Church and State: Belarus and Montenegro in Comparative Perspective

By: Davor Džalto

September 15, 2020

Orthodoxy in the Belarus Protests

The world of Orthodox Christianity has been anything but boring over the past couple of years. The political-ecclesiastical project of building a new (autocephalous) church in Ukraine and the involvement of other states and local Orthodox churches in that matter was just the most visible of a series of crises and upheavals within different countries in which Orthodoxy has been the dominant and traditional faith. At the moment, both Belarus and Montenegro are facing serious, but potentially transformative, crises.

These two countries are similar to one another in two important respects: In both, Orthodoxy is the traditional faith, and both have been governed by a supreme political figure for nearly three decades. This is where the apparent similarities stop and the differences begin. 

Belarus has been a loyal ally of Russia. Montenegro is a NATO member and a candidate for joining the EU. It is, therefore, not difficult to see why the mainstream media in the West often reports on President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus as the “last dictator of Europe” and the oppressive state apparatus in the country. But little, if anything, can be seen or heard about the Montenegrin leadership, which locals often describe both as autocracy and a mafia-style of rule.

This, of course, should not come as a surprise to anybody who knows something about international politics. Traditionally, the Western centers of economic and political power have preferred to deal with dictatorships or mafia-style systems over functioning democracies—as long as dictators or godfathers are “constructive” and provide “stability,” meaning (to decode the technical language) as long as they obediently follow the economic and political agendas of the hegemon. 

The massive protests in Belarus, and the state violence which came as a response, were triggered by what appears to be the fake results of the recently held presidential elections. The Orthodox Church in Belarus did not have a uniform response. While the church leadership preferred to either stay “neutral” (which, under the circumstances, amounts to silent support) or openly support the government, some bishops and many priests became very vocal in their anti-government position and supported the protests. This is important, as it clearly shows that even in very oppressive and autocratic regimes such as Belarus, a plurality of voices and positions can be found even within such conservative institutions, traditionally loyal to the government.

Lukashenko’s statement that “people are supposed to go to churches to pray” and that “churches are not for politics” is an interesting one. 

In traditional Orthodox contexts, there is very often the idea that church-state relations should be “harmonious” or “symphonic,” mirroring (imagined) medieval prototypes. It is worth remembering, however, that close ties between church and state in the modern period—to the point of a complete absorption of the church by the state (turning it into a “department” of the state, for example)—are much more typical of countries where Protestantism has been the dominant religion than in Orthodox countries. Lukashenko’s statement is interesting insofar as it reveals how power structures, both in the state and in the church, see the role of the church. 

Everytime state power structures are unhappy about the way the church leadership reacts in regard to particular issues, they call the church to stick to the strictly “religious” sphere: attending to prayers and services, not interfering with politics. What is remarkable is that this general attitude, of which Lukashenko’s statement represents the most recent case, is virtually indistinguishable from many “progressive,” pro-Western, pro-EU, or pro-NATO voices across Southern and Eastern European countries, who reject any involvement by the Orthodox Church in politics or in the public sphere. These voices do so under the pretext that there is something inherently retrograde about Orthodoxy, something which is incompatible with “democratic values” (which only repeats a more generally held prejudice, feeding many Western political and academic discourses as well). 

Lukashenko’s remark also points to the opposite situation, also very well known in societies with one dominant religious tradition: Whenever the church supports traditional, national (even nationalistic) narratives or governments, the politicians show their favor to the church and praise it as an important national institution. Is this a paradox? Not really. Power structures will gladly embrace whatever is useful to them to sustain, legitimize, or expand their power, just as they will reject, condemn, and suppress anything that questions or seeks to delegitimize their power. 

The situation in Montenegro is different from the current crisis in Belarus. The turmoil there started last year with the controversial “Law on the Freedom of Religion,” which was perceived as specifically targeting the Orthodox Church in Montenegro and threatening it with the confiscation of church property (for more on this topic, see “Church and State in Montenegro: Between National(istic) and Imperial Policies”). This provoked massive protests that were led by the church and which involved the entire church leadership, its priests, and laypeople. It was reported that even many non-Orthodox and non-Christian citizens of Montenegro joined the protests, to demonstrate against what they perceived to be an injustice and an attempt by the government to discipline the “disloyal” church. The response from the state was harsh (although not as harsh as in Belarus), and the protestors faced physical violence and imprisonment. 

It is against the background of these protests that one should look at the parliamentary elections that took place in Montenegro on August 30, 2020. The massive protests against the new law (interrupted only because of the COVID-19 crisis) turned into a broad anti-government movement, which, for the first time since the breakup of Yugoslavia, challenged the political leadership of the country and its almost absolute hold on power. The church openly called people to vote against the ruling party and its leadership. The result was that the ruling party of President Milo Dukanovic has lost its preeminent position for the first time since 1991. It is very likely that the new government will be formed by opposition parties. What is especially significant is that the anti-government coalition of the opposition parties is made up of both the “pro-church” opposition, with close ties to the leadership of the Orthodox Church in Montenegro, and the “Black on White” coalition led by a young leader who belongs to the Albanian minority community.

The moral of the story: Religion and religious institutions are still, potentially at least, important social and political factors—not always for the better, often for the worse, but sometimes also for the best.

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