Peace

The war in eastern Ukraine and clash at the Black Sea: Church used as a political tool

by Rev. Paul Lansu
Pax Christi International Senior Advisor

The situation in eastern Ukraine can be described as a permanent and ongoing (-armed) conflict. Lives continue to be destroyed. The rebels of the two “People’s Republics” – Donetsk and Luhansk – and their backers in Moscow continue to provoke Ukrainian government forces. The Kiev government is doing little to win the “hearts and the minds” of the people in these two eastern republics. Tensions persist.

From time to time the continuing conflict in eastern Ukraine gets coverage in the national and international media. What is in the news is the persistent corruption coupled with the decline in living standards in the country that occupy the public. The rule of law remains low in Ukraine and that allows the government’s administration to pressure journalists, opinion makers and the broader civil society including churches for instance to speak out more in patriotic, nationalistic and uncritical wording. However, a political democracy needs critical opinions!

Identity of civil society is changing

For years, civil society has tended to be seen as liberal: supportive of human rights, democratic reform and the protection of minorities. Often, it is still these “progressive” causes that appeal to younger activists. However, today also in Ukraine, civil society involves an increasingly diverse mix of people and political goals, with those on the right gaining traction. Ukraine has seen radical national activists protest against Russian interference, while socially conservative groups, as in other Central European countries, focussed on religious and family values have grown. Identifying and belonging to a people, church and religion has apparently become a necessity for many. It mainly means turning against the other person who does not belong to his own group.

Russia wants to continue to exercise influence

The outcome of the 2018 presidential elections in Russia confirmed Vladimir Putin as its ongoing president. The presidential elections in Ukraine on 31 March 2019 will probably clarify the new direction the Ukrainian government is going to follow. The Minsk peace process[1] is not very popular and not part of the current debate. Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Ukraine began building defensive fortifications along its eastern border.

Russia does not want Ukraine to end up in the Western sphere of influence. Russia sees Ukraine as historically belonging to it. The cradle of Russian civilization is largely in Ukraine. It seems that there is a majority among the Russian public opinion having the Crimea annexed as historically part of their country. At the same time, the annexation of the Crimea is illegal and that is why the Russia-Ukraine conflict will remain internationally visible.

Black Sea clash

On 26 November 2018, the Ukrainian parliament has promulgated martial law for the next 30 days in all republics bordering on Russia after a weekend of naval confrontation off the disputed Crimean Peninsula in which Russia fired on and seized three Ukrainian vessels amid renewed tensions between the neighbours. While a 2003 treaty designates the Kerch Strait and Sea of Azov as shared territorial waters, Russia has sought to assert greater control over the passage since the annexation.

Since 2014, Russia views the Kerch Strait as its own territorial waters. It also claims territorial waters around Crimea. Russian officials fear a Ukrainian attack on the expensive, recently opened Crimean Bridge linking the Peninsula with Russia. The Russians no longer want free passage for Ukrainian vessels through the Kerch Strait without approval by Russia.

Churches used in political play

In October 2018, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew recognized Ukraine’s “autocephalous” independent Orthodox Church.[2] This recent new fact in Ukrainian society was not unexpected but reflects about the relationships between churches and nation states and is in this case, a country in transition, a dangerous fact that makes good neighbour ship between Russia and Ukraine even more complicated. Why is that? This is all about contemporary politics. There are some 12.000 churches in Ukraine that could become a new Russian-Ukrainian battleground.

For more than 300 years, the church in Ukraine has been part of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). The split of the two churches is one more consequence of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict that began in 2014. President Petro Poroshenko who is standing for re-election in 2019 wants this move and sees himself as the father of the nation using the super-patriotic triple slogan of “Army, Faith, Religion” in his campaign. He uses or misuses the relationships of the churches in his political campaign. Nevertheless, church leaders should be independent and should not become part of the nationalistic bargain. It is also clear that Russia will defend all the Russian Orthodox Christians “everywhere”. The Moscow ROC still has millions of adherents in Ukraine and it is the default mother church of many who also regard themselves as Ukrainian citizens.

