This is not the first time Russia has used the Church issue to achieve its goals and consolidate its influence in this part of the Western Balkans. Nikolay Krastev on what lies behind the resolution of the Macedonian Church issue and the long-awaited proclamation of Macedonian autocephaly.
In 2012, the perceived Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Orthodox Church, metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, in an interview with BNR to the writer of these lines, offered his services to mediate between the Serbian and Macedonian Orthodox Churches regarding the resolution of this Balkan Church issue.
Recently, the Moscow Patriarchate took an important step to consolidate its influence in the region with its decision to recognize the autocephalous status of the Macedonian Orthodox Church, after the Serbian Orthodox Church on May 24, 2022 adopted a decision to make it a fully independent ecclesiastical structure.
The Russian Church did not have to make a very complicated choice between the Serbian Patriarchate and the Macedonian Church, after the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, together with his Synod, had previously decided that Skopje Church would be no longer considered schismatic. This opened the way to a canonical resolution of the dispute between the Serbian and Macedonian Orthodox Churches, which had been in tension for 55 years.
As a result, the Moscow Patriarchate copied the decision of the Serbian Orthodox Church to recognize the Macedonian one under the name of the Ohrid Archbishopric.
With these two moves it achieved its goals. It has entered the team of those involved in the solution of this Balkan ecclesiastical issue without putting any conditions on Skopje and winning the emotions of Macedonian society. Secondly, it has once again shown its attitude towards the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, which has certain issues about the name of the Macedonian Orthodox Church. For Bulgarian Church, the Ohrid Archbishopric ia a part of its ecclesiastical history.
However, Church historians and theologians have a clear opinion about the nature of the Ohrid Archbishopric, which was established by the Byzantine Emperor Basil II.
The complicated relations between the Ohrid archibishopric and the Patriarchate of Tarnovo continued during the Second Bulgarian Kingdom.
With the fall of Bulgaria to Ottoman rule at the end of the 14th century and the death of Patriarch Euthymius in 1403, the role of the Patriarchate of Tarnovo was downgraded, and it became marginalized. The situation was similar with the Ohrid archbishopric, where, however, the archbishop remained until 1767, still linked to the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
Although the BOC recognized the MOC, its Synod left open the question of the name of the youngest Balkan Orthodox Church. The Russian Church closed it under the noses of the Bulgarian bishops.
How the Bulgarian Orthodox Church will act now remains to be seen, but this will be a serious challenge to its ecclesiastical diplomacy.
The Bulgarian Orthodox Church had the unique chance to benefit from the letter of the Holy Synod of the Macedonian Orthodox Church in which it recognized it as the mother church in 2017 and could start the process of resolving its status together with the Ecumenical Patriarch. However, this did not happen and the government of now former Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev started a policy of rapprochement and small steps with the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
Zaev is not the only Macedonian prime minister involved in the recognition of the MOC. His predecessors Nikola Gruevski and Ljubcho Georgievski did this as well, but the truth is that the time factor coincided very well with the beginning of the solution of this painful issue for the Balkan Orthodoxy.
The missed chance on the part of the Bulgarian Holy Synod left it for a long time in the position of an observer rather than an active player in these complex but important for Bulgaria ecclesiastical and diplomatic issues.
The fear of what the Russian Orthodox Church and the Serbian Church will say has left the Bulgarian Orthodox Church out of the solution of the Macedonian ecclesiastical question, and has also put to the test the few friends Bulgaria has in the ecclesiastical circles in North Macedonia.
This is not the first time that Russia has used the church issue to achieve its goals and consolidate its influence in this part of the Western Balkans. A few weeks ago, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in an interview with the Association “Nashe Kino”, which was published on the website of the Russian Foreign Ministry, accused the West of pursuing an anti-Russian line, which did not correspond to the feelings of the Macedonians and Montenegrins. He added that there was a big difference between how these two Balkan peoples felt about Russia and how they felt about NATO and the EU under the dictates of local politicians.
Thus, in familiar style, Russian diplomacy again tried to set the Balkan Orthodox against each other.
The Moscow Patriarchate cleverly instrumentalised its influence through the Macedonian church issue to score points. There is no doubt that with this decision the Russian Orthodox Church has shown consistency in its attitude towards the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church and towards Belgrade’s actions in the region, no matter whether they are political or ecclesiastical-diplomatic issues.
In North Macedonia, the decision of the Russian Orthodox Church resonated very seriously.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that the public in Skopje reacted with euphoria to the decision coming from the Russian Holy Synod.
In Macedonian church circles, as one would expect, the Russian recognition was received diplomatically and with restrain. What is important for the full recognition of the autocephaly of their church is the tomos that Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew will issue, not what Moscow Patriarch Kirill will do.
The real question that many experts on Balkan Orthodoxy are asking is whether Russian recognition of the Macedonian Orthodox Church might actually slip it and leave indefinitely the issuance of the autocephaly tomos by the Ecumenical Patriarch.
Controversy has always existed between the two centers of Eastern Orthodoxy over the question of who is the heir of the Byzantine Empire. And while the answer is clear and one does not have to go very far north to seek its answer, the controversy between Moscow and Fanar (the Istanbul quarter, associated with the Ecumenical Patriarchate – note of the translator) deepened after Bartholomew decided to recognize the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in 2018.
It is by no means impossible that the Russian recognition of the MOC – OA will turn out to be that “gift of the Danaians” which will delay its recognition in the Orthodox world. At first glance this may seem to some like a palace game in the Orthodox world, but it is not at all devoid of logic.
The sparks of mutual opposition between the Ecumenical and Moscow Patriarchates have spilled over to the complex Balkan ecclesiastical issues, which are undoubtedly the Macedonian and Montenegrin issues. However, for now, the Macedonian ecclesiastical question seems to have a chance to end successfully.
There is no doubt that this heightened church-diplomatic dynamic should not be seen outside the Russian invasion of Ukraine. There are analysts who question why the Russian Orthodox Church did not make this move 10 or 15 years ago when it offered to mediate between Belgrade and Skopje? As well as why was the Moscow Patriarchate so quick to act and recognize the MOC? It remains to be seen whether the Russian ecclesiastical recognition can postpone the visit of the Ecumenical Patriarch to Skopje. This is a much-awaited visit, as Bartholomew the First may bring the much-awaited tomos for autocephaly with him.
It is clear that Belgrade, Moscow and Constantinople are fighting a marathon battle for supremacy in Balkan Orthodoxy, from which Sofia is missing. Belgrade, Moscow and Constantinople retain their established places as leading actors in the processes of Balkan Orthodoxy. How the cards will be stacked for the local and beyond regional church players in Balkan Orthodoxy remains to be seen.
One thing is clear, however. Whoever shows patience in the battle for supremacy between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Ecumenical Patriarchate for the Balkan Orthodox will win.
The Macedonian ecclesiastical question has already become central in this battle for supremacy, and what Balkan Orthodoxy looks like will depend on how it is resolved and at what speed.
This text has been first published in Bulgarian by The Foreign Insider.