SERBIA: The Church of Putin, Balkan Ghosts and a New Silk Road
By Duke OmaraBranko Simonovic has a vision. He sees himself as an architect of international peace and cooperation between competing world powers. The 53-year old Serb has spent the last few years planning and raising funds for what he not so jokingly calls “Putin’s Church,” a place of worship he hopes will one day stand as a monument to the victims of the 1990s wars that ripped through the former eastern European country of Yugoslavia.
The construction of Putin’s Church, in Banstol, a small rural town about two hours from Serbia’s capital, Belgrade, is not going as fast as Branko wants. Currently, the only visible sign of the project is a concrete foundation rising barely a foot from the ground. When completed, Putin’s Church would be modest in size, about 2100 square feet [200 square meters], the size of a small house and a far cry from the grand and palatial churches that are common in this part of the world.
But the former journalist, a survivor of Operation Storm, the last big battle of the Croatian War of Independence, knows the value of public relations. He decided that by linking the name of the church to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin instead of Mary Magdalene — to whom the church will be officially dedicated — he stands a better chance of attracting the attention and the funds he needs to get the building off the ground and into the history books.
“A good headline,” he says, “can sell a bad story.”
SLIM CHANCESBranko knows the chances of the church actually getting enough money from Putin’s Russia are pretty slim. He also knows using Putin as a mascot might sound like a gimmick. But it seems to have worked. “Putin’s Church” is attracting donations from around the world, including from the Serbian community in the United States.
Putin, whose closeness to matters of religion belie his reputation as an agnostic ex-KGB operative, has increasingly become a major booster of the Orthodox church and Serbs like Branko identify with his newfound reputation as “a man of God.”
Branko demures when he is asked how much money he has received so far for the project, but he says donors across the world have already pledged funds and building materials.
Branko knows where most of the money is most likely to come from: the Western world with its strong economy and desire to bring countries like Serbia closer to Europe and NATO. He also knows where the most spiritual support is: the East, towards Russia, where the giant shadow of the successor of the Soviet empire still casts a menacing shadow across land it once controlled.
Branko, like many in this country, is playing on both sides of the fence. He knows he—and his country—needs both Russia and the west. More importantly, he believes the Russians and the west also need Serbia because of its strategic importance as a political, economic, and ideological bridge between two systems that are still in competition with one another . It’s a classically Serbian effort to balance East and West. But the balance may be shifting.
BALKAN GHOSTSBranko’s efforts to build a Russian-oriented church is also a tale of an American failure, as seen by Serbs, to publicly acknowledge the pain of a country that perceives itself as morally and physically wronged by what NATO and the United States did to it a generation ago in the largest military action in Europe by both since World War II.
While Russia works to strengthen religious links with Serbia, the United States is seen by some Serbs as almost missing-in-action since the US-led NATO bombing of Serbia which helped to end the Balkan conflict some 25 years ago, leaving Serbia both physically devastated and psychologically humiliated.
Since then, Serbia has largely been rebuilt. But the psychological impact of war and the break-up of Yugoslavia remains – exacerbated by the declaration of independence in 2008 by Kosovo, a predominantly Albanian province to the South East of the country which most Serbs still see as an integral cultural and historical portion of Serbia itself: Kosovo je Srbija. Kosovo is Serbia. Its severing remains the biggest scab of the many Serbian national scars.
In front of the country’s parliament, a makeshift memorial known as the “wailing wall” bears testimony to this lingering anger. One of the banners, written in big white letters says, “we will not forgive those who killed our children.”
AN ORTHODOX RESPONSEReligion is one of the intangibles that many Serbs feel still is their own. Here the church is an ubiquitous and constant presence. The chime of church bells high up on steeples is a reminder of this ancient country’s deep vein of religiosity.
Orthodoxy rings the country in a protective embrace that stretches back for centuries to the very beginnings of Christianity, to the tumultuous years of the Great East-West Schism of 1054.
But the Serbian Orthodox Church, long a bastion of national unity and very often a velvet-wrapped truncheon of the state, fears that the embrace is now slackening. Some Serbs may be opting to join that “other” church , the Roman Catholic Church, or abandoning religion altogether. Many ask whether the Serbian Church could survive the liberalized religious tolerance of the European Union; it might never recover.
EYES TO MOSCOWOne response has been for the Church, nominally independent and Serbian, to look to Moscow, where the Russian Eastern Orthodox Church has been one of the most vociferous opponents of any deal-making with the west.
Putin, meanwhile, capitalizing on old cultural and historical ties, appears to see Serbia as a place whose history makes it open to his country’s often suffocating bear hug.
“There is a concept called, ‘Russkiy mir’ or Russian world, which basically originates from the Russian Orthodox Church, and was then adopted by the government. It’s the world of all those who speak Russian and who have a collective memory of fighting against Nazism in the second world war, and those who recognize Russia as their country,” said Milos Popovic, a fellow at the Belgrade Center for Security Policy, a Serbian think tank that provides expertise on Serb-European security and has over the years carried out extensive polling on Serbia-Europe-America relations.
CONNECTING THE RUSSKIY MIR
The Russian Orthodox Church has always expressed concerns about orthodox believers in other countries, as it sees itself as a third Rome, responsible for its Orthodox brethren in these other countries.
To the Russian orthodoxy, losing influence means these countries would turn towards the west. For example, those countries could adapt the western calendar which the more conservative Serbia church has not yet done although other countries in the region already have.
