Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 95 (August/September 1999): 16-18.
The NATO–led war against Yugoslavia has had repercussions far beyond the bloody killing fields and battlefields of what was once the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. NATO’s action has widened the chasm with most of the Orthodox Christian world. Although NATO has within its ranks one state with a predominantly Orthodox populace (Greece) and one that is predominantly Islamic (Turkey), it is dominated by countries with mostly Protestant and Catholic populations. Although actual religious practice varies widely throughout Europe, and all states have freedom of religion (with established churches a vestige at most), it is natural that NATO’s actions appear to traditionally Orthodox countries as those of Western Christendom’s secular authority.
Today, Orthodox Christians feel more distant from their Catholic and Protestant brethren in Western Europe and North America than at any time since the collapse of communism. With the exception of Orthodox Christian Albanians, who feel solidarity with their ethnic Kosovar kinsmen, virtually the entire Orthodox Christian world was unanimous in its opposition to the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia.
In Bulgaria and Ukraine, Orthodox Church leaders expressed dismay at NATO’s decision not to suspend bombing during the Easter season. The Russian Church’s leaders bitterly denounced NATO and a majority expressed indignation at the bombing campaign. Even Emil Constantinescu, the pro–NATO President of Orthodox Romania, called for a break in bombing for the Easter holy days. Greece’s Orthodox Church leaders were vehement in their condemnation of NATO’s "bombing of human life and the destruction of valuable treasures of the Kosovo Serbs’ historic and Christian tradition."
The bombing led to a torrent of anti–Americanism, much of it fueled by ex–Communist and neo–Communist political parties seeking to exploit public anger at the West. Thus, the NATO campaign weakened the most pro–Western, pro–free market, and pro–democracy voices in countries undergoing fragile transitions toward liberal democratic rule.
This near–unanimous condemnation of the NATO bombing goes well beyond the traditional calls for peace and reconciliation that we expect of religious leaders. It reflects a radical difference in how the events in Kosovo and Serbia were perceived in the predominantly Catholic and Protestant NATO countries and in Orthodox Eastern Europe. It would be simplistic to say that Orthodox Christianity’s different reading of the events was somehow less moral than ours, the product of some moral failing by Eastern Christians, or Orthodoxy’s denigration or dehumanization of Islamic Albanian Kosovars.
Indeed, Patriarch Pavle, leader of Serbia’s Orthodox Christians, had been a voice of opposition to Slobodan Milosevic and took part in pro–democracy demonstrations in the early 1990s. The Patriarch has consistently opposed Serb voices promoting ethnic enmity and supported opposition forces in their bid to have their election victories of 1996 recognized by Yugoslav authorities. He also has been eloquent in his denunciation of ethnic cleansing and violence against ethnic minorities in Yugoslavia.
Orthodox Christian views of Kosovo reflect Orthodoxy’s encounter with the Islamic world. That front–line conflict with Islam emerged in Arab wars with Christian Byzantium in the seventh century. Since the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Eastern Europe’s Orthodox Christian populations have spent centuries under Islamic dominion, particularly under the Ottomans.
The current struggle with Islamic Kosovo is seen by many in the region as only the latest phase in an irreconcilable conflict pitting Islam against Orthodox Christendom. And while the Orthodox are aware of ethnic cleansing and other atrocities committed by Serb forces, they know that Serb Christians have also been victims of ethnic cleansing and violence since the disintegration of Yugoslavia and they perceive the West’s effort to resolve the Kosovo crisis as a manifestation of Western one–sidedness. They reject the efforts of NATO and the U.S. to portray the Serbian–Kosovar struggle in black–white terms because they are well aware that the Kosovo Liberation Army engaged in a campaign of terrorism at times directed at civilians, including Serb refugees. Just as significantly, Eastern Europe has been the battleground of numerous wars and of vicious totalitarianism under the Nazis and the Communists alike.
Apart from the Jews, the civilian populations of the Slavic countries suffered the highest proportion of civilian casualties in the Second World War. That suffering was matched by the heroic resistance against the Nazis by many Slavic peoples. These events, so recent in history, make the Orthodox countries suspicious of the efforts of those outside the region to settle problems by resorting to the use of overwhelming force that risks spinning out of control into neighboring states such as Macedonia. Their bitter experience of Nazism also justifies their assessment that, whatever he is, Slobodan Milosevic is no incipient Hitler bent on the extermination of entire peoples.
Contributing to the Orthodox world’s dismay is the attitude of moral superiority displayed by the NATO–led West. The leaders of the Orthodox Christian states feel they were excluded from a meaningful role in the diplomatic initiatives that ended in impasse with Serbia and led to the bombing campaign. This omission reinforced a sense that NATO views the Orthodox Christian East as a politically and economically backward redoubt—the source of European instability—rather than a new democratic partner to be enlisted in the shaping of a post–Communist order in which ethnic hatreds have no place.
