A religious dispute is brewing in Romanian-Ukrainian relations
by Andrew Korybko on 28 Mar 2024 0 Comment

From Kiev’s perspective, the creation of a separate Orthodox church for one of their country’s many ethnic minorities could be regarded as a latent threat to national unity since it might embolden others to follow suit if the authorities approve this one, hence why it might be rejected for political reasons.


Balkan Insight (BI), which is a pro-Western regional media platform, surprised observers by publishing a critical piece about how “Religious Rivalry Threatens Romania-Ukraine’s Close Partnership”. They drew attention to how the Romanian Orthodox Church’s (BOR) support last month for the creation of a separate church for ethnic Romanians in Ukraine could cause problems in their ties. According to BI, there aren’t any anti-Ukrainian intentions behind this move, though Kiev might not see it that way.


Most of this former Soviet Republic’s estimated 400,000 Romanian speakers belong to the formerly Russian-linked Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), which doesn’t recognize the “Orthodox Church in Ukraine” (OCU) that received “self-governing status” in a controversial move half a decade ago. The BOR doesn’t fully recognize the OCU and is worried that Kiev’s crackdown on the UOC to which most Romanian speakers in that country belong can cause problems for its co-ethnics.


BI reported that “the clampdown has been widened to include searches of UOC premises in a diocese in the Chernivtsi region in the west of the country, where most of Ukraine’s Romanian religious community live, with a Romanian-speaking metropolitan now facing trial for alleged ‘incitement to religious hatred’”. Ethnic Romanians “have (also) been complaining about several recent ‘suspicious’ incidents, with unidentified perpetrators burning down several churches or threatening members of the clergy.”


Seeing as how the Mainstream Media hasn’t reported on these incidents, it should be taken for granted that there isn’t even the flimsiest evidence connecting them to Russia, which thus by default suggests that the culprits are likely ultra-nationalist Ukrainians. Ethnic Romanians are probably collateral damage of these extremists’ attacks against that formerly Russian-linked institution, which is probably why the BOR believes that they should have their own church so as to differentiate themselves for safety.


To that end, they’ll have to register their parishes as religious organizations, but an expert that BI cited speculated that Kiev might reject their request for political reasons. He didn’t elaborate on the possible pretexts behind that scenario and only reaffirmed how sure he is that any dispute would be amicably resolved, but if that happens, then it’ll almost likely be due to the authorities wanting to pressure ethnic Romanians into joining their regime’s OCU instead, which has almost identical rites as the UOC.


The precedent that BI shared at the end of their article regarding the BOR’s efforts to encourage defections from the Russian-linked Moldovan Orthodox Church (MOC) to their own autonomous local diocese there known as the Metropolis of Bessarabia adds more context to why Kiev might reject this request. They informed their audience that “the Romanian Orthodox Church also supported this decision by offering generous salaries and other benefits to the deserting priests.”


In other words, they were bribed for ethno-political reasons related to Romania’s desire to bring more of its co-ethnics in that neighbouring country under its church’s religious influence, and this approach could foreseeably be emulated in Ukraine in the coming future as well. The BOR doesn’t fully recognize the OCU and already had success “spiritually poaching” some of Moldova’s faithful from the Russian-linked MOC so it naturally follows that they might at the very least cautiously attempt this in Ukraine too.


From Kiev’s perspective, the creation of a separate Orthodox church for one of their country’s many ethnic minorities could be regarded as a latent threat to national unity since it might embolden others to follow suit if the authorities approve this one, hence why it might be rejected for political reasons. If that happens and “suspicious incidents” continue targeting ethnic Romanians, let alone increase in frequency and possibly also intensity, then this might be followed by the outbreak of genuinely grassroots unrest.


Should the regime respond with the disproportionate use of force and footage of their crackdown circulates across social media, then it might contribute to worsening Romanians’ perceptions of Ukraine. The European Council on Foreign Relations’ (ECFR) poll of their views that was conducted in January and then published a month later shared some surprising findings about their attitudes towards that neighbouring country.


More than two times as many Romanians think that the conflict will end with Russia’s victory instead of Ukraine’s at 18% and 9% respectively, while 37% expect a compromise. Exactly half of those surveyed also said that the EU should push Ukraine to negotiate with Russia while just 21% said that they should support them in reconquering their lost territories. Meanwhile, 35% of Romanians told the ECRF that they considered Ukrainians a threat to their country compared to 13% who see them as an opportunity.


Another interesting statistical tidbit is that 44% Romanians would favour their country curtailing aid to Ukraine if the US were the first to do so under a second Trump presidency, while just 12% think that the EU should replace the US’ potentially lost aid and only 15% think that it should stay the same in that case. Lastly, 39% of them think that the EU has played a negative role in the conflict over the past two years compared to 28% who believe that it’s been positive.


These attitudes are important since Romania facilitates the dispatch of Western arms to Ukraine via the Ukrainian-Greek corridor that runs through that country and Bulgaria. It also hosts French troops and could thus be a launchpad for Paris to conventionally intervene in the conflict to seize control of Ukraine’s Black Sea coast for example. The possibility of Polish-inspired protesters blocking the border in response to an anti-Romanian crackdown in Ukraine could therefore reshape the conflict’s dynamics.


For that reason, observers should continue monitoring the religious dispute that’s brewing in Romanian-Ukrainian relations, especially since pro-Western BI of all outlets is already very concerned about this. They wouldn’t have raised awareness of this subject unless they seriously thought that it could lead to something bigger since simply talking about it could lead to them being accused of pushing propaganda.  Knowing Kiev, an anti-Romanian crackdown can’t be ruled out, though it’s unclear when it might happen.




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