The new autocephalous church will only be able credibly to call itself Ukraine’s national church if it can persuade thousands of priests currently loyal to the ROC to defect, along with their parishioners and churches. The split of churches within Ukraine and between the ROC and the Ecumenical Patriarchate is a step backwards towards unity and cooperation.[3] Is it splitting first and then working together again afterwards? The World Council of Churches has a file on top to mediate and to look for new forms of cooperation.

However, more important might be the religious dimension of the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine. It is possible that the church situation on the ground can provoke violence and spark yet another dimension to the conflict, which would be truly intra-Ukrainian and with a highly pronounced religious dimension. These types of conflict might be less manageable and can lead to fragmentation of political space, the rise of radical far-right conservative politics and largescale violence and chaos. There are groups of muscular young men who are prepared to fight for both churches. There are hundreds of villages and towns in eastern Ukraine where the ROC is strong.

Religious politics are now another reason to be worried about what 2019 will bring with the election campaign and the result of it in Ukraine.

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[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minsk_Protocol
[2] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-ukraine-church-russia/russian-orthodox-church-breaks-with-constantinople-in-row-over-ukraine-idUSKCN1MP24G
[3] https://www.dw.com/en/ukrainian-church-wins-independence-battle-against-moscow-patriarchate/a-45854480
Photo courtesy of https://www.thestar.com/news/world/2018/11/26/ukraine-demands-russia-release-vessels-as-tensions-build.html
Peace

Ukraine’s conflict with Russia

By Rev. Paul Lansu
Senior Policy Advisor, Pax Christi International

Despite its central role in European politics and East-West relations more generally, the war in Ukraine has largely disappeared from public and political view. We must be aware that we face the real prospect of “the mother of all frozen conflicts” on our doorstep.

In international relations, a frozen conflict is a situation in which active armed conflict has been brought to an end, but no peace treaty or other political framework resolves the conflict to the satisfaction of the parties involved. A “frozen conflict” also means that there is no daily fighting but the situation remains permanently tense and a local outburst of violence is possible at any time. Therefore, legally the conflict can start again at any moment, creating an environment of insecurity and instability. The de facto situation that emerges may match the de jure position asserted by one party to the conflict; for example, Russia claims and effectively controls Crimea following the 2014 Crimean crisis despite Ukraine’s continuing claim to the region. Alternatively, the de facto situation may not match either side’s official claim.

The war in eastern Ukraine is also rapidly slipping off the political agenda in those countries tasked with brokering and ensuring peace and conflict resolution. The EU lost its dynamic and remains inwardly oriented for the time being. Ukraine will hold in 2019 both presidential and parliamentary elections and that is casting already a shadow over the domestic politics.

Whereas three-quarters of the population are ethnically Ukrainians, around 17% – mainly in the east of the country – are ethnically Russian and around 30% of the population say Russian is their first language. Ukraine is a country of more than 40 million people with very diverse views.

Some 2 million of these Russian-speaking Ukrainians instantly became Russian citizens on 18 March 2014 when Crimea was formally annexed by Russia. The loss of Crimea was compounded by a well-armed pro-Russia separatist movement in eastern Ukraine, which has led to months of heavy – but inconclusive – fighting with government forces.

High number of displaced

The conflict in eastern Ukraine has claimed over 10.000 lives and more than 24.000 wounded and constitutes a grave ongoing humanitarian crisis. About 1.8 million have been displaced internally or are affected by conflict in Ukraine, and an estimated 1 million have fled to Russia. At the end of 2017, the UN estimated that almost 4.4 million people are affected by the conflict, with 3.4 million of them in need of humanitarian aid and protection.

Mother Russia is alive again!

It was and still is the ambition of President Vladimir Putin to restore Russia’s status in the world. That meant for instance in 2014 the threat of military force to help local pro-Russian forces accomplish the annexation of Crimea – a majority of whose population are ethnically Russians – from Ukraine.