NATO and U.S. diplomats have acted as if public opinion is irrelevant in the newly democratic East European states. No vigorous public diplomacy was undertaken in advance of the bombing campaign to explain to the East European public the moral justification for NATO’s action. NATO and American leaders were generally dismissive of the potential diplomatic role of the East European states. State Department spokesman James Rubin reflected the West’s patronizing attitude when he asserted sarcastically in early May that "gun–toting Ukrainians" and other Slavs could not play a central role in a post–conflict peacekeeping effort.
The West’s muddled and at times contradictory rationale for the military effort also contributed to confusion and anger in Eastern Europe. NATO stated that it intervened in response to "genocide" and ethnic cleansing. But it is clear that prior to the bombing "ethnic cleansing" was more the implementation of a harsh counterinsurgency campaign focused on rural centers of KLA activity. Widespread ethnic cleansing—an act of barbaric immorality—was implemented only after the NATO bombing campaign began. It is also clear that while NATO today likes to remind the world that Milosevic is a war criminal guilty of supporting earlier genocide in Bosnia and ethnic violence in Croatia, it is obvious to East Europeans that NATO not only has cut deals with Milosevic in the past, but is likely to do so in the future.
Such inconsistency undermines the West’s moral legitimacy in the eyes of the East. Orthodox Christians, including Russians, Ukrainians, Bulgarians, and Serbs, see themselves as heirs to an ancient and rich ecclesiastical and cultural legacy. They therefore resent the efforts of what they see as younger civilizations, particularly the U.S., to serve as moral arbiters in their own backyard. This resentment has been skillfully exploited by the highly refined demagoguery of Slobodan Milosevic, who is playing the cards of Orthodox and Slavic unity in a bid to bolster support for his disreputable regime.
A final factor influencing the response of Orthodox churches is their organizational foundation in nation–states. The Orthodox Christian belief in the equality and autonomy of the various national churches and patriarchates means that the various churches fashion their beliefs in the absence of supra–national influences such as those represented by the Rome–based papacy at the apex of the Catholic Church. This makes the Orthodox churches more susceptible to national public opinion and to the pressure of national state leaders, a relationship that was accentuated under Communist rule.
It was a dispute between the papacy and Eastern Christian patriarchates over the question of whether Rome was to have primacy (as the Orthodox saw it) or supremacy over all Christendom (in the Catholic view) that led to a schism between East and West in 1054. The gulf between Eastern and Western Christendom deepened as a consequence of the expansion of the Ottoman Empire, which placed most Slavic Christendom under Islamic rule. More recently, the East–West divide in Christian civilization was artificially perpetuated as a consequence of Communist rule and the East–West political divide. In many countries in the East, Orthodox Christian clerics had been vetted by Communist authorities and forced to participate in the political propaganda of Marxist–Leninist regimes.
That changed dramatically in the late 1980s, and political ferment began to gather pace in the Communist bloc, often with the participation of religious leaders. Today, Orthodox Christendom is reentering the public square after a prolonged period of control by Communist leaders. The collapse of communism also has resulted in a religious revival in much of Eastern Europe, whose religious and moral energy can make important contributions to shaping the transition from Communist rule to democracy. A number of Orthodox Christian societies have held democratic elections (Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine) and several have established an environment that respects the rule of law, private property, and basic human rights. This evolution has also created a citizenry that has established its attachment to liberal democratic values.
But the role of East European churches in this process—and in any durable process of rebuilding that will eventually come in Serbia and Kosovo—will not be strengthened if their voice and counsel are discounted or ignored by the political leaders of the West. It would be unfortunate if NATO’s effort to establish supremacy over the Serbs leads to a new political schism between East and West.
What, then, can and should be done to bring together the Orthodox countries of Eastern Europe and the Western countries of NATO? One answer can be limned from the actions of Pope John Paul II, who has done more in the post–Cold War era than any leader to strengthen democratic values and promote the spread of democracy.
As part of the effort to contribute to a global spiritual renaissance, the Pope has made a concerted effort to bring about a reconciliation with Orthodox Christendom and in this way to bridge the divide that has separated these two wings of Christendom. As a Slav, and as someone who has lived in a society deformed by totalitarian domination, John Paul II has understood how solidarity and a sense of moral connection among people guided by the same moral and spiritual values is an essential component of the effort to spread the ideals of justice and equity.
The Pope has sought to span the breach that history created and the West’s many missteps have widened. When he visited Romania in mid–May, he described his trip as "an important step along the road toward full unity." Such unity is an aim of both the Eastern and Western churches. But it should be an equally desirable aim of everyone in the West and the East committed to the idea of a community of democratic states and democratic values. As the West seeks to extricate itself from the Balkan morass, it would do well to recognize that progress toward justice in the Balkans will best be achieved by bridging the chasm that has developed between us and our natural allies in the East.
Adrian Karatnycky is President of Freedom House, a human rights organization based in New York.