey, fell victim to the territorial and economic machinations of the Western powers.

The Church Relations in the Orthodox World

Even though all Orthodox churches share a common religious doctrine, the relations among them have been far from harmonious. In fact, their representatives have not gathered in one place since 787. However, spurred on by the aggressive NATO pressures from the West and the terrorist threat of radical extremists from the East, intense efforts have been made recently to coordinate the Orthodox churches' positions more closely. Earlier this year, all the churches agreed to hold a historic meeting (Sabor) on the Greek island of Crete from June 20 to June 27, 2016. However, the problems soon surfaced as to who would set the agenda and have the ultimate decision making power in formulating future policies.

The main conflict appears to be between the ecumenical patriarch Bartholomew I and the Russian patriarch Kirill I. Kirill I is interested in having the Orthodox churches more directly ally themselves with the Russian geopolitical agenda, while Bartholomew I, an ethnic Greek who is a Turkish citizen, seems to be resisting. In the end, the conflict could not be contained and resulted in the Russian and three other Orthodox churches (the Bulgarian, the Georgian, and the Antiochian (Syrian)) cancelling their participation in the Crete meeting.[5] The cancellation caused a rift within the Serbian Orthodox church, which spilled into the public view, but was eventually resolved by the decision to attend the meeting after all.[6] However, the Serbian church also promised to look out for the interests of those churches which were absent. This places it in the important position of the mediator for the negotiations which will no doubt take place soon.

The still unresolved tensions and disagreements within the community of the Orthodox churches show that Putin's policy of using the Orthodox church as a tool of soft power still faces certain obstacles at the top of some churches' hierarchies, very likely infiltrated by NATO's agents of influence. However, the grass-root pressures from below which demand an unmistakable anti-NATO policy turn, in tandem with the probable "palace coups" at the top, will diminish the number of resisters in the coming years.

Filip Kovacevic, Newsbud-BFP Analyst, is a geopolitical author, university professor and the chairman of the Movement for Neutrality of Montenegro. He received his BA and PhD in political science in the US and was a visiting professor at St. Petersburg State University in Russia for two years. He is the author of seven books, dozens of academic articles & conference presentations and hundreds of newspaper columns and media commentaries. He has been invited to lecture throughout the EU, Balkans, ex-USSR and the US. He currently resides in San Francisco. He can be contacted at[email protected]


[1] There are several other Orthodox churches, but, for various political reasons, they have not been recognized as legitimate by the already established churches.

[2] What has also to be taken into consideration is that public polling in the Balkans is generally conducted by Western-funded and pro-NATO oriented organizations which have a political stake in underreporting the strength of their opponents.





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