The Crimean parliament hastily organised a referendum on independence under the watchful eyes of growing numbers of still unidentified soldiers! The vote was overwhelmingly in favour of independence. On 17 March 2014, the Supreme Council of Crimea declared the Republic of Crimea an independent nation. The republic then renounced its independence and requested admission into Russia. President Putin granted the request and declared that the proper conditions are ensured for the people of Crimea to be able to freely express their will.

Crimea also contains the port of Sevastopol, a base for Russia’s Black Sea navy giving it access to the Mediterranean. Moscow is or has been planning either a direct bridge or a road from Russia to the Crimean Peninsula. At the same time, most Crimeans did want to join “mother Russia” as the Russian writer Fjodor Dostojevsky (1821-1881) described it earlier in the 19th century. Tsarism, nationalism/patriotism and the orthodox religion were the bounding foundations of this concept of “mother Russia.”

It is the first time since the Second World War that a European country with military force has changed its borders and annexed part of another European country. The EU will extend the sanctions against Russia, but the annexation of the Crimea will silently be accepted.

In April 2014, pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine could rely on the political backing of Russia in their effort to secede from Ukraine and join Russia, although not all people in the region prefer this scenario. Pro-Russian separatists declared the People’s Republic of Donetsk and the goal of unification with Russia. Later in that month, separatists declared the People’s Republic of Luhansk, which in May merged with its Donetsk equivalent to form the confederation of Novorossiya. However, the lack of unity and control remains in the occupied territories.

These events created serious tensions because in 1994 in the Budapest memorandum the USA, UK and Russia agreed to be joint guarantors of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. The memorandum confirmed also to remove the (former Soviet Union) nuclear warheads stationed in Ukraine back to Russia.

A regional solution?

The consequence of the crisis in and around the Ukraine is the threat of a renewed cold war, and the possibility – if only by accident – that it might become hot. Moscow tries to freeze the conflict as much as it can. The UN Security Council was not able to settle the dispute because the Russians intended to make use of their voting right.

A UN backed military response was impossible, because Russia holds a permanent seat on the Security Council and thus is in a position to veto any authorisation. Russia is also a nuclear power, and its military strength is second only to the USA. The only option for the international community was to outcast Russia with economic sanctions. The EU decided to do this because the sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of Ukraine must be respected. The EU cannot accept the annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol to the Russian Federation. Russia was excluded from the major industrialised countries, the Group of Eight – G8 (and became consequently only G7). Russia responded with sanctions as well, which has consequences for some EU countries. Anyway, international law should be respected and a regional solution will have to be found in which all those involved must recognize themselves.

Is Ukraine part of Europe?

Possible European integration is a key discussion in the conflict. The majority of Ukrainians are in favour of being part of Europe via the EU. The country seeks a European future. If the majority of Ukrainians choose to also enter into close relations with Europe, and are willing to cooperate with Europe to this end and want to take over a lot of European values and regulations, then we cannot accept that another country, in this case Russia, which tries to stop that choice. On 27th of June 2014, the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement was signed.

Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko’s government has not addressed the systematic corruption at the root of many of the country’s problems. Many Ukrainians are losing faith in laws, institutions, and elites. Ukrainian society has a low level of trust in central authorities. Anger at the Minsk II agreement, which Ukrainians see as a concession to separatists and Moscow, is growing, even among reformists. The authorities continue to use the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine as an excuse for the slow pace of reform and to silence critical voices by labelling them as Russian agents.

Civic groups that work toward seeking dialogue, truth, and reconciliation in the context of the armed conflict are blamed by other civic organisations for being unpatriotic and influenced by Russia. Nevertheless, volunteer activities in Ukraine have decreased since 2014. While civic activists have not given up, serious concerns persist about its civil society’s impact. A culture of compromise and cooperation needs to be strengthened in the society that is more important in a context given the impact of radical nationalist and far-right groups that promote religious and ethnic intolerance.

UN Mission in Ukraine?

