During the Pan-Orthodox Council in Crete in June 2016, the Serbian Patriarch Irinej and the Romanian Patriarch Daniel responded negatively to only one of the proposals made by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, namely to condemn nationalism in the Church which Bartholomew obviously saw as a Russian strategy to undermine Orthodoxy. The idea of condemnation of nationalism proved a serious problem for several Balkan churches unable to see further than the end of their nose. The misuse of nationalist ideas by the Balkan churches is a fact well known to analysts in Moscow and since the 19thc. it has been used cleverly to provoke internal conflicts in the Balkans only to weaken the region and make it an easy prey to Russian imperialist colonial interests.
Despite Russia investing in an extensive and expensive promotional campaign in Greece over the past two decades, apparently aimed at building an “Orthodox arc of influence” reaching to the Mediterranean, after the boycott of the Crete Council, anti-Russian forces took precedence in the media, at least temporarily, and we saw the return of expressions like “Russian arc”, “Russian satellites”, “Pan-Slavic imperialism”, etc. These developments appear to be connected to the seething conflict between the Archbishopric of Athens and the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople. The conflict is being fuelled artificially to a certain extent, raising again and again the question of “new territories” (Northern Greece and some of the Aegean islands that belong to the Patriarchate, not to the Church of Greece in Athens), a fact that some in Athens cannot swallow. Extreme Greek nationalists, supported financially by Moscow, are particularly active on this front. However, after the failure of the Council as a result of the obvious influence of Russia and its satellite churches, Athens seems to be sobering up in regard to the role of Russia in the Balkans and specifically its impact on Greece. In informal electronic media, we began to hear voices recounting the historical betrayal of Russian diplomacy towards Greek efforts at national liberation as well as the red terror in northern Greece during the civil war – a subject almost forgotten in recent years.
However, pro-Russian media successfully diverted attention from this topic replacing it with a debate on the conflict between Jerome of Athens and the representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Athens. A general grim feeling remained that the Bulgarians have once again become anti-Greek. The behaviour of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church (BOC) was considered as sabotage to the overall system of the Orthodox Church centered in Constantinople, not only by Greek media, but also by the general public at large. It should be noted however that the heaviest blow to the image of Bulgaria resulted from the decision of the Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church in April 2016, which stated that “Catholics and Protestants are heretics”. This decision not only alienated the Bulgarian Orthodox Church from the inter-Christian dialogue, but also directly threatens the national security of the country, given the considerable Catholic and Protestant communities living in Bulgaria.
The case of Serbia and The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM)
Meanwhile, the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) stated immediately after the BOC, a week before the opening of the Council, that it would not participate. This allowed the Ecumenical Patriarchate to revisit the issue of the Skopje Archbishopric. However, the intended discord between the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the SOC did not take place because the Synod of the SOC changed its mind on the following day. However, it should be noted that since his enthronement, Bartholomew has worked towards the legalization of the Skopje Archbishopric as the Ohrid Archbishopric since it has a history dating back to Emperor Justinian (6thc.). Bartholomew requested support and joint recognition of Skopje from the late Bulgarian Patriarch Maxim in 1992 but was refused, the reason cited being objections from the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). Bartholomew’s request was somewhat justified as Constantinople is the mother church of the Ohrid Archbishopric, although in its centuries of history it has had a strong Bulgarian presence. It was the second biggest, predominantly Bulgarian, church in the Middle Ages until the middle of the Ottoman era. From a geopolitical perspective, the request for autocephalous status is a move to take the church in FYROM out of the strong influence of Russia exercised through its friends in the former Yugoslav secret services. Due to the strong influence of the ROC, the Bulgarian interest in this matter has played no substantial role in recent years.
The issue of the Skopje and Belgrade Archbishoprics is similar to the question of the relationship between Russia and the Ukrainian church. If the schismatic Macedonian church becomes the Ohrid Archbishopric, which canonically is the second oldest after Cyprus, it would have the canonical right to be granted autocephalous status by Constantinople, and hence inconvenience the SOC. Bulgarian support was requested, because at the time of the Byzantine Emperor Basil Tzimiskes, it was guaranteed Autocephalous status as the Archbishopric of Ohrid and entire Bulgaria. In the following centuries, Bulgarian presence in these territories was strong, but the Archbishopric was also taken care of by Greek-speaking bishops. Only in the 14th century was it under Serbian influence, but that did not change the status of the church, and it continued to keep its status during the Ottoman era, until 17thc., worship being conducted in Bulgarian and Greek. In the 20th century it was taken over by the SOC (after the second Balkan War) and today it is the SOC that claims to be the mother church of the Macedonian Orthodox Church (MOC), i.e., the only authority that can grant autocephaly to MOC. However, Macedonian bishops are not doing anything to resolve the case – on the contrary, they allow the Serbian Synod to continue the conflict. They pretend to be the “ethnic church” of “Macedonians”. This questions their canonical status and causes fears in Greece and Bulgaria with regard to other territorial claims. An Orthodox church cannot be ethnic or national (at least according to canon and doctrine). We can draw a parallel between this “stagnancy” and the relations of these two countries to the EU. Even today we observe an extreme popularity of the Russian regime among the population of both and unwillingness for European integration. Unlike in Greece, here the popularity of the Russian regime is based not only on massive media coverage, but also an economic invasion.
The SOC operates in the territory of Montenegro and over the past two years it has been actively involved in the anti-NATO and anti-EU campaign in this country. After the attempted coup, however, in late October, its strong rhetoric has cooled down.
