The Serbian Orthodox Church and Extreme-Right Groups: A Marriage of Convenience or Organic Partnership?

By: Vesko Garčević

July 14, 2023

Among Orthodox Christians in Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) is the most trusted institution. It is more influential and powerful than any individual political figure and is often perceived as the authentic articulator of national interests and an institution that is beyond reproach. The SOC is not merely an instrument of soft power; it is an important node in a network spanning politics, traditional and social media, and academia within the broader Serbian World project created by Serbia in 2020 to replicate the Russian world on the Balkans soil.

It is, therefore, opportune for Serbian political actors, extreme-right groups even more so, to “play the church card” to bolster their legitimacy. By invoking the church’s narratives and ideology or using Orthodox imagery, the extreme-right movements aspire to enter mainstream politics, legitimize their activism, and become more impactful within the Serbian corpus. The church finds itself at the heart of the far-right world, even if it is not directly involved in its creation. However, since the beginning of the wars in the former Yugoslavia, the SOC has not shied away from publicly endorsing the views of extreme-right politicians. For example, Vojislav Šešelj—the war criminal convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY)—has been decorated by the SOC twice, the last time in September 2022.

This unique political and ideological bond rests on the shared perception of opponents and conservative social views that the church and right-wing nationalist groups share. For them, traditional values stand for conservative Orthodox values that are under “attack” by the West, the far left and liberals, globalism, LGBT activists, etc. If traditional Serbian extreme nationalist movements, like the Serbian Radical Party, did not make religion central to their political activism, a new generation of the far right, created after 2000, has taken significant strides to do so—often coating their political extremism with the Orthodox conservativism. This new generation is, more than ever before, exploiting a “spiritual” connection with Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). As the war in Ukraine unfolds, Serbian extreme nationalists have become adamant proponents of the Russian official propaganda while the SOC avoids condemning the Kremlin for the invasion of Ukraine. An example of this was Metropolitan of Montenegro and the Littoral Joanikije’s trip to Moscow in October 2022 to remind the host about the history of a religious brotherhood between the SOC and ROC.

Judged by their ideology and political activism, the Serbian extreme-right groups can be divided into four blocs: ultra-Orthodox conservatives, clerico-fascists, people’s far-right movements, and football hooligans.

The Serbian movement Dveri (Doorway), the most popular ultra-conservative faction, perceives itself as part of the growing Orthodox Christian right in Serbia and one that has endeavored to forge close links with the SOC. Influential conservative clerics within the church do not hesitate to provide rhetorical support to Obraz (Fatherland Movement Honor), which originated in the Orthodox Missionary School of the temple of Saint Alexander Nevsky in Belgrade. Obraz is classified by the Serbian police as Clerico-fascist since it builds on the conceptual traditions of the Serbian fascist movement Zbor from the 1930s and 1940s. Both Dveri and Obraz align closely with the ideology of “Saint Sava nationalism” (underpinning the idea that there should be a close symbiosis between church and state) and support for the clerical nationalism of former SOC Bishop Nikolaj Velimirović (1920-1956).

On the other hand, movements including the Ours, 1389, the People’s Patrol, the Russian Liberation Movement, and the Serbian Party Oathkeepers represent a toxic mix of the extreme Serbian nationalism and the Russian ideology of Eurasianism. The Ours advocate for a “Euro-Asian integration” whereby Belgrade, Saint Petersburg, Kyiv, and Alma Ata would be the capitals of a future “Euro-Asian Union.”

Some far-right groups, like Levijatan (“Leviathan”), may be disguised as Christian charity organizations or animal rights advocates. The Orthodox Brotherhood Pillars describe their mission as patriotic and humanitarian while operating with extreme-right iconography. The Braves, the infamously violent fans of the Red Star soccer club from Belgrade, also flirt with Orthodoxy and are often invited to participate in charitable events sponsored by the SOC.

In Montenegro specifically, the SOC is alleged to have links with groups such as Tvrdoš, Stupovi, Miholjski bor (the organization led by an SOC priest and “Red Beret”), and the Montenegrin chapter of Night Wolves, which was formed in September 2014. On February 27, 2002 , three days after the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the SOC organized a procession in Podgorica which was attended by numerous members of those groups. The SOC has also been at the forefront of supporting the activities of Russian organizations within Serbia or visiting the Western Balkans (WB). One of these organizations, the Balkan Cossack Army, was founded in Kotor in September 2016 in the Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the SOC has used its influence to mobilize Bosnian Serbs to support political elites that espouse explicitly nationalist aims. This has manifested itself in numerous ways, be it tacit support of Milorad Dodik’s secessionist rhetoric or the role the SOC played in the Bosnian entity Republika Srpska’s “statehood day” events (also a Serbian Orthodox holiday: St. Stephen’s Day). Serbian violent far-right groups are often visible in places known for crimes against Muslims. Some of them are formally registered as non-governmental organizations, or, like Saint Gregory Loncari, use humanitarianism as a cover. Only in the city of Prijedor, known for the Omarska and Trnpolje concentration camps, do several Serbian extreme-right organizations operate.

Some Russian-affiliated groups like the Night Wolves, the Balkans Cossack Army, and the Serbian Honor are allegedly recruiting Serbs to fight on the side of separatist pro-Russian groups in eastern Ukraine. As the newspaper Novaya Gazeta underscored in 2016, the Cossacks and Serbian volunteers, who fought in eastern Ukraine, are used by Russian secret services to carry out sensitive operations in the Balkans.

Extreme-right organizations, besides the movement Dveri, appear marginal. However, given their Orthodox-conservative narratives and pro-Russian attitude, silent or overt support of the SOC, and cooperation with powerful political parties, they have a relevant impact on the public sphere. Their ability to engage in racist, nationalist, and homophobic violence—which spans from interrupting film screenings and beating or launching racist slurs at Roma, Muslims, Albanians, or migrants from the Middle East to volunteering in Eastern Ukraine—stems from the permissive attitude of Serbian courts with trials that often end in acquittals or lenient rulings for the perpetrators. In Montenegro, for example, the interior ministry banned the extreme nationalist Chetnik movement, but prohibition did not eradicate the network, and they have just gone underground.

While the rise of violent extremism in the WB remained almost unnoticed by the U.S. administration, the European Union (EU) has recently become more concerned with the phenomenon. The European Commission sponsored a study about violent right-wing extremism in the WB. The European Parliament has twice, in 2022 and 2023, expressed dismay at the role of Serbia and the SOC in promoting Russian interests in the region. With Russian narratives already dominating the regional mediascape and public sphere, this kind of unconstrained ultra-nationalism and right-wing radicalism coupled with history revisionism and genocide denial calls for a more systematic, resolute, and coordinated reaction of the United States and EU.

Editor’s Note: This publication was written as part of the Geopolitics of Religious Soft Power project, a research initiative of Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. This article arises from a partnership between the project and the United States Institute of Peace focused on understanding how the geopolitics of religion shapes peace and conflict dynamics in particular regional and country settings. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the respective author(s).

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