The political role of the Russian Orthodox Church

Alar Kilp

Russian president Vladimir Putin has often acted like a modern czar – an example of a devoted Orthodox Christian and also a political leader of the Orthodox civilization. His personal religious devotion peaked with his last-year visit to the monastic community of Mount Athos, the birth-place of the European Orthodox Christianity. He also received a divine blessing at the same Ipatjev monastery where in 1612 the first Romanov czar was blessed by the Orthodox hierarch.

Unlike to the czars, however, the political goals of the Russian president go beyond being “only” a guardian of the Orthodox faith. Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) seems to be used as a symbol of a broader “civil religion”, which encompasses also the other “true faiths” of Russia – Islam, Judaism, Buddhism. Although the political visibility of the ROC has been increasing during last years – as the presence of Orthodox dignitaries and visibility of Orthodox symbols ought to contribute to the legitimacy of Putin’s policies - it has been accompanied by a policy of integration of the ever increasing communities of Muslims into Russian national life. The fact, that the Russian Federation became last year an observer in the Organization of the Islamic Conference, that president Putin has acknowledged the positive contribution of the Islamic communities to the development of the Russian state, that the Russian state has remained legally secular, confirm that the Russian state has pursued not only a policy of becoming a leading country in the Orthodox world, but to become also a leading one among the Muslim countries.

The role of the ROC in the political processes of Russian Federation has become as great as never before since the October Revolution. The ROC also contributes to the foreign policy of the Russian Federation by doing a supportive diplomacy. So in the case of unfavorable religious or political developments, the emerging issues are handled diplomatically both by Russian state and also by the ROC. As in the case of religious dispute with the Uniate Church in Ukraine, which moved last year its headquarters from Lviv to Kiev, the birthplace of Russian Orthodoxy, the religious dispute took also political overtones.

As the Russian Federation wants to become a leading force in international relations, the ROC has a similar goal of becoming a leader in the inter-religious relationships. As Patriarch Alexy II stated in recent meeting with the speaker of Iranian parliament, the goal of inter-religious dialogue between Orthodox and Islamic leaders is to create a united counter-civilization to a “one-polar world, which would impose its own political and cultural models to all nations against their will”. In the meantime, the ROC may have a chance to replace Vatican as the main promoter of the Islam-Christianity dialogue. ROC may also outdo the Vatican as a religious agent of diplomacy in international affairs.

Most likely there will remain the current trend of a close collaboration between the state and ROC together with the increasing dialogue and collaboration between Orthodox and Muslim religious communities and states. Inside Russia, in accordance with the authoritarian-biased state policies, this would not alter the present limits for the religious freedom of Catholic and Protestant religious communities. The ROC would, however, remain politically relevant mostly as one of the symbols of the civic religion, along with other traditional religions of Russia. Due to political reasons and demographic trends – the share of Muslims among Russian population is constantly increasing – the Russian president will still have a need to stress the Orthodox heritage of the Russian nation, but he has to acknowledge the religious plurality of Russian population. So it may be politically more efficient for the state to cultivate close relationships with all four traditional religions, not only with the ROC.

There are also some weak signs that things may develop in another direction. An alternative development, however, involves a set of several mutually reinforcing changes. Guarantees for religious freedom for non-traditional religious communities would involve both loosening of political collaboration between the ROC and the state, but also a more democratic state. Although the tensions between non-traditional religious groups (mainly Catholic and Protestant) and ROC have not decreased, there have been at least some hopes of improvement of these relationships since Benedict XVI replaced John Paul II as the Roman Catholic pope. The Moscow Patriarchate and the Vatican have recently demonstrated a good-will for collaboration in promoting Christian spiritual values in Europe, the Vatican has backed the Russian Orthodox Church on religion in Russian schools, and the ROC has just recently adopted the Vatican attitude regarding homosexual priests. Such a partly open attitude regarding the Vatican may bring along also a more equal treatment of religious communities by the Russian state.