President Alexander Lukashenko is looking for a mobilization exercise rehearsal to take place after consulting with the Orthodox Church.

Lukashenko admitted that Belarus is part of the war against Ukraine, although he argued that they had not taken violent action against Ukrainian troops.

The dictator stated that military commissariats have and will continue to assess military personnel and those expected to serve in reserve. Once this is implemented, he implied that it should be done smoothly in each district. Additionally, Lushenko claims it had no connection with mobilization. However, recent reports suggested that the Kremlin has experienced several complications in attaining the desired number of soldiers, including logistical difficulties, quarrels between services, a lack of instruction, and a significant number of desertions and draft evasion.

What Is the Reason for the Russian Orthodox Church’s Backing of Lushenko?

The Russian Orthodox Church’s (ROC’s) endorsement of Lukashenko appears due to the Moscow Patriarchate’s ambition to preserve its spiritual influence in the area and its custom of upholding Russia’s geopolitical goals. Nevertheless, their decision to stand by the Belarusian President despite the continuous and widespread demonstrations against him may result in the ROC being alienated from its people and gaining a negative standing in Belarus.

In the middle of August, the people of Belarus assembled in large numbers to demonstrate against Alyaksandr Lukashenka (Alexander Lushenko), who had fraudulently declared a sweeping success in the presidential election. Unsurprisingly, this unrest sparked an inquiry about the reaction of the Kremlin, which might not be averse to the uproar in the neighboring country, yet would prefer that the long-time leader of Belarus stays in power. After offering a mere formality of post-election congratulations, Russian president Vladimir Putin waited for more than a fortnight to express his explicit endorsement of Lukashenko amidst the protests, promising that Russia would intervene if the embattled leader became unable to handle the situation. 

Regardless, another influential figure in Russian politics, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), immediately showed their support for Lukashenko’s government. ROC’s leader, Patriarch Kirill, issued a statement soon after the elections, praising Lukashenko for his commitment to the Orthodox congregations and urging for a “fruitful interaction between the state authorities and the Belarusian Exarchate.” 

This is proof of how the Moscow Patriarchate is driven by its desire to keep its religious authority in the region, as well as its traditional backing of Russia’s geopolitical interests. However, its decision to back the Belarusian leader despite the continuous, popular protest against him could lead to the loss of trust among its congregations and damage ROC’s reputation in Belarus.

Partnership Longevity

Holy Spirit Cathedral
Holy Spirit Cathedral in Minsk (Source: Insider/Wikimedia Commons)

Orthodox Christianity is the most popular religion in Belarus, and the President has preserved friendly ties with the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) during his 26 years in power. The Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC) is the biggest of the 25 authorized religious denominations in the nation; about 53 percent of the adults are a part of it. The BOC is an exarchate of the ROC and is subject to the Moscow Patriarchate and Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the world’s largest community of Orthodox Christians. The law of Belarus recognizes the BOC’s “important role” in developing the country’s spiritual, cultural, and state customs; it is the only faith to be given state grants and has many alliances with Belarusian state organizations. Not surprisingly, Kirill made supportive comments following the election due to the past good relationship between Lukashenko and the ROC. However, the Moscow Patriarchate sacked the BOC leader, Metropolitan Pavel, in a more meaningful show of backing for Lukashenka, for he had been sending contradictory messages about the election results and had not communicated the ROC’s point of view to the BOC clergy. Pavel had first congratulated Lukashenko on his win but later apologized and met a group of Christian activists. He then made an announcement aiming to mollify the Belarusian government, where he criticized BOC leaders and clergy who had voiced support for the protesters, condemned electoral fraud, or criticized the post-election violence and Lukashenka’s system. Metropolitan Veniamin was chosen to take Pavel’s place, who had previously spoken against “mass riots” and called for stability in the country to be restored. A few days later, Kirill wished Lukashenko a happy birthday and again expressed his desire for a sustained connection between the ROC and the Belarusian government. 

This happened less than three weeks after the security forces had brutally beaten and arrested hundreds of peaceful demonstrators and were in sharp contrast to the statement from the head of the Belarusian Catholic Church, who asked the authorities to “stop the violence and free all the people that were taken in peacefully protesting.”

Political Power Masked as Spiritual Leadership

The Russian Orthodox Church’s (ROC) decision to publicly support Lukashenko could be attributed to its place in Russian politics. Since Putin’s rise to power, the ROC has become utterly dependent on the Kremlin. 

Though this has been advantageous for the Church’s leadership in the short run, it has also decreased its institutional authenticity in Russia. On the one hand, the Russian government’s ongoing support has enabled the ROC to conceal its income, obtain state aid, and outpace other religious groups in Russia. On the other, this dependency has come with a heavy price: the ROC must abide by Putin’s domestic and geopolitical instructions, even if these policies contradict the Church’s traditional teachings of leniency, justice, and tolerance. For example, the ROC has supported Russia’s involvement in Syria and Ukraine, associated the promotion of human rights with “heresy,” and backed the government’s hurried production of an inadequately tested COVID-19 vaccine. 

Despite the ROC’s conservative leadership’s approval of Putin’s counter-progressive policies, the Church’s steady support of the regime has hurt its reputation among Russians. A recent survey by the Levada Center revealed that public faith in the ROC has been dwindling since 2012. A different survey indicated that two-thirds of respondents assumed that the Church should not be included in political affairs. 

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The ROC has also been attempting to keep its dominion over the post-Soviet Orthodox community, so its support of the ostensibly friendly Lukashenko regime could also be an endeavor to maintain its power in the area. For instance, the Moscow-Constantinople rift, caused by the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s resolution to grant autonomy to the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, greatly diminished the ROC’s authority in Eastern Europe; after the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the spiritual power of the world’s Orthodox Church, gave freedom to the Ukrainian Church despite ROC’s objections, the Moscow Patriarchate lost up to 500 parishes in Ukraine. 

The division of the Ukrainian Church, which had been under Moscow’s control for more than 300 years, provoked an uproar among Russian politicians and religious authorities and stands as one of the most significant Orthodox rifts in history. To the ROC’s and Kremlin’s frustration, the division of the Ukrainian Church also set a model for other local Orthodox bodies seeking freedom from the Moscow Patriarchate. 

For example, there has been ongoing competition between the ROC and the self-governing Romanian Orthodox Church in Moldova, with the latter increasing in popularity in the last 15 years. In addition, the ROC is contending similar issues in Latvia and Lithuania, where local politicians have questioned its authority and passed laws limiting Moscow’s power over Orthodox dioceses. In comparison, Lukashenka’s negligible involvement in the ROC’s internal concerns and refusal to register “alternative” Orthodox groups in Belarus allows the Moscow Patriarchate to sway the Belarusian congregation and evade competition.

Powerplay

The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) has put itself in a problematic situation by backing Lukashenko. When demonstrations started in Belarus, the ROC leadership chose to side with a figure who could help promote Russian interests and maintain the Church’s influence. This move, however, has made the ROC’s reliance on the Russian government apparent and has revealed the supposedly autonomous institution to be one of the Kremlin’s means of political control. Consequently, the ROC has harmed its reputation in a region already struggling to retain its religious authority. 

In order to safeguard its power in Belarus and other post-Soviet nations, the ROC should stay clear of Russia’s geopolitical maneuvers and instead return to its core doctrines, promoting peace, justice, and unconditional love for neighbors. For the sake of those with family in the area, the author’s name has been kept confidential.