The elaborate scheme of a Russian general
For several years now, probably since the first government of Boyko Borissov, intrigues between Bulgarians, Greeks and Romanians have been put to work. The media eagerly promoted the image of the “lazy indebted Greek”. It was mainly promoted in the media under Russian influence and not by chance. In one of the recent scandals not only the participation of MPs from BSP and nationalist parties was uncovered, but there were media reports of the direct involvement of State Agency National Security in the matter. It was to do with the visit of the Ecumenical Patriarch to Sofia in October 2015. SANS itself was behind the infamous failed scheme to degrade the Ecumenical Patriarch, initiated after a malicious report by one of the members of the Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church – an unacceptable act of interference in church matters as neither should interfere in the other’s affairs, and of misleading Government officials – apparently a practice inherited from the time when most of the current bishops of our Orthodox Church were state Security agents. The case involved investigating a possible request by a Bulgarian citizen for worship in Greek language in several temples in the country once a month – a practice adopted not just around the world but also in most Balkan countries (Bulgaria being the only exception). The Agreement between the MFA and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of 1945 allows for such services in certain areas. The accusations made to the Patriarch were mostly that he had insulted the Bulgarian nation in his speech in the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, especially by discussing the schism of 1872. In fact, he was invited by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church to celebrate precisely the overthrowing of this schism. Apparently, the organizers had expected him to say otherwise, because the charges of insulting the Bulgarian people and the Bulgarian Patriarch do not correspond with the content of the Ecumenical Patriarch’s speech. In fact, they were identified only with positive epithets. This scandal, nonetheless, provided the BOC with the sufficient arguments to sabotage the Pan-Orthodox Council. Kalin Yanakiev forecast this in a television broadcast as early as November 2015. We may positively assume that the idea of the incident involving SANS was suggested by a third party benefitting from the worsening of relations between the Balkan countries members of EU and NATO. As far as it has crystallized in recent weeks, that third party was General Leonid Reshetnikov – Director of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, who personally resided in the country, and on occasions used his emissaries.
Relations between Romania, Bulgaria and Greece on target
Meanwhile, events involving Bulgaria, Greece and Romania, evolved in the backdrop of Putin’s visit to Athens a few days before the Council. There he stated that Romania was a target of Russian missiles. Our northern neighbours were disheartened by this announcement which was certainly targeting Greek-Romanian relations. Incidentally, although Patriarch Bartholomew had invited the Russian Patriarch and the official delegation during the month of September 2016 for the celebrations of 1000 years since the Russian presence on the Mount Athos peninsula, the Russians without his permission (although Mount Athos is in his diocese) came to the peninsula without an invitation from him, which brought confusion between the Greek State and the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Accordingly, Bartholomew did not appear to meet the guests, which caused the wrath of the pro-Russian media in the country.
Lets not forget the energy projects in the context of the sabotaging of the Council. In early 2016, Russian diplomacy got two very clear refusals by the Greek government. One concerned the plan for the pipeline “Turkish Stream”, which was designed to bypass Ukraine and Bulgaria. Russian Minister Novak was told in clear terms that there was no way to build a pipeline without abiding by the rules of the EC. Greece also refused to veto sanctions against Russia which certainly spited Moscow. Incidentally, no more than two weeks after this refusal, the Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church took its decision in April for the determination of other Christian denominations as “heretics” – an excuse for non-participation in the Council.
Despite tensions between Bulgaria and Greece, the agreement on the interconnectors was not ruined. Bulgaria can use these Greek storages for liquefied gas which are in construction to obtain LNG supplies from Egypt. Considering that the last three regular Bulgarian governments delayed this project funded and initiated by the EU, in parallel to which a number of provocations in Bulgarian-Greek relations took place most specifically on the Bulgarian side, it can be assumed that attempts of scheming to deteriorate relations between these countries are the result of the desire to counteract the loss of the Russian gas market in Bulgaria. The reverse interconnector happened only after unprecedented pressure from the European Commission in July last year to complete the project. Meanwhile, the EC postulated on October 1, 2016, a three-month deadline to complete the interconnector with Romania. This will enable a single gas market from the Mediterranean to Central Europe, which virtually eliminates the Russian monopoly in the area.
Along with attempts to manoeuvre these countries into position on energy projects it seems the Russian authorities also attempted to create a “spy scandal” between Bulgaria and Romania two years ago with the beating up of alleged “Romanian commandos” in northern Bulgaria. A similar effort to deteriorate bilateral relations could also be considered the blocking of the border at Kulata-Promahonas by agricultural producers from Seres in the winter of 2015-2016.
The sabotage of the council in Crete by the BOC was another episode in a series of intrigues between the Balkan countries. Serbia is an important ally of Moscow in the Balkans but was not assigned this task which was given to the BOC to cause negative developments between its Allies in the EU and NATO. On the other hand, given that Moscow is funding extreme Nazi groups in Greece and Bulgaria and is dominant in FYROM and Serbia and even supports plans for the secession of Republika Srpska from Bosnia and Herzegovina, the situation in the Balkans does not seem stable. The Orthodox Church will be used more extensively in the destabilization, promotion of populism and nationalism in the Balkans, mainly in Bulgaria, Serbia and FYROM. However, there is sobering up amongst members of the Greek church regarding the role played by Russia. We may only wonder why Bulgarian state institutions failed to prevent the Russian diplomatic intrigue involving the BOC. It is now a public secret that General Reshetnikov was going around the country before the scandal with the Ecumenical Patriarch, the canonization of Seraphim Sobolev in Sofia, the bringing of St. Luke’s relics (the Surgeon) from the Crimea without the permission of the authorities in Kiev and a number of other religious and political developments in Bulgaria aimed at undermining Bulgarian national interest.