By expelling the Orthodox Church from its traditional holy enclave, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky maybe ignite a fire that can spread to the Balkans. It is a risky gamble considering that he is Jewish. After me the deluge! Is that his call?
However, first the facts: The 980-year-old exquisite Pechersk Lavra complex of monasteries in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, will soon be emptied of its distinctly robed Bishops and Priests. Even though the compound has provided the backdrop for many a piece-to-camera by western TV anchors, the exodus of the Priests will not make for a lead story.
It was an intriguing announcement made by Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky: “one more step towards strengthening our spiritual independence was taken this week.” The step was to expel the Priests.
What is the implication when 35 million or 80 percent of the population is Orthodox? Only 10 percent or 1.5 million are affiliated with the Catholic Church. Is a clash between them being manufactured? On the other side of the Ukraine conflict, 80% of the Russian population is also Orthodox. Does it mean that Ukrainian and Russian populations are holding onto their nationalisms but the “collaborating” clergy provide a bridge of unwanted moderation?
Zelensky and some of his supporters have accused the ancient Ukrainian Orthodox Church of taking instruction from the Russian Orthodox Church thereby undermining Ukrainian unity and slyly siding with Moscow.
A delegation of Orthodox Bishops and Priests was turned away by Zelensky without an audience. The Church has approached the Pope to intervene.
Does the genesis of the problem lie in one composite Orthodox Church heritage having been partitioned after the collapse of the Soviet Union? The Orange revolution of 2004, and the Euro Maidan disturbances of 2014 simulated bursts of patriotism and induced a specific Ukrainian nationalism. The idea of a Church independent of Russia germinated. Zelensky and groups clustered around the far-right Azov battalion saw promise in a purely Ukrainian Church independent of Moscow. In recent months, congregations grew, riding on the back of nationalism stoked by the Russian invasion.
At this juncture in the war when Ukraine is in the process of being reduced to rubble, ecclesiastic matters cannot be uppermost in Zelensky’s mind.
Contrary to keep-the-chin-up coverage in the Western media, Zelensky is nowhere near winning this war. Indeed he is very much on the back foot. Western arms and treasure are no longer a torrent. Europe, particularly Germany, is in all manner of economic and political difficulties. A symbol of growing German distress is the bankruptcy declared by the prestigious Eisenwerk Erla Steelworks founded in 1380. It is like losing a crown jewel.
Russian President Vladimir Putin in Church
Disbanding the Orthodox clergy could destabilize the Balkans, barely settling down after the breakup of former Yugoslavia. It has the potential of opening many fault lines. The Southern Slavs of Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia have a strong ethnic and religious affinity with 80% Russian population.
The complexities of the Balkans are mind-boggling, as I learned during the Bosnian war. Since the region, including Bosnia, was once part of the Ottoman Empire, the four-year-long siege of Sarajevo resonated in the Islamic core of Turkey. It was this sentiment which weakened Kemal Ataturk’s once iron-clad secularisms. Sarajevo derives from the Turkish word “Sarai” or resting place. The siege plus the brutalities visited upon Bosnian Muslims was one of the reasons which brought Necmettin Erbakan’s Islamist Refah party to power in Ankara. This fell foul of the Kemalist secular constitution. It was then that Erbakan’s protégé, Tayyip Erdogan and Abdullah Gul disguised their Islamism behind their Justice and Development (AKP) Party.
Should the region flare up again, an “unfinished” business discussed in the capitals of Serbia and Croatia namely Belgrade and Zagreb, is to “rationalize” Bosnia, sandwiched between them.
UK’s former Liberal Party leader Paddy Ashdown, who served as High Representative for Bosnia, once described his conversation with Croatia’s first President Franjo Tudjman. What is the future of Bosnia? Ashdown asked. Tudjman spread out the napkin on the dining table and ran a knife through the middle of the napkins. The incomplete agenda in both, Croatia and Serbia was to expand into Bosnia. Any turbulence in Bosnia would affect the May elections in Turkey besides destabilizing the entire region riven with the following faultlines – Christian-Muslim, Orthodox-Catholic, Allies-Axis.
When Yugoslavia broke up, Europe, determined to avoid another war after the formation of EU, decided on a joint European recognition of Yugoslavia’s breakaway parts. But German Foreign Minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, with studied impatience, recognized Croatia which had sided with the axis during World War 2. This immediately brought the British behind Serbia which had been with the allies. The melee lasted four years filled with carnage.
The State of Kosovo with a population of 3,00,000 Muslim Bosnians is delicately poised. The fact that Armed forces from individual European nations under the overall charge of NATO protect different sectors of Kosovo, make its security arrangements unique.
My press card had to be cleared by armoured Italian troops guarding the great Serbian Monastery of Decani, richly decorated with Orthodox frescos and paintings. Curious monks peep from their carrels. Just before dark, a muscular, athletic Priest runs around the central structure, carrying on his shoulder large wooden rattles called the allantoin. The sound is supposed to alert the monks against the “Turk”.
The ritual has been on since the 14th century when the Serbs lost to the Turks at the battle of Kosovo. This loss is ironically celebrated by the Serbs. With a smaller army, the Serbs gave a fierce battle but lost. They gave the Turks such a ferocious fight that the Turks could not advance further into Europe. So proud are the Serbs of this feat that the battle of Kosovo is the most joyous day in the Serb calendar.
It pains the Serbs that the monument to the battle, indeed their most precious monasteries are in Kosovo. Revenge is written into the script.
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Zelensky’s ouster of the Orthodox Church is provocative even beyond Ukraine.
Saeed Naqvi is a Delhi-based veteran journalist