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The EU's Eastern Partnership God problem

Adam Hug / Nov 2015

Church fresco in Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The relationship between church and state is far from uniform across the EU, from France’s rigid separation, to Britain’s official church and public apathy, the tradition of Christian Democracy in Western Europe and the growing religious influence in the politics of member states in Eastern Europe. In few countries however, has the transition of the church from bit-player to centre stage been as marked as in the former Soviet Union.

A new Foreign Policy Centre publication looking at the political, cultural and social role of the Orthodox Church in Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine and Moldova shows how influential the churches have become and why the EU ignores their influence at its peril.

Take Georgia, seen by some as the pro-Western poster child of Eastern Partnership. The church now plays a hugely influential role in the political and cultural life of the country, having helped rebuild Georgian national identity after the years of Russian and Soviet domination. It has been more than outspoken in its opposition to Georgia’s LGBTI Community, leading riots against human rights activists supporting LGBTI rights, while slamming EU-backed anti-discrimination legislation.

The Church also played an important part in building support for the Georgian Dream coalition that took power in 2012, replacing the stridently pro-Western Saakashvili government with a broader and less coherent mix of conservatives and reformers. Although keen to cultivate better relations with Russia to counteract the West’s cultural impact, the Georgian Church’s priority remains cementing its position of dominance in Georgia rather than bringing the country back under Russia’s embrace. EU Commissioners have had to woo the beloved but reactionary Patriarch Ilia II, to reassure him that the EU doesn’t make gay marriage a requirement for closer ties.

With Moldova’s political future hanging in the balance following the collapse of the latest pro-European coalition, the church may soon get an opportunity to help persuade the country to take a different course. Part of the Russian Orthodox Church, it has traditionally been closer to the pro-Russian opposition, not always with political success, particularly since the previous Communist government actively supported the church as a way of reinforcing Moldovan rather than Romanian identity in the early 2000s.

As in Georgia, the Moldovan Church and affiliated orthodox social groups have actively opposed the anti-discrimination laws required as part of the EU Association agreement, though recent lobbying by EU officials and the current government had muted some of the anti-European rhetoric from the church in the last few years. However, the current travails of the government may provide the Church with another chance to nudge Moldova in a more social conservative, pro-Russian direction.

The Russian church and state have been actively pushing similar ideas about ‘traditional values’ as part of their approach to the ‘Russian World’ - their conception of cultural ties that bind the states of the former Soviet Union as they seek to woo them back from EU and Western influence. Whether through Russian Church-owned satellite TV channels, online, or through direct links between clergies, the Russian love-bombing of the countries in its near-abroad has been intensive. The shared orthodox faith and current hostility to LGBTI rights, as part of a wider cultural conservatism, provide important wedge issues where the Russian perspective is more in-tune with public sentiments than the EU, given that the Russian option can struggle to compete for public support on other economic and lifestyle issues.

Where the ties between the Russian church and state are proving particularly unhelpful is in Ukraine, where the traditionally dominant Ukrainian Orthodox Church- Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) is coming under huge pressure due to its status as part of the Russian Orthodox Church at this time of war. Members of the UOC-MP have been documented supporting separatist fighters and have also been accused of collaboration with Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

The rival Ukrainian Orthodox Church- Kiev Patriarchate was an enthusiastic supporter of the Maidan protests and is currently wrapping itself in the flag with patriotic support for the authorities in the fight against the separatists which has seen it surge in popularity with new ambitions of cementing its dominance as Ukraine’s national church. The religious divide mirrors and reinforces the political and social divides in the country, with faith and politics providing mutual support in helping to shape a more anti-Russian, and to some extent more pro-Western outlook for Ukraine. 

With the Georgian and Moldovan Orthodox churches and the UOC-KP the most trusted institutions in their countries, what they think matters politically and it is a dimension that the EU will increasingly have to factor into its Eastern Partnership thinking. It needs to find a way both to continue to support social reform and local human rights NGOs, while reassuring believers that EU integration does not necessarily lead to the marginalisation of religion. If the EU is unable to do this the Churches, as powerful political actors, will increase the pressure against European integration to defend their recently won status in their societies.

Adam Hug

Adam Hug

November 2015

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