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Fw: Religion in Russia's Foreign Policy

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  • Nina Tkachuk Dimas
         http://www.neweasterneurope.eu/node/897 Religion in Russia s Foreign Policy Author: Alicja Curanović This is a shortened version of an essay
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 4, 2013


      Religion in Russia's Foreign Policy

      Alicja Curanović
      This is a shortened version of an essay
      originally appearing in New Eastern Europe Issue 3(VIII)/2013
      “Why Culture Matters”. For the full article please see
      the print edition here.  http://www.neweasterneurope.eu/current

      Religious diplomacy allows a
      state to use certain aspects of religion and religious symbols in international
      affairs. The instrumentalisation of religion for political aims has a long and
      rich tradition in Russia, which is evidenced in Russia’s foreign policy

      In April 2012 a scandal broke
      out surrounding a photo of the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church – Patriarch
      Kirill – wearing a gold Swiss Breguet watch worth 30,000 dollars. The Church had
      altered the photograph using Photoshop in an attempt to hide this luxurious
      accessory, until some sharp-eyed bloggers were quick to point out the reflection
      on the table, sparking a public debate about the role of the Church and its
      influence in the public sphere.

      Contrary to feelings which may
      arise as a result of news collected by the Russian media, the significance of
      the Patriarchate of Moscow in the Russian public sphere should not be reduced to
      the luxuries of its leader, nor this 30,000-dollar watch. Nor should it be
      reduced to the Pussy Riot issue or even the declaration of commitment to the
      Orthodox Church by key Russian politicians, including Vladimir Putin and Dmitry
      Let’s be partners
      The growing activity of the
      Orthodox Church is a part of a wider phenomenon – beginning with the mid-1990s
      rapprochement between the state and selected religious institutions in Russia,
      and the majority of the former Soviet republics. Gradually, cooperation
      mechanisms (called social partnership) were created in the public sphere,
      primarily in education and welfare. This social partnership was meant to give a
      stronger role to Russia’s “traditional” religions – those religious institutions
      granted a privileged status by the authorities in Russia: the Orthodox Church
      (represented by the Russian Orthodox Church – ROC), Islam, Buddhism (only the
      Gelug school) and Judaism. The intensity of cooperation of the Kremlin with a
      given “traditional” religion depends on the number of its followers. Therefore,
      the Russian Orthodox Church (41 per cent of Russians) holds the most powerful
      position; while Muslim institutions, the muftiates (6.5 per cent), Buddhists
      living mostly in Buryatia and Kalmykia (0.5 per cent), and Jewish organisations
      play a much smaller role.

      This trend of the growing
      presence of the Russian Orthodox Church in the state has led researchers such as
      Sergey Filatov and Dmitry Furman to write about the phenomenon of the
      politicisation of religion or even the “orthodoxisation” of the public sphere in
      Russia. The dominance of one religious tradition is not only undesirable but
      also dangerous for the multi-ethnic and multi-faith state, struggling with
      growing xenophobia and going through a national identity crisis. However, it
      should be admitted that so far, the Kremlin has been pulling all the strings
      regarding the conditions of participation of “traditional” religions in public
      life, and basically controlling the scope of this potential orthodoxisation.
      Roots of Russian religious
      Religious diplomacy is made up
      of a set of mechanisms which allows a state to use aspects of religion, such as
      ideas, slogans, symbols and even religious organisations in international
      affairs. The instrumentalisation of religion for political aims has a long and
      rich tradition in Russia. As a result of reforms by Peter the Great, the clergy
      was de facto transformed into civil servants educated at public
      universities and paid salaries by the state. In return they were obliged to
      serve Russia. The clergy would take the oath of loyalty to the tsar and
      religious institutions were assigned specific targets, for example, cultural
      assimilation of conquered territories. The significance of the Russian Orthodox
      Church in this field is plainly visible by the absorption of a separate Kyiv
      metropolis by ROC structures, and the elimination of the Uniate Church.

