An Orthodox Approach to Soft Power

This month, Serbia’s government approved a Russian plan to construct a vast network of pipeline stretching from the Bulgarian border towards Western Europe. This new leg of pipeline will bring Gazprom, the Russian state oil firm, one step closer to completing their ‘southern corridor’ of flow, meant to funnel the country’s oil and natural gas to buyers in the West and Turkey. While most political pundits have chosen to focus on the implications of this new pipeline on Russian relations with the Ukraine, through which most Russian oil and natural gas exports currently flow, it remains critical to analyze how and why Serbia came to approve this project. Along with traditional economic incentives, this iteration of Serbia-Russian partnership was facilitated via a strategic use of cultural influence and soft power that has been explicitly and tactically cultivated by Russia.

It may appear that access to a major inflow of foreign investment and energy infrastructure is a clear win for Serbia. However, economic incentives for cooperation with Gazprom come with a steep tradeoff in geopolitical autonomy. Dependency on or affinity for cheap Russian fuel gives Moscow leverage in dealing with foreign governments. Simultaneously, the presence of Russian pipeline in any foreign state increases Russian interest in keeping that state as close as possible to their sphere of influence. Given that the explicit goals of current President Aleksandar Vučić include a concrete path toward Serbian accession into the EU, and that a majority of Serbian citizens support the same goal, it seems counterproductive for the country to bind itself closer to Vladimir Putin, the Russian President.

Longstanding cultural ties have cultivated a friendly relationship between Serbia and Russia. In the decades leading up to the First World War, a rise in Pan-Slavist sentiment from the Romanov Empire resulted in a strong, if asymmetric, alliance between the two peoples. When the Kingdom of Serbia faced aggression from Austria-Hungary, Russia took little time to step in and defend their ‘brother slavs.’ Later, however, as the dust of the Second World War settled, the suppression of the Orthodox Church and the Tito-Stalin split led to a steep drop in camaraderie between Yugoslavia (Tito) and the USSR (Stalin).

After the fall of communism in 1989, the dismantlement of the multi-ethnic federations which had housed both Russia and Serbia, namely, the USSR and Yugoslavia, opened the door a rebuilding of their dormant cooperation. Three core identities mediate this national alliance: Slavism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and an opposition to the West. Russians and Serbs have consistently held on to their Slavic identity, and, in the absence of the USSR and Yugoslavia, both now belong to explicitly Slavic nation-states. The 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia, as a result of the conflict in Kosovo, solidified explicit Serbian opposition to Western leadership and influence. The commonality of Eastern Orthodoxy remains as a shared identity that has yet to be fully rebuilt. Serbia, Montenegro, and North Macedonia are the only Slavic, Orthodox countries that did not belong to the Warsaw Pact. Serbia is the most geopolitically important of the three, and the one with the fewest ties to the West. These conditions incentivize Russia to highlight cultural commonalities and attempt to rebuild old alliances.

"Ties between Orthodox Christians have long been used, tactically, as political capital for Russia, but a shift toward the active construction of Orthodoxy – literally – is a novel strategy. "

And rebuild they have. Just two years ago, a visitor to the Serbian capital would’ve had a hard time escaping signs of Russian investment in culture and memory. Gazprom financed a Russian painter to complete the interior mosaic of the country’s largest Orthodox Cathedral, Sveti Sava, which was finished in 2018. The church’s unveiling was attended by Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, who used his time in Serbia to extend and deepen cultural and political ties. The Gazprom investment in the construction of the Sveti Sava Cathedral marks an important turn in Russian Orthodox Pan-Slavism. Ties between Orthodox Christians have long been used, tactically, as political capital for Russia, but a shift toward the active construction of Orthodoxy — literally — is a novel strategy.

It should, of course, be noted that although political ambitions often motivate Russian and Serbian leaders to appeal to religion, the Orthodox faith is still a strong and authentic identity in both countries. Belief in the church and its institutions is deep-seated, and vastly predates this more recent Russian monetary investment. Vladimir Putin did not make this piggy bank of soft power, but he has diligently filled it with coins. The approval of the pipeline shows that this investment is beginning to bear fruit.

Simultaneously, leaning in to Christianity and Christian identity seems a shrewd move given strong Eastern European Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism. The Visegrad states of Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Poland engage in frequent appeals to Christianity to further anti-migrant and, by extension, eurosceptic claims. Feeding money and lending legitimacy to churches across Eastern Europe has the impact of inflaming identities opposed to the EU. As the EU and Russia find themselves opposed on issues of security and energy, it isn’t hard to see that inflaming Visegrad’s Christian sentiment serves a Russian interest.

Serbian Orthodoxy is particularly important in terms of its relationship to Serbian sentiments about Kosovo. As a former province of the Serbian Republic, Kosovo is home to many of Serbian Orthodoxy’s most holy and important monasteries. Although there is broad resistance to the recognition of an independent Kosovo within Serbia, Orthodox leaders are particularly hard-line, and religious Serbs are consistently more likely to support a harder stance on Kosovo.

Though causality is difficult to prove, the trends of increased religious participation, decreased support for accession into the EU, and Russian investment in church infrastructure are strongly correlated. If current patterns hold, and support for the EU continues to fall at the rate it has in Serbia for the last five years, it is difficult to imagine a serious push for membership going forward. This plays directly in Moscow’s favor, as evidenced by Belgrade’s decision to okay the new pipeline. With the war in Ukraine still frozen, and the relationship with Belarus largely mixed, it makes sense for Russia to continue expanding ties and building influence in the Balkans, their other avenue toward Western Europe. Orthodoxy and Orthodox infrastructure is fertile ground for exerting the soft power to strengthen these relationships.

Photo: “Virgin Mary and Jesus

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