The UN Security council is discussing a possible UN peacekeeping mission to Ukraine. Some more political will on all sides is a condition in realising a peace keeping dynamic. Clearly, a UN mandate should cover the whole territory of the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, including the Russian-Ukrainian border. At the same time, a UN mission should reinforce – not replace – the operations of the OSCE mission on the ground. The UN lacks practical experience in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and has been recently involved in peacekeeping operations mostly outside of Europe. UN peacekeepers should help the OSCE to maintain peace. It is expected to have some 20.000 peacekeepers, of course excluding Russian forces! Also important is that a UN mission should support the implementation of the Minsk agreements, not at least in monitoring local and parliamentary elections.

A UN mission creates a small window of opportunity for further diplomacy. Political will on all sides remains a prerequisite for keeping peace.

Nonviolence

The choice is between nonviolence and nonexistence

by Tony Magliano

“To call the world’s nuclear situation dire is to understate the danger and its immediacy,” warned Rachel Bronson, Ph.D., president of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Famous for their symbolic Doomsday Clock, the Bulletin’s highly respected scientists and 15 Nobel Laureate consultants recently moved the clock to two minutes before midnight – warning that a nuclear war catastrophe is very possible!

The only other time in its seven decade history the minute hand has been set this close to midnight – that is, the devastation of the planet, and virtually everything and everyone on it – was in 1953 after the U.S. and the Soviet Union tested thermonuclear weapons for the first time (see: http://bit.ly/2FjsyxC).

And in less than three weeks after the Doomsday Clock was moved so perilously close to nuclear midnight, the Pentagon on Feb. 2 released its 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), providing the world with even more reasons to be alarmed.

Adding to the insane fact that both the United States and the Russian Federation each have hundreds of nuclear weapons aimed at each other programmed with a “launch-on-warning” – hair-trigger-alert – status, the NPR states that the U.S. will continue its policy to be the first to initiate a nuclear attack if it decides that its “vital interests” and those of its “allies and partners” are at risk (see: http://wapo.st/2EJnF0R)…

Click here to read the entire column.

Peace

Balancing between East and West Russia in South East Europe

By Fr. Paul Lansu
Senior Policy Advisor, Pax Christi International

The implosion of violence in the former Federal Republic Yugoslavia during the nineties has not only had a (negative) impact concerning the relations between persons and peoples, but has also initiated a process of disintegration. The multi-ethnic federation got dissolved. Underlying ethnic, religious and cultural differences were magnified and thus gave occasion for armed violence.

Politically, the South East European region changed quickly. Within a few decades, there occurred a “balkanization” of the region (the break-up of the former Yugoslavia in separate republics), as well as there being a desire of belonging to larger unities, like the European Union and the NATO. Meanwhile, Russian foreign policy desires to remain a visible power factor in the region as well.

Peace advancement: from presence to consultation

Mostly during and since the nineties, but after too, both Pax Christi International and various Pax Christi sections have organised projects for peace advancement in South East Europe. Consultations were organised in the region at certain times. Local peace activists as well as key figures from the various countries began a process with Pax Christi sections and Pax Christi board members to prevent conflicts, reduce tensions during conflicts and mostly to reunite people of different religious and/or ethnic backgrounds. Solidarity with the victims of violence always stood at the forefront and means were sought after for recovering justice in society, but also between churches and populations. Representatives of Pax Christi International and mostly of the different sections (among others Germany, Austria, Italy, The Netherlands, Flanders) have taken initiatives during the armed conflicts in the former Yugoslavia by seeking a rapprochement to people in the region (presence/solidarity), by inviting them for consultation and not in the least by (re)uniting people. The policy influencing work by Pax Christi Flanders in and around Kosovo, for example, constitutes a historical standard.

The most recent events of Pax Christi International in the region took place in 2011 in Vukovar, on the Croatian-Serbian border; in Warsaw and Auschwitz/Oswiecim in 2013 in Poland; and in 2014 in Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). Up until today, the past wars represent open wounds and are the cause of continuous conflict.

