Belarusian Orthodox Church: In Symphony With The State
On 4 July the president of the Papal Inter-Religious Committee from the Vatican, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, met with Alexander Lukashenka in Minsk. During the meeting, Belarusian authorities tried to convince the Vatican’s representative that all 25 religious denominations present in Belarus live in peace and enjoy freedom. However, as Lukashenka made clear, only the Orthodox Church can have a leading role in Belarusian society.
Top Belarusian politicians and Orthodox hierarchs often emphasize that Eastern Christian rites laid a cornerstone for the Belarusian nationhood. But many are concerned that the Orthodox Church goes too much hand in hand with the Belarusian authorities and in many ways legitimizes the authoritarian regime.
Recently the Orthodox Church in Belarus publicly expressed its position on many society-related issues such as saying ‘no’ to capital punishment. This signifies that the Church wants to become a real moral authority for Belarusians. The question might be, however, how independent can the Orthodox Church be, considering its canonical structure and dependency upon Moscow.
Metropolit Filaret: the Orthodoxy as a spiritual-cultural foundations of Slavic nations
Metropolit Filaret, born in Moscow in 1935 as Kirill Varfolomeyevich Vakhromeev, remains the highest hierarch in the Belarusian Orthodox Church. He was educated at the theological seminary in Moscow. In 1978 Filaret became a Metropolit of Minsk and All Belarusian Soviet Republic. In 1989 following the demise of the USSR and creation of an independent Belarus, he became the head of the Belarusian Orthodox Church.
The figure of Filaret arouses controversy. On the one hand, he remains popular due to his religious activity and attempts to revive the Orthodox Church in Belarus. He initiated the translation of the New Testament into Belarusian. He also revived a number of monasteries. He also founded the first Theological Academy in Belarus. That won him the respect of many people.
At the same time many criticise Metropolit Filaret’s passivity when it comes to the human rights violations in Belarus. According to their logic, if the Church is claiming to have a leading role in the society, it cannot remain silent about human rights violation.
Interaction between the State and the Church
Metropolit Filaret supported Alexander Lukashenka on many occasions. For example, supporting his referendum to remove limits on of the number of times he could run as a president in 2004, he said that ‘the Belarusian nation has more than once expressed its wisdom. I am convinced that now our nationals will make the right decision’.
A special agreement signed in 2004 between the Belarusian authorities and the Orthodox Church defines a character of their mutual relations. The agreement went as far as to define a scope of co-operation between the state authorities and particular ministries, with the Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church received the exclusive right of influence in certain spheres of the state’s activities such as education, health care, crime prevention. The state also granted it the status of “one of the most important social institutions” with “which cultural heritage in the past and today accord influence on formation of the spiritual, cultural and national traditions of the Belarusian nation”.
Belarusian Catholics are still waiting for a similar agreement. The Belarusian authorities has been postponing concluding a concordat for several years.
More Equal than Others
The Belarusian Orthodox Church remains the biggest religious community in Belarus. But it is not independent.
The Belarusian Orthodox Church remains subordinated to the Russian Orthodox Church headquartered in Moscow. This means that the church in Belarus follows all the elements of religious life such as teaching religion, service practice, and also a hierarchical system of management from its Moscow-based centre. The majority of Orthodox Churches in the world, like Polish, Greek and Serbian hold the status of autocephaly, meaning independent of external authority. In case of Belarus, the Church remains under Moscow’s patriarchal authority.
Apart from the state-recognised Church, the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church exists, but it can operate only outside of Belarus. Since it does not accept the supremacy of the Moscow Patriarchate, it cannot get permission to register itself in Belarus. This is the reason why the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church remains the religious organisation primarily for Belarusians in in the United States and Canada.
Do Belarusians Need an Autocephalous Orthodox Church?
In 2010 Lukashenka met with Bartholomev I, holding the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, the most honourable title within the Orthodox Church. Albeit the fact that he does not decide himself on autocephaly, he holds the exclusive right to call special synods to deal with various issues.
The meeting caused rumours in Russian and Belarusian media about the potential independence of the Belarusian Orthodox Church. Both the Church and presidential administration immediately denounced it.