      This facilitated the
      strengthening of Russian influence throughout the region. A similar tactic was
      applied in the case of orthodoxy in Georgia. Several years after its annexation
      in 1801, the autocephaly of that Orthodox Church was eliminated. During the
      second half of the 18th century, Russian rulers would more often activate the
      Muslim minority in politics. An ukaz (an imperial imposition) from 1773
      prohibited the Orthodox Church from interfering in internal affairs of Islamic
      communities. Hence, cooperation with the authorities was perceived by Muslims as
      a chance to gain some autonomy from the Church. Among the followers of Islam,
      Tatars were the most loyal, and were often used for persuading fellow believers
      from Central Asia to the benefits resulting from being subjects of the Russian

      The activities of the Russian
      Orthodox Church outside the empire facilitated the creation of a positive image
      of Russia (for instance, as a defender of the nations of the Orthodox Church),
      as well as broadening its influence. Additionally, the clergy carried out
      diplomatic activities and became messengers for the rulers in Moscow. Missionary
      centres became places that would strengthen the Russian presence in a given
      region. The rulers would acquire property for the Church and facilitate the
      promotion of a positive image and create a system of precious contacts, in
      countries such as China, Japan, North America and the Middle East. It must be
      strongly emphasised that the religious aspect was a tool used by Russian rulers
      for the realisation of pragmatically defined interests. An example of such
      behaviour might be the wars with Turkey, which were justified by the need to
      protect Orthodoxy. On the other hand, Russia supported Turkey twice in the 1830s
      against the Egyptian Mamluks.

      During the 20th century, the
      Soviet Union also took advantage of the Russian tradition of religious
      diplomacy, despite conducting forceful atheisation inside the country. It is no
      coincidence that under the Soviet Union, the Department for External Affairs was
      established in the Patriarchate of Moscow in 1946. This department contributed
      to the development and professionalisation of the Orthodox Church’s diplomacy.
      The Soviet Union would use the Church for propaganda purposes (it claimed that
      the Soviet Union was a state respecting religious freedom), and as an additional
      informal diplomatic channel including relations with other Orthodox countries,
      primarily with NATO member Greece and Middle Eastern countries. The ROC’s
      activity in international religious circles (including the World Council of
      Churches) was also vital for the Soviet Union.

      In the rapprochement of the
      state with the “traditional” religions, which took place after the fall of the
      Soviet Union, both parties expected mutual benefits. Boris Yeltsin, struggling
      with the State Duma opposition, wished to improve his image and strengthen
      legitimacy with the support of institutions that had social trust. Likewise, the
      traditional religions sought state support as they faced the growing activity of
      non-traditional religious movements (for example, Pentecostals and Jehovah
      Witnesses). This was the origins of the social partnership, while a key moment
      in the development of Russia’s contemporary religious diplomacy took place in
      2003, when Patriarch Alexey II paid a visit to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
      Following that meeting, a joint Church and foreign affairs working group was
      established, which continues to meet regularly even today (Foreign Minister
      Sergey Lavrov has been an outspoken advocate of strengthening ties between the
      Russian Orthodox Church and diplomacy, as well as using the Orthodox Church in
      Russian foreign policy).
      The potential of Russia’s
      religious diplomacy
      The instrumentalisation of
      religion for political reasons is not specific to Russia. It is a universal
      phenomenon. Nevertheless, the Russian case deserves special attention for three
      reasons: first, the rich Russian tradition of using religion in promoting its
      image abroad; second, the wide-ranging potential of Russian diplomacy; and
      third, the presence of religious institutions capable of conducting their
      activities outside the country. It is this third reason that determines the
      state’s ability to perform religious diplomacy. The transnational potential of
      the Russian Orthodox Church is significant. The canonical territory of the
      Church (i.e. the territory over which jurisdiction is exercised) spreads over
      the entire post-Soviet area – except for Georgia and Armenia; and the Church has
      a physical presence on all inhabited continents.

