Securing the high ground – the Serbian Orthodox Church’s new political reality

In May 2022, newly elected patriarch Porfirije (Perić, 1961-) of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) arrived in Skopje, the Macedonian capital, to announce the return of the Macedonian Church to the ranks of the canonical accepted Orthodox Churches. This announcement and the deal behind it came swiftly and with little to no resistance from the other Orthodox churches and Orthodox communities. It solved an almost 50-year conflict and paved the way for a new strong alliance between Skopje and Belgrade. 

The deal raises the question of why now and why so swiftly. In my view, there are several changes in the external geopolitical context, as well as the internal political composition of the SOC, which allowed for this deal to come about. The war in Ukraine and its continual ecclesial consequences, combined with dark clouds over both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, make the Macedonian issue a pressing one for the SOC. Internally, the new composition of the SOC synod and the leadership of patriarch Porfirije created a new political reality that has allowed SOC to act on the issue. In the following, I will expand on these changes in detail. 

The Internal Shift in the SOC

In 2020, during the height of the pandemic, thousands of believers and the SOC church hierarchy gathered in the Montenegrin capital to give the former metropolitan of Montenegro, Amfilohije (Radovic 1938-2020), a final kiss of goodbye. However, this event and others led to widespread covid-19 amongst the church hierarchy, where several church leaders, including the patriarch, passed away. The current SOC synod in 2022 therefore consists of church hierarchs, who have all changed position and have been ‘promoted’ in the last 1-2 years. Looking more closely at the list of bishops and metropolitans of the SOC, this change is much more profound, with significant changes to the leadership of most parts of the church. Therefore, the SOC leadership has completely changed in just two years. Most notable is the death of the former Patriarch Irinej (b. 1930, patriarch since 2010, d.2020) and metropolitan Amfilohije in 2020. Their departure marked the end of a significant change in SOC leadership since Irinej was elected in 2010. Patriarch Irinej had ended Bishop Artemije of Raska-Prizren in his official tenure in Kosovo. Bishop Artemije, Metropolitan Amfilohije, and a few other church hierarchs have been the hawks of the SOC for decades, according to the Serbian journalist Milorad Tomanić, analysis in his much-acclaimed book, The Serbian church in war and war within the church (Srpska Crkva u ratu I Ratovi u Njoj). Patriarch Irinej was a middle-of-the-road patriarch who did have the strength to refocus the church after the wars of the 1990s. Only Metropolitan Amfilohije held onto power and continued to influence politics in Bosnia, Kosovo, and, in this context, most importantly, Macedonia. The former ‘hawks,’ as Tomanić calls them, were a roadblock to establishing a connection between the SOC and the Macedonians. 

A crucial example of this was a failed deal between the SOC and the Macedonian Church in 2001. It failed due to the issue of the name of the Macedonian church. In the aftermath of this failed agreement, a minor group of clergy and a bishop of the Macedonian Church, Jovan (Vraniškovski), tried to establish an autonomous Orthodox church in Macedonia under the auspices of the SOC. This breakaway group was named the Ohrid Archbishopric. The state and the Macedonian church severely pressed them. Its leader was imprisoned and dubious criminal charges were raised against him. It was amongst other metropolitan Amfilohije that supported this Ohrid church. The dire situation of the Ohrid church became a crucial reason for the end of any further discussion between Belgrade and Skopje from 2001 onward. The Macedonian, therefore, tried to turn to Sofia and the Bulgarian church during the last decades, which led to no significant changes partly because the Bulgarians also claimed to be the sole heir to the historical Ohrid church – and therefore largely refused any historical and theological claim to legitimacy that the Macedonian have. Perhaps at this point, the complexity of the Macedonian issue is most apparent. Unlike Ukraine or Montenegro, the Macedonian church was not locked in a conflict with another Orthodox church, which claimed its lands as a constituent part. It is instead a whole series of foreign claims. The Greeks refuse the Macedonian Slavs their name and right to an independent church. The Bulgarians claim the heritage of Ohrid and have ever so often, with military force, claimed Macedonia as Bulgar lands in the 20th century. The same goes for the SOC, who made the Macedonian Orthodox communities part of the Belgrade Patriarchy after the Balkan wars. Ohrid, the historical heart of Macedonian Orthodoxy, became a Serbian bishopric for most of the 20th century. The renowned (albeit debated) bishop Nikolaj Velmirovich resided in Macedonia, where his famous text, Prayers at the lake, took Macedonia into the spiritual landscape of the SOC. In other words, the Macedonian ecclesial debate is a multipole one with too many actors and organizations with various agendas and claims.  

Despite all this, the change in the SOC leadership opened up a less confrontational approach to the Macedonians. First, the SOC already faces several issues in neighboring countries, and perhaps its leadership has assessed that one less front to fight against would be wise. Second, there seems to have been some coordination, timing, or at least understanding between Constantinople and Belgrade. This timing provided grounds for SOC to deal with Macedonia in their way and without any serious involvement of the Greek (namely the Archbishop of Athens) and Bulgarian church. 

The Geo-Political Shades

One thing is the internal shift in the SOC’s leadership and perhaps diplomatic prowess, and another is the geopolitical context. In the Serbian part of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Republika Srpska, rumors of confrontation and military build-up have streamed out since early 2021. Likewise, the situation in Kosovo has not changed for the better and turned ever so bleak during the recent flare-up over the summer about license plates (and ultimately control over the Serbian group in Kosovo). In both Bosnia and Kosovo, the SOC is under pressure and needs to maintain some control. This requires allies. The SOC sees that the world community needs to be convinced to protect the key sites and monasteries of the SOC. A recent heated conflict over a road at the historic Decani monastery in Kosovo showed that the SOC must rely on the support of the UN and NATO if it needs to stand against a less-than-enthusiastic Kosovo regime. The SOC cannot therefore afford to lose any allies. It instead needs to gain their support. This might also explain why the SOC had made such an effort to balance between the West and Russia on the issue of Ukraine. I might have expected more outspoken support for Moscow due to the long historical ties. This never happened, which could again be due to the internal political shift in the SOC leadership. Looking back on the confrontation over Crimea in 2014, SOC, mainly Metropolitan Amfilohije, responded warmly to Russian claims and endorsed the narratives. The same level of support has not been present this time.  

However, Ukraine is not just a tragedy, but indirectly warns SOC of what could happen outside of Serbia’s national territory. The Russian church’s loss of control in Ukraine is not something the SOC wants to repeat in Kosovo, Montenegro or Bosnia. Such a scenario and loss of influence is at present no real danger. Any possible conflict in southern Europe, such as in the Republica Srpska in Bosnia or Kosovo, could turn the tables and threaten the power and position of the SOC, particularly if the church had locked itself too much in a regime or hierarchy in Moscow.  

This is, in my opinion, the reason for the push for a swift deal in Macedonia and an indirect term of agreement over Macedonia with Constantinople. The deal secured a new ally, the Macedonian church (formally the new Ohrid Archbishopric), and improved relations with Constantinople. More than ever, the SOC has far-reaching support for its position in Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Montenegro. SOC used this position over the summer to secure a very privileged position in Montenegro and close off that theater of conflict as well. The SOC has been at its strongest since the end of the chaotic years following the dissolution of former Yugoslavia. Perhaps it has now found a more habitable position. SOC is also one of the few churches that still maintain relatively good relations with both Moscow and Constantinople, which it might need for the future. 

Leave a Reply