However, the Orthodox Church in Belarus has had a short period of autonomy in its history in years 1922-1938. In 1930s due to the anti-religious policy of the Soviet authorities it had to return under Moscow’s Patriarchate control.
Today the Church in Belarus probably would meet all criteria necessary for autonomy. It operates in the territory of independent state, has a number of the clergy, theological schools and monasteries. Advocates of the autocephaly often raise the issue of negative attitude of the Russian Orthodox Church towards the Belarusian identity, culture and language.
Many people think that nearly all Belarusians are Orthodox Christians. In reality, however, this is a simplification. Western Belarus, including the Hrodna region, has a strong presence of the Roman Catholic Church, that uses both Belarusian and Polish in its service. But the vast majority of Belarusians – whether Orthodox or Catholic – do not pay much any attention to religion in their daily life.
Only over the last years has post-Soviet Belarusian society begun to search for its spiritual values. One of consequences of this has been that protestant communities are on the rise over the last years, and the state persistently creates institutional obstacles for them. While the state favours the Orthodox Church, data shows that less people attend it.
The Orthodox Church and Belarusian Society
Recently Metropolit Filaret spoke out against death penalty at a round table co-organised by the Council of Europe and the Belarusian authorities. As he reminded the audeince, when in a 1996 referendum where the death penalty question was put for a popular vote, the Orthodox authorities ‘called people to decline this form of punishment’. So far, however, the Orthodox authorities did not voice their opposition when executions took place. This was the case in 2012, when the state executed two men convicted for organising the bombing attack in the Minsk metro.
The Orthodox Church together with Catholic also opposed abortion and surrogacy. They appealed for the amendments to Belarusian law. According to official figues, over 25 thousand abortions occur in Belarus every year. As press officer of the Belarusian Orthodox Church said: ‘Even the very early canonical sources treat abortion as killing. This is also our position now: abortion remains evil and contradicts Christian creed’.
Families of political prisoners publicly requested the leaders of the Orthodox Church for their support. So far these calls failed to produce any results. The Catholic Church is more assertive here. In 2012 the Vatican’s Ambassador to Belarus Apostolic Nuncio, Claudio Gugerotti, visited several political prisoners, including former presidential candidate Mikalaj Statkievich and human rights activist Ales Bialiatski.
Traditionally for Orthodoxy, the state-Church relations are based upon the concept of “symphony”. It presumes that the state and the religious authorities should develop and interact in harmony. This should not mean, however, that the church should agree with any particular policy of the state.
If the Orthodox Church wants to strengthen its position as moral authority in Belarus it should clarify its position on political issues and moral dilemas facing the Belarusian society today. Being a moral authority requires more than praising the “Slavic brotherhood” with Russia and economic stability.
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Eurasian Economic Community: Belarus May Be Getting a Raw Deal
Recently, an association of SMEs in Belarus declared a one-day symbolic strike. They responded to what they view as the stifling business climate established as a result of Beluras’ integration project with the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Community.
Other factors also indicate that Belarus may be getting a raw deal in the Kremlin’s latest pet project. In parallel with its economy becoming further entrenched in the Customs Union, Belarus is continuing to drift into further isolation, making its economy extremely vulnerable to the whims of its benefactor.
On 25 June, a spokesman from the association Perspectiva, Anatoly Schumchanka, spoke to reporters at the Forum of Sole Traders to announce that they were calling on other entrepreneurs to carry-out a one day strike on the 27 June. They also initiated a gathering of signatures to call for Belarus’ removal from the Customs Union. Many regions participated in the strike throughout the whole country, most of them bringing regional market places to a standstill.
While on the surface such a gesture may appear to be relatively inane, particularly considering the small number of SMEs at work in Belarus’ economy, the announcement was telling. Business in Belarus is, on the whole, not seeing the benefits that they were expecting upon joining the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC), also known as the Customs Union. On the contrary, Belarus’ economic situation does not appear to be gaining much from it.
The action carried out on 27 June throughout Belarus also shows the frail nature of the EurAsEC, as well as the poorly constructed policies and mechanisms for promoting economic growth. While for Belarus it holds some political benefits by raising the countries stature on the global arena, the benefits to society as a whole are not at all obvious. It has, however, provided Lukashenka with a new rationale for asking for influxes of Russian subsidies and loans.