      In the context of Russian
      religious diplomacy, it is crucial that the Orthodox Church, unlike the Catholic
      Church, is not subject to any non-Russian structure. There is no Orthodox
      equivalent of the Vatican; the ROC is therefore independent in its international
      activity. The Patriarchate of Moscow participates in international
      organisations, including the UN, the Council of Europe, the OSCE, and UNESCO.
      The Church is effective thanks to support from Russian diplomacy. Joint lobbying
      of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the ROC led to tangible results in the
      form of a consultative group named “Dialogue and Peace of Cultures” under the
      auspices of UNESCO, created in 2009, with a mandate to bring together
      representatives of world religions.

      No other “traditional” religion
      of the Russian Federation may claim international activities on the level as
      that of the Orthodox Church. Such a significant advantage of the ROC in the
      international arena makes it a dominant force in Russian religious diplomacy.
      Nevertheless, the muftiates’ efforts to build their transnational potential
      (taking their inspiration from the ROC) should not be overlooked. The biggest
      progress has been made by the clergy of the Russian Council of Muftis (RCM),
      especially Ravil Gaynutdin, the Grand Mufti of Russia, who aims to represent the
      whole of the Russian ummah (the nation of Russian Muslims) globally.
      Thus, in order to professionalise its activities the Russian Council of Muftis
      established its own Department of International Relations.

      Functions of religious
      It is the Orthodox Church,
      however, that has the image of being a specific representative of the Russian
      authorities, which plays the largest role in Russian diplomacy. But the starting
      point of religious diplomacy is not faith, but rather national interests. In
      Russia, the religious aspect is used for strengthening cultural sovereignty and
      religious security. It is also understood as the state’s ability to maintain
      cultural “resistance” towards foreign influence from both the West, and the East
      or South (i.e. Islamic extremism). The religious factor also plays a role when
      designating a zone of Russia’s cultural influence, more and more often called russkiy mir.

      Outside the territory of the
      Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), religious diplomacy seeks to
      strengthen Russian soft power through the promotion of a positive image of
      Russia and its new international identity – promoting the image of the Russian
      Federation as an incarnation of Russian civilisation that for hundreds of years
      has been an example of a peaceful coexistence among different religions for
      centuries. The image also argues that Russia is the country that can prevent the
      fulfilment of Samuel Huntington’s vision regarding the clash of civilisations,
      as well as a country which for centuries has been a stabilising and balancing
      the global order.

      Religious diplomacy is also
      used by Moscow in relations with Muslim countries. Following the footsteps of
      the Kremlin, the Russian Orthodox Church maintains good relationships with Iran,
      Syria, Lebanon and Palestinian Hamas; whereas Russian muftis focus on building
      cooperation with states that symbolise so-called moderate Islam (Turkey,
      Malaysia and Indonesia). A joint success of Russian diplomats, muftis, and the
      Orthodox Church has been Russia gaining observer status at the Organization of
      the Islamic Conference (now known as the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation,

      Religious diplomacy is an
      effective instrument of the Kremlin’s policy, particularly in the post-Soviet
      area. It is in line with the concept of Russia’s “near abroad”, and assumes
      strengthening the Russian presence, for instance through maintaining the
      dominance of Russian culture, easing religious tensions and fighting religious
      extremism. A priority of the joint projects of the Russian ministry of foreign
      affairs and the Orthodox Church is the integration of the Russian diaspora and
      keeping them in touch with the homeland. The flagship initiative of the Church
      and state diplomacy is the Russkiy Mir Foundation, established in 2007, which
      supports projects that promote Russian culture, “values and spiritual