The Serbian Orthodoxy has also aligned itself with the Russians because the Moscow church is one of its strongest backers in its opposition towards a breakaway Kosovo. One of the biggest assets in this war for hearts and minds is the constant invocation of Kosovo’s place in the church’s history.
The church views the destruction of monasteries by Albanians in Kosovo as a rallying cry, often calling it a sacrilege that should not go unaddressed. And it continues to criticize the west generally, and the United States in particular, for the NATO bombing of the country.
AMERICAN AMNESIAAs Russia works to bring Serbia closer, Serbs complain that they have been forgotten by the United States. When President Donald Trump chose to go on his first official visit overseas to the seats of the world’s major religious centers – Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Vatican — many people here were miffed that no place that represents orthodoxy was chosen, or even mentioned as a stop on that major trip.
The overwhelming conclusion of most of their studies has been that Serbian neutrality in the face of overtures from Russia and the Europe and to a certain extent the US is impossible both as a concept and in practical terms. In fact, they said, the whole point of trying to remain neutral in the present world is almost impossible and represents no real value.
Neutrality, Popovich said, is “a 19th century concept that practically means isolation.”
“Serbia has much bigger trade volume with EU countries, it has stronger cooperation with US-NATO than with Russia, so it’s a false dilemma. It is obvious that Serbia is highly dependent economically, financially and militarily on EU-NATO countries than on Russia,” he said.
Still, Serbia’s balancing act continues. He pointed out to the recent presidential campaign in Serbia which the eventual winner, Aleksandar Vucic won partly by casting his net towards Europe while also courting Russia, which on the eve of the election “gifted” Serbia with six Mig-29 fighter planes as a way to cement relations between the two countries.
The whole power play by the Serbian government and trying to straddle both side of the fence, Popovich, said, was all about playing with the sentiments of people who view Russia as an ally, while continuing its efforts to close its gap with the west.
“In essence, the government is pursuing more cooperation with EU and NATO but it is not delivering this message to the public,” Popovich said. As with everything to do with any potential cooperation, the unresolved issue of whether Serbia will ever be allowed into NATO continues to throw a big shadow over any future progress.
A THIRD WAY?Meanwhile, another player has moved in from the sidelines: China. In recent years, Beijing has been making quiet inroads into the country as it seeks to find new waypoints for its great Silk Road Project. China has announced the project as a $150 billion a year multinational infrastructure endeavor. If everything goes according to plan, the initiative would tighten trading routes for China across Europe and Asia, recapturing the fabled Silk Road that brought culture and commerce across continents two thousand years ago.
The Chinese plan envisions connecting the land route with maritime routes that would eventually cut across the breadth of Africa, uniting Beijing’s access to some of the most lucrative markets in the world.
A sign of the growing influence of the Chinese reach has been the construction of the Hungary-Serbia railroad and its continuing role as a third alternative in the tussle between the East and West.
In 2013, the Chinese government signed a memorandum of understanding with Serbia and Hungary to build and modernize a high-speed railway between Budapest and Belgrade in a deal reportedly worth nearly $3 billion. The deal, which will cut travel time between the two Balkan cities to three hours from the current eight, soon became the subject of EU objections because the project did not go through the normal public bidding process. Hungary is a member of the union.
The project is slated to be completed within two years of its launch and would provide another thread in China’s much vaunted “Silk Road” or the One Belt One Road Initiative as it is more formally called. This ambitious multinational effort, if successful, would rival and surpass by far the United States’ Marshall Plan that almost singlehandedly lifted a devastated Europe from the ruins of the Second World War.
CHINA ON THE WORLD STAGEWhen Jelena Milić, the director of the Belgrade-based Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies, a think tank that promotes social liberalism and an atheistic view of the world looks at the world stage, she sees competing and sometimes clumsy attempts by major world powers – the US, Russia and China – each jostling with the others as they try to win woo Serbia.
China in particularly is best-positioned to win this courtship because, as she puts it, “there is some kind of agreement between China and Russia” to subdivide Serbia, and indeed most of Asia, including areas in Russia’s backyard among themselves along military and economic lines.
Milic, an outspoken advocate of greater ties with the EU and NATO, doesn’t see chaos in the scramble for eastern Europe.
If her theory holds true, the wink-wink between the two countries would see the Russians take control over Serbia’s armed forces and security structure while the Chinese would essentially be responsible for financial investments. This all makes sense to Milić because then both countries would be playing to their greatest strengths.
“Russians have never been good at investments, they don’t invest anything here. They don’t even send donations,” she said.
These concessions by the Russians towards the Chinese don’t come for free, said Milić.
“I suppose that Russians charge the Chinese for giving them concessions to march through South East Europe from Thessaloniki (the second largest city in Greece) to Budapest (in Hungary),” she said.
SUPERPOWERS IN A TRADE BATTLE
It doesn’t help the United States’ position that the One Belt One Road initiative is taking off just as the Trump administration rejected another economic initiative meant to also provide a similar economic corridor: the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which had been promoted by former President Barack Obama.
Serbia is in great need of the kind of infrastructure development promised by a surging China, and officials are keenly aware of the country’s strategic position as a bridge between Asia and Europe.
Whichever superpower wins the trade battle will likely reap rewards, both in the short and long term, in ways that no one has even begun to calculate. Right now, one thing is clear: the United States might not be losing, but is certainly not winning.
Perhaps, Branko will one day get his church but there is a growing likelihood, impossible as it might seem today, that church could be built by the Chinese.