Definition of the region

A preceding question is: which countries are meant when one speaks about South East Europe? There is no conclusive answer. Some speak about the Balkan. According to myself, the best approach would be an inclusive one and thus to speak about the ‘broader’ South East Europe. This would include all countries that were formerly part of Yugoslavia plus Albania, Rumania and Bulgaria. To this list, I would furthermore add Greece, Cyprus and Turkey. All these countries have a shared history (the Ottoman Empire for example) and a geographical continuity. Turkey has a population of nearly 75 million people. Rumania of 20 million. All other countries have relatively smaller populations. Montenegro for example does not even reach a number of 645.000 inhabitants.

Should peace be imposed?

Does something good come out of a war? Even after shooting has ended, the consequences are dramatic. The human dramas and traumas are often indescribable. One never gets used to war. There is enormous insecurity during and after armed conflict. War and violence are never a solution. At best, they will lead to an enforced peace, like the “Pax Dayton” or the “Pax Holbrooke” in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995. Just like the Pax Romana, peace was imposed there, regardless of what the population wanted. The putting down of arms – which constitutes the bare minimum – thus does not mean that there is a sustainable peace. More than ever, the country is divided and remains standing due to (or despite of) a jumble of regional governments and parliaments. The underlying tensions between ethnic and religious entities remain. Here, peace does not signify anything more than the absence of armed violence.

Blood, religion and history

The question I ask myself is not just how the politicians involved, but also how a regional superpower like Russia respond to events in the region. With the necessary pragmatics politicians of the region look to the West (the EU and the NATO in particular), but there remains an underlying bond between Russia and countries like Serbia and Bulgaria and parts of the other republics, such as the Republika Srpska in BiH. Connecting elements can be found mostly in the sphere of identity, religion, language, culture/blood and shared history. Russia’s supply of gas and oil to the region ensures an economic connection (dependency). Russian energy can be regarded as a geostrategic weapon in Europe. It appears that Russia retains enough impact to do business with the states in the South East European region. Boldly, it could be stated that Russia makes use of the instability that exists in some of these republics in Europe’s periphery.

Foreign countries in Russia’s vicinity

Some analysts speak of “Putism” as an ideological alternative to the Western liberalism promoted by, among others, the EU. South East European populations are sensitive to this. President Vladimir Putin serves as a symbol for the cult around a strong leader, with a strong grip on economy and security, with a muzzled media and dissidents that are reduced to silence (“desputism”). The Ukrainian crisis in 2013/14 has brought Russia into action and has made it interfere, both politically and economically. Moreover, it has nourished anti-Western sentiments in the region. A turning point in that direction was the Russian annexation of the Crimea in 2014. Western sanctions have failed and still fail to modify Russian policy concerning Ukraine.

After Soviet president Gorbachev (with reforms, decentralisation and an option for a pan-European safety network) and mostly the Russian president Yeltsin (with choices for market economy and political pluralism), Russia has again worked its way back to being an influential player on the international scene under Putin and Medvedev. In the security sphere, the Warsaw Pact got rescinded and there came a vacuum, which was to be filled by the NATO. For a while, Russia flirted with the West, among others with a partnership with the NATO and relations with the EU. Many Russians, however, felt a lack of respect from the West and subsequently the country began an assertive foreign policy. Russia wants to be equal to the US again as a superpower. Some speak of a new Cold War between West and East. Multilateralism among the states will, however, prevent this.

In the recent Balkan war, Russia has time and again opted for diplomacy, for the creation of peace zones and has also dedicated itself to peace missions, like in BiH. Less known is that the Russians have also – illegitimately armed – fought alongside Serbs in countries like BiH and elsewhere, the so-called mercenaries.

Keeping Russian influence at bay

The Baltic republics and Poland keep Russian influence at bay as much as they can. They also differ from the other countries in South East Europe in historical, geographical, cultural and religious respect. The visible presence of the Catholic Church in Poland and Protestant churches in the Baltic republics are an example of such differences. Countries like Slovenia and Croatia too lean more towards the West than towards Russia. Polish policy attaches great importance to NATO- and EU membership, but the Atlantic connection with the US especially is a decisive factor. Poland aims to reduce its energy dependency from Russia.