Belarus, much like many other nations that emerged out of the collapse of the Soviet Union, retains many of its business inhibiting features: a tedious bureaucratic state, little or no access to credit or loans, a stifling regulatory and legal environment, an irresponsive system of education to produce skilled workers for the labor market etc.
Add to this the requirement, which came into effect in Belarus on 1 July, to go through an expensive process of getting light-industry products – the bread and butter of SMEs – certified by authorities for sale on the Customs Union’s general market, and you have the recipe for the collapse of SMEs as a whole in Belarus.
A Regional Non-Player
According to the OECD’s 2012 SME Policy Index: Eastern Partner Countries report, SMEs make up only 20% of the Belarus’ GDP, with 70% being attributed to state-run enterprises. In comparison, in Poland it makes up for about 47% of its GDP, with France at 62%.
Similarly, Russia and Kazakhstan SMEs account for roughly 20% of its visible economic activity, though it should be noted that they have less state-run enterprises. While other measures can be employed to show an economy’s growth, the percentage of SMEs in an economy is an indicator of its strength and stability. SMEs tend to fill the gaps that larger companies, particularly state-managed companies, cannot by providing regular employment opportunities at the local level and are key players when it comes to innovation. Belarus’ numbers indicate that its economy remains uncompetitive, prone to global economic fluctuations in prices, and lacks the infrastructure essential to sustainable economic development.
The rationale for joining the Eurasian Economic Community appears to have been two-fold: becoming part of an influential economic bloc to strengthen the Belarusian economy and presence internationally, and more deviously, to maintain a platform for the Belarusian government to continue to extract rents from Russia in the name of mutual economic ties and regional stability.
Although the Eurasian Economic Community is still young, with its underdeveloped institutions and policies, projections would seem to indicate that its competitiveness with other regional powerhouses, China and the EU, is limited. Without serious changes in Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus’ own economic development, it will continue to struggle both regionally and globally outside of the energy market.
China’s successes in Central Asia, including in Kazakhstan, was part of the logic in forming the new economic bloc – creating an authorative body that would be able to protect the “interests” of Kazakhstan via Moscow.
With the EU’s growing trade prowess and formal agreements on developing trade with Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia and Georgia through its Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade mechanism, indicates the limited attractiveness of the EurAsEC even within areas considered to be within Russia’s sphere of influence.
What is Belarus’ Endgame?
Russia’s long-awaited accession to the WTO in 2012, Kazakhstan’s membership in 2013, and EurAsEC observer Ukraine’s own membership are evidence of each countries’ respective leadership looking to further integrate into the global economy and boost their own competiveness.
Belarus’ own relations to the WTO have come to almost complete standstill. How precisely the EurAsEC will deal with this issue, or how Belarus will be able to overcome the marked improved capacities of all of their neighbours, remains to be seen.
Between its political isolation and dependency on Russia, Belarus can choose from essentially two options. Either it will continue its feudal arrangement with Russia and make itself increasingly vulnerable to encroachment or it can begin to seriously undertake the multilateral approach of its EurAsEC partners.
The West is quite willing to work with authoritarian governments who do not observe its standards of democracy and freedom. Read more
As both President Putin and President Nazarbayev have shown, the West is quite willing to work with authoritarian governments who do not observe its standards of democracy and freedom. Unlike Russia and Kazakhstan, whose energy resources and military cooperation in relation to Afghanistan have normalised their ties with the West on some level, it would appear that Belarus has only political prisoners to offer in exchange.
Its ability to attract substantial foreign direct investment from parties that will not place conditions on them, such as Iran or Indonesia, have been few and far between. Even China, with its increased presence, will not put at risk its very fruitful economic ties with Russia for the modest gains to be made in Belarus.
While Belarus was able to avoid the shock therapy that many of its neighbours endured in the 1990s, a worse fate may await it, should the Belarusian government not take drastic steps to stem the simmering economic crisis. Perhaps it could start by listening to its citizens. They might have a few ideas worth listening to.
Devin Ackles is a Kyiv-based analyst and project coordinator of the Centre for Transition Studies.