How does Putin use Orthodox Church in international politics?


Religious studies scholar Kristina Stoekl on controversial resolution of Europarliament

by Kristina Stoekl

Vedomosti (Moscow), 29 November 2016


On 23 November the parliament of the European Union adopted a resolution "EU strategic communication to counteract anti-EU propaganda by third parties." In the eighth paragraph of the resolution, the lawmakers, not without condemnation, declare: "the Russian Government is employing a wide range of tools and instruments, such as think tanks and special foundations (e.g. Russkiy Mir), special authorities (Rossotrudnichestvo), multilingual TV stations (e.g. RT), pseudo news agencies and multimedia services (e.g. Sputnik), cross-border social and religious groups, as the regime wants to present itself as the only defender of traditional Christian values, social media and internet trolls to challenge democratic values, divide Europe, gather domestic support and create the perception of failed states in the EU’s eastern neighbourhood." The resolution was approved by 304 votes; 179 deputies voted against; and 208 abstained.  [Official English language text of resolution is used here--tr.]

The authors of the resolution twice refer to the topic of religion. First, accusing the government of Russia that it "uses cross-border social and religious groups, as the regime wants to present itself as the only defender of traditional Christian values." Second, in the context of condemning the "information war of ISIL (an organization that is prohibited in Russia), disinformation and radicalization of its methods" with the goal of facilitating the promotion"of the political, religious, and social" goals of ISIL, and also hatred and violence. Thus, religion in this text is something just a little bit more than one of the instruments in the propaganda arsenal of those forces that treat liberal democracy with hostility. It is difficult to imagine that the initiator of the resolution, a Polish deputy from the group of European Conservatives and Reformers and a member of the ruling Polish party "Law and Justice," Anna Fotyga, had in mind such a secular view of religion when proposing this resolution.


The assertion that the government of Russia uses or even pays for the work of "cross-border social and religious groups," since it "wants to present itself as the only defender of traditional Christian values," should be examined in more detail. About which cross-border social and religious groups is it speaking? What kind of representation about the independence or, on the contrary, the dependence of religious organizations is the resolution expressing?


As a scholar who has already been studying for several years the participation of Russia in the competition of various systems of values on the international level, I can make the well founded assumption about just which groups are being subjected to criticism. First, there are the Russian news media specifically focused on the Orthodox tradition and expressing imperialist views, such as the television channel "Tsargrad," which, for example, reported that the visit of Vladimir Putin to the holy mount Athos in May of this year was a kind of ascension to the throne of the head of the Christian world, since in the past, before Putin, only Byzantine emperors took their seat on this throne. Second, there are Russian partners of such nongovernmental organizations as the World Congress of Families. Within the framework of this congress, activists from protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox pro-life movements are united and coordinate their efforts for the protection "of the traditional family" and struggle against same-sex marriages, juvenile justice, and others, as they suppose, ailments of secular liberal society. To what extent does the suggestion that the government of Russia "hires" and uses these and other groups and organizations as instruments of its arsenal of propaganda means correspond to reality? And to what extent is this assertion the result of a mistaken sociological and historical analysis?


In the Soviet Union, religious diplomacy was to a great extent an instrument of soviet propaganda, when representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church expounded a lot on such topics far from religious life as, for example, the neutron bomb, in order to support the leading position of the soviet leadership in the struggle for peace in the international arena. There are not any doubts that the current government of Russia directly supports "the defense of traditional values" in the capacity of an ideological platform for justifying authoritarianism in domestic policy and antiliberalism in the international arena. And nevertheless to use the argument that today, as in the past, religious leaders are in the service of the almighty Russian state which hires them for accomplishing their propaganda tasks is an extreme simplification of the situation.


Actually the participation of religious organizations in politics, both in Russia and in other countries, has a substantially more complex nature than the execution of orders transmitted on the chain of command. In the last 20 years, the RPTs has continually applied its efforts to define its position with respect to liberal democracy, secularism, and its attitude toward the concept of human rights. This happened long before the slogans of modernization of the epoch of Dmitry Medvedev were transformed into the rhetoric of traditional values in the epoch of Putin's third presidential term.


The understanding of traditional Christian values as the chief alternative to the liberal concept of individual freedom arose in Russian Orthodox long before this approach was picked up in the Kremlin. Conservative Orthodox groups share this criticism of liberalism and secularism with conservative religious groups in other countries, not the least of which are conservative Catholics in Poland, where the party of Law and Justice is ruling and working out its own agenda based on traditional Christian values. However in Poland, since it is a member of the EU, this agenda remains mainly on the level of domestic politics. As an observer who knows that within the RPTs various voices are heard, I am alarmed by the fact that the current political leadership of Russia supports only one specific type of traditionalism within the church, which essentially prefers a marriage of convenience, the readiness to be used by the state in exchange for power and material rewards. The very fact of the rivalry of various notions about standards within the church and within society is completely normal.


The resolution correctly speaks about the values for which the European Union speaks--namely liberty, democracy, solidarity, and human rights—being under attack. But to maintain that the causes of this lie exclusively beyond the borders of Europe (Russia, ISIS) or pertain to the area of the irrational ("religion," "disinformation") would be too simple. As regards historical parallels, the question arises: is Russia now really trying to influence the European right-wingers, opponents of the European Union, just like the Soviet Union influenced the socialist parties throughout Europe during the time of the cold war? This is not at all ruled out. But I repeat again: anti-EU propaganda is not the instrument with whose help the fate of state construction in Europe will be decided. The decisions will be made by the Europeans themselves. And the desire to present themselves as a victim will not help us in any way in resolving this task.


The author is the director of the research project "Conflicts in post-secular society" of the University of Innsbruck (Austria)
(tr. by PDS, posted 1 December 2016)

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