Kosovo as a breaking point between the East and West

The desire for independence among Kosovo’s majority has led to armed conflict. In 1999, the NATO intervened in the conflict on humanitarian grounds. She let aerial bombardments on Serbian targets take place to put pressure on Milosevic’s regime to leave Kosovo. There is/was a large Serbian Orthodox minority in Kosovo. The Serbian Orthodox Church has some of her most significant religious sites in the north of Kosovo. The Albanian Muslim majority’s influence was more than burdensome for the minorities. The NATO intervention was deemed unacceptable by Russia. Russia wanted to co-determine Kosovo’s future and continued opting for diplomacy.

On 17 February 2008, the Kosovar government declared its independence.[1] Until then, it remained a Serbian province under UN mandate. Kosovo was recognised as an independent state by 111 countries. This applied for 23 of the 28 EU-countries too. Significantly, countries like Cyprus, Rumania, Greece, Russia (and naturally Serbia too) did not acknowledge Kosovo as a state. “Kosovo’s status” made Russia and Serbia grow closer again. They fear for a Kosovo within a Greater Albania. Kosovo has quickly focused on a European perspective.

Choosing the West

From 2000 onwards, many countries set in the “return to Europe” and the West in general. For many of these countries this even went so far as them supporting the wars in Afghanistan (2001) and – especially – Iraq (2003). They were called the “New Europe”, whereas most West European countries that were against the American-British war in Iraq were mockingly called the “Old Europe” by US diplomacy.

Slovenia, Bulgaria and Rumania joined the NATO in 2004, Croatia and Albania did so in 2009 and Montenegro in 2017. Most other countries of the region are candidate-members for the EU and the NATO. Slovenia became an EU-member in 2004, Croatia in 2013. Due to the internal political entanglements within the EU, there is a rather small chance that new members will join the EU anytime soon. Serbia and Montenegro are at the bottom of the EU-list.

New Russian dependency

Besides the traditional economic links between Russia and South East Europe, mostly concerning the energy sphere (oil and gas), Russia took on a more assertive attitude towards these same countries in the area of networks, political contacts/parties and media, mostly through solidarity as Slav peoples. The Russian lobby in, among others, Bulgaria is large. Furthermore, Russia does not tolerate interference in countries like Ukraine, Moldovia and Georgia. No Western influence in Russia’s backyard!

The close ties between Russia on the one hand, and countries like Bulgaria and Rumania on the other hand differ in their nature. Already in the time of the Soviet Union, Bulgaria could pass as the 16th SU-republic. Pro-Russian sentiments remain significant in Bulgaria. In the safety sphere, Rumania has always taken a different course: it withdrew from the Warsaw Pact and occasionally flirted with the West. The connection with Russia, however, remains strong through Orthodox culture and other cultural ties. The Cyrillic alphabet is used in both Bulgaria and Russia. Some countries have approved of Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, while denouncing the EU-sanctions against Russia. Russia has also dedicated itself to good relations with Greece and Cyprus. They remain the pro-Russian countries within the EU.

Balancing with Turkey

Between Russia and Turkey, there exists a love-hate relationship. The countries confer with each other about the Syrian war, even if they deploy different strategies. During the war in BiH, Turkey sided with the Bosniaks (Muslims), while Russia took the side of the Serbs (Orthodox).

Turkey is dependent on Russia for its energy and has an increasing exchange of tourists with the country. Religiously, the countries remain largely at opposite sides: Orthodox Christianity versus the Islam. Presidents Putin and Erdogan have emerged as authoritarian leaders with corresponding regimes. Some call them the “Tsar” and the “Sultan”. The two presidents have strongly personalised their relationship: they stand side by side in their aversion from the Western liberal model of a constitutional state, free media and a pluralistic civilian society.

