New Patriarchal Exarches might be appointed for Belarus
On July 29th, celebrations dedicated to the Baptism of Russia 1025th Anniversary will be held in Minsk with Patriarch Kirill’s participation.
Important historic event and the visit of the Russian Orthodox Church leaders to Minsk can be used to change the Belarusian Orthodox Church leadership. President Lukashenko and Archpriest Povny synchronically made statements that confirm this possibility.
On July 26th in Minsk, President Lukashenko expressed a reformist criticism of the Orthodox Church. In particular, the president said that the Orthodox Church was “getting sick” and along with the state risked losing the younger generation. In addition, the president called for reform of the worship practices, since the older generation (“old ladies”) could not withstand long services. Also, the president negatively responded to the practice of erecting excessively large temple buildings. Finally, Lukashenko urged the Patriarch to start the church reform.
Experts linked the sharp polemical attack by Lukashenko with him not taking part in the main celebrations of the Baptism of Russia Anniversary in Kiev on July 26th, where Presidents Yanukovych and Putin and Patriarch Kirill were present. There is a possibility that Lukashenko’s harsh criticism was indeed connected with the “improper” invitation for him to visit Kiev. In other words, Lukashenko might have felt offended and snapped, as he did when he was not invited to Kiev to take part in the Chernobyl disaster anniversary celebration in April 2011 due to the simultaneous visit of European Commission President Barroso (Lukashenko then said that “Ukrainian leadership is lousy”).
Nevertheless, Lukashenko’s statements could have been addressing domestic issues – namely, changes in the Belarusian Orthodox Church leadership. In particular, for over a year there were couloirs discussions about possible successor of 78-year old Patriarchal Exarches Metropolitan Filaret. The most likely candidate to replace him is father superior of All Saints parish in Minsk, 53-year-old Exarches Fedor Povny.
It is noteworthy that on July 25th, Exarches Povny gave an interview to the Belarusian First TV Channel about preparations for the celebrations. Inter alia, Povny talked about his biography, about social and charitable projects carried out in Minsk and thanked the government for financial support to the Church. Povny also noted that he was pleased to see many children’s faces in the Church and that ‘old ladies for us are almost museum rarities’. In fact, on the following day, President Lukashenko said almost the same thing.
There was no broad media coverage of the Belarusian Orthodox Church leadership change issue, which allows assumptions that Povny and Lukashenko’s statements were coordinated recently and spontaneously. If so, the probability is high that the issue of changes in the Belarusian Orthodox Church leadership will be raised during Patriarch Kirill’s visit to Minsk.
Over the past year, military-political relations between Minsk and Kyiv have become complicated. Due to their high inertia and peculiarities, this downward trend would be extremely difficult to overcome.
The root cause of the crisis is the absence of a common political agenda in the Belarusian-Ukrainian relations. Minsk is looking for a market for Belarusian exports in Ukraine and offers its services as a negotiation platform for the settlement of the Russo-Ukrainian war, thereby hoping to avoid political issues in the dialogue with Kiev. Meanwhile, Ukraine is hoping for political support from Minsk in the confrontation with Moscow. In addition, Ukraine’s integration with NATO presupposes her common position with the Alliance in relation to Belarus. The NATO leadership regards the Belarusian Armed Forces as an integral part of the Russian military machine in the western strategic front (the Baltic states and Poland). In addition, the ongoing military reform in Ukraine envisages a reduction in the number of generals and the domestic political struggle makes some Ukrainian top military leaders targets in politically motivated attacks.
Hence, the criticism of Belarus coming from Ukrainian military leadership is dictated primarily by internal and external political considerations, as well as by the need to protect the interests of generals, and only then by facts.
For instance, initially, the Ukrainian military leadership made statements about 100,000 Russian servicemen allegedly taking part in the Russo-Belarusian military drill West-2017. Then the exercises were labelled quazi-open and military observers from Ukraine refused to provide their assessment, which caused a negative reaction in Minsk. Further, without citing specific facts, it was stated that Russia was building up its military presence in Belarus.
Apparently, the Belarusian and Ukrainian Defence Ministries have entangled in a confrontational spiral (on the level of rhetoric). Moreover, only a small part of the overly hidden process has been disclosed. That said, third states are very likely to take advantage of the situation (or have already done so). This is not only about Russia.
The Belarusian Defence Ministry officials are restrained in assessing their Ukrainian counterparts. However, such a restraint is not enough. Current military-political relations between Belarus and Ukraine are unlikely to stabilise without the intervention of both presidents.