      Another important part of the
      Church's activities in the CIS, especially since Kirill became patriarch in
      2009, has been emphasising the role of the Russian Orthodox Church as a trustee
      of the legacy shared by all post-Soviet nations. It is the depositary of shared
      memory concerning the glory (victory in the Second World War), as well as that
      relating to persecutions by the Soviet authorities. A good example is the
      attitude of the Patriarchate of Moscow towards Holodomor (the Ukrainian famine
      of 1932-1933), a subject which strongly separates Kyiv and Moscow. The Orthodox
      Church honours the memory of the Ukrainian famine victims but places it in the
      wider framework of sufferings which include other nations from different parts
      of the Soviet Union such as the Volga Region, Siberia, and Kazakhstan. In this
      way, the ROC avoids classifying Holodomor as a Bolshevik genocide of the
      Ukrainian nation, but acts as a patron of the all post-Soviet nations – forming
      a kind of “fellowship of suffering peoples”.
      Can the altar influence the
      Despite religion being a tool
      in Russian diplomacy, it does not necessarily indicate that religious
      institutions are being forced to cooperate with the state. “Traditional” Russian
      religions perceive supporting the state as their obligation. This attitude is
      strongest within the Orthodox Church whose opinions are strikingly parallel to
      Kremlin policy. Both the state and the Church share the same view on the
      post-Soviet space (the near-abroad equals canonical territory), identity and
      Russia’s role (a separate civilisation supporting dialogue among cultures), a
      desirable international order (multi-polarity), potential alliances (strategic
      partnership with China and India), as well as sources of threat (US domination
      and westernisation).

      Support for the Church by the
      Russian authorities, on the other hand, does not change the fact that it is the
      state that is the dominant party in foreign policy. In the latest official
      policy (the “Concept of the Russian Federation’s Foreign Policy”) published in
      February 2013, there are several phrases which could indicate the impact of the
      Orthodox Church on Russian foreign policy discourse. The policy concept provides
      specific examples of how the Russian Orthodox Church, as well as other main
      religions, play a role in Russia’s foreign affairs. The authors state that the
      Church can help “facilitate dialogue and partnership between cultures, religions
      and civilisations” and “support relevant initiatives”.

      Explicitly mentioning the
      Russian Orthodox Church in the official policy document strengthens the Church’s
      image as an institution closely cooperating with the Kremlin. In the context of
      religious diplomacy, however, the most striking is the following phrase: “A true
      consolidation of efforts of the international community requires a set of common
      values as a foundation for joint action, a common moral denominator, which major
      world religions have always shared, including such principles and concepts as
      the pursuit of peace and justice, dignity, freedom and responsibility, honesty,
      compassion and work ethic.” Combining common values with the teachings of world
      religions might be explained by the fact that the Kremlin has copied the
      rhetoric of the Church and included it in its foreign policy

      The long view
      This explicit approach,
      however, will make the use of religion as a foreign policy tool more complex in
      the long run. It may in fact weaken the pragmatism as well as the effectiveness
      of Russian religious diplomacy. The lack of the Kremlin’s flexibility thus far
      in its policy concerning Syria is an indication of the growing impact of the
      Church not only in the Russian ministry of foreign affairs but among political
      elites in general. There are numerous factors that might explain the Kremlin’s
      approach to Syria. Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Endowment for International
      Peace believes, however, that one of the reasons behind the Russian position on
      Syria is the Russian Orthodox Church. The Church perceives Bashir Assad as an
      assurance of safety of the Christians living in Syria. Since the US intervention
      in Iraq in 2003, the Patriarchate of Moscow has been trying to convince the
      Russian authorities to play a greater role as protector of Christians living in
      the Middle East (in Syria’s case, Sergey Lavrov has already demanded security
      guarantees for Christians several times).

      Thus, it really is not about
      the Patriarch Kirill's 30,000-dollar Swiss watch. The watch is a mere
      triviality. Religion in contemporary Russian politics is deeply rooted in
      centuries of Russian politics. What’s more, religion touches on the foundations
      of Russian policy: identity, security, stability and development. Understanding
      its role in both Russian domestic and, in particular, foreign affairs will help
      better understand the motivations and rationality behind Russian diplomacy –
      which can sometimes be extremely hard to decipher.
      Translated by Justyna
      Alicja Curanović, PhD,
      is an assistant professor with the Institute of International Relations at the
      University of Warsaw.

      [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
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