Like Russia, Turkey lies largely in Asia. It is a NATO-member since 1952 and has tactical American nuclear weaponry on its territory. Possible EU-membership for Turkey remains a matter in dispute; negotiations about this were put on hold. Concerning Turkey, the EU hammers away at certain political criteria, like free and correct elections, the separation of powers, an independent judicial system, freedom of speech, a free civilian society, minority rights and the absence of capital punishment. It may be deemed inevitable that Russia and Turkey would agree with each other on migration. Turkey receives approximately 3 million Syrian refugees in exchange for 3 billion euros[2] from the EU. Despite the many differences, Turkey and Russia remain good friends: they have learned to live with their differences.

Military relations

Russian military presence has increased in the Black Sea-region, partly because of the annexation of the Crimea, where the Russians have a fleet in Sebastopol. The direct involvement in the Syrian war too has boosted Russia’s military significance. In 2015, Russia spend more than 4% of its GNP on weaponry.

Justifiably, the country continues to protest further expansion of the NATO and has therefore strengthened its ties with Serbia. Russia has “security antennae” in most South-East European countries.

Russia remains superior when it comes to “information warfare” – “armament of information”. It carries out cyber-attacks against critical infrastructure. This is accompanied by a policy of disinformation. Meanwhile, working with double agents and infiltration in foreign security forces remains a familiar tactic.

Ideas and culture as a weapon

Russia under Putin has a strong appeal among Eastern Orthodox minorities (Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, Republika Srpska in BiH, Macedonia and the Greek part of Cyprus). Two thirds of these countries’ populations regard Russia as a strong friend and good neighbour. Ranging from Banja Luka in BiH until Nicosia on Greek Cyprus, politicians and opinion makers plead in favour of a strong relationship with Russia. These countries are not completely aware that through this they are also influenced by “soft pressure” from the Russian leaders. Russia has demonstrated itself capable of “arming” ideas, culture and information and of controlling all (or at least much) of it.

What goes on among the Russian population? Memories about great victimisation during the Second World War are being brought back. The aversion to Nazism, anti-Americanism and the fear of the Islam continue to be part of the political leaders’ and the population’s thoughts.

Russia continues to dedicate itself to symbolic ties to South East Europe: shared history, religious connections, cultural and linguistic affinity with the Southern Slavs, sharing in human contacts, emotions and fears.

In a broader European context, but not in the least in Central Europe and South East Europe, there is growing populism, which reveals itself in sentiment for traditions, nationalism, the dismissal of diversity, a fear for differences and in some cases xenophobia and antisemitism.

The impact of the Russian Orthodox Church is increasing

With the collapse of communism and the disintegration of the Soviet-Union, the impact of the Russian Orthodox Church has increased in Russia and nearby countries. The Russian Orthodox Church’s leadership collaborates closely with the state diplomacy and state institutions. Among others, the ties to the sister churches in Bulgaria and Serbia have been strengthened. Orthodox Church leaders and politicians from countries like Bulgaria adulate each other as protectors of the nationalism, in which church and state go together closely. Patriarch Kirill, a man not unknown to Pax Christi International[3], reasons that religion (in this case the Russian Orthodox Church) can deepen the relations with the state. Politics and church leaders stand side by side in their fight against Western influences, mostly in the sphere of sexual norms and values. They also stand side by side concerning the Russian presidential elections in 2018.

Need for new consultation

In Central Europe, Russia and South East Europe, there is a vast need for a new consultation and discussion between Pax Christi International and representatives of the civilian populations in those countries. Member organisations of Pax Christi International are located there. Probably in 2019, Pax Christi International will proceed to organise a new regional consultation there.

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[1]https://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internationale_erkenning_van_de_onafhankelijkheid_van_Kosovo

[2] http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-15-6162_nl.htm

[3] Since 1974, Pax Christi International regularly had conversations with the Russian Orthodox Church’s leadership. The last of which were guided by metropolitan Kirill, the later patriarch.