Staunton, January 21 – After declaring in December that they felt diminished by the fact that Belarusian believers felt insulted by the fact that the Orthodox Church in their country did not have self-administering status, the leadership of the Belarusian exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church has shelved the issue for the next 25 to 50 years.
The reasons for this, Vladislav Maltsev of “NG-Religii” and Aleksey Makarkin of the Moscow Center for Political Technologies say, have little to do with the church itself and everything to do with the relationship between Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Moscow.
Metropolitan Pavel’s about face between December and January, they say, is only striking if one considers that he was viewed by most Belarusians as pro-Moscow in the first place and thus unlikely to support a more independent position for the Belarusian Orthodox, and if one thinks that these are religious rather than political issues.
Pavel was appointed to his position by Moscow Patriarch Kirill to replace Metropolitan Filaret who had been in office since 1989 and who had carried out what some describe as the “intense Belarusianization” of Orthodoxy there in what appeared to some Belarusians as a Russian attack on the independence-minded among the Belarusian Orthodox.
As Maltsev notes, the new metropolitan was challenged about that in his first interviews in Minsk. Naviny.by entitled its conversation with the churchman “Ought the Patriarchal Exarch of All Belarus be a Belarusian?” and asked him whether he was studying Belarusian. Furthermore, it pointedly noted that “Belarus is a country unlike Russia and with its own religious tradition.”
But Pavel quickly found “a common language” with Lukashenka, the “NG-Religii” writer says, and thus has done exactly what the Belarusian leader wants, now tacking away from Moscow in December during a period of tension between Belarus and Russia, and now tacking toward it after Belarusian Orthodox began a campaign against separation earlier this month.
Makarkin was even blunter: In an article in “Yezhednevny zhurnal” today, he observed that “the history of self-administration of the Belarusian Orthodox Church has ended before it began,” a reflection not only of the political nature of this decision but also of the lack of support among Belarusians for a self-administered church let alone autocephaly.
The situation in other countries in the region is very different, the Moscow analyst continues. There is “a serious autocephalous competitor” to the Moscow church in Ukraine. There is a Romanian patriarchate in Moldova. Estonia looks to Constantinople as has Latvia in the past.
But in Belarus, Makarkin says, the situation was always “simpler. Even during World War II, despite pressure from the German administration, local bishops were able to get out the issue of autocephaly, that is, separation from Moscow,” by insisting that “autocephaly could be obtained only after approval” from the relevant churches, something Moscow would not do.
With regard to the Belarusian emigres, he points out, most Belarusian bishops were absorbed into the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, something that did not happen with most Ukrainian ones, although some Belarusian churchmen did form a Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church in the US – an “uncanonical” step, the political analyst says.
The Orthodox exarchate in Belarus finds itself dependent on the state of relations between Moscow and Minsk, Makarkin says, but there are clear limits to how much tensions between them can escalate because no one in the West will accept [Lukashenka] even under conditions of a systemic conflict with Russia.”
Consequently, Lukashenka “will remain albeit an ally of Russia in the Eurasian Union” and other Moscow-led projects “albeit an uncomfortable one,” and the Belarusian Orthodox Church “will not receive self-administered status,” although both the civil and religious authorities in Minsk may raise the issue on occasion as part of their political games.