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Ben Robinson

Moscow’s attempts to divide seen behind election of outsider as head of the Estonian Orthodox Church

Kaarel Kullamaa

On 29 May 2018, the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (EOCMP) chose its new metropolitan after the 93-year old Metropolitan Kornelius passed away on 19 April. What comes as a surprise however, is that the Church synod, which consists of 32 local congregation members, all of the clergy and one of the church's secular representatives, conferred this position upon the current rector of the Moscow Religious Academy and Archbishop of Vereya, Yevgeny (citizen’s name Vladimir Reshetnikov, aged 61) instead of the local Narva and Peipriveere Bishop Lazar (citizen’s name Alexandr Gurkin, aged 49).1

Lazar has strong roots in the Estonian church community. Although he was born in the Russian village of Staroe Drakino, on 13 March 1969, Lazar has served as Bishop of Narva and at the bishopric of the diocese at Tallinn since 2009. In 2011, he was promoted to Bishop of Narva and Peipsiveere, which made him the second-most important figure in the EOCMP. After the death of Metropolitan Kornelius, he became vice-chairman of the church.2 Vereya Yevgeny on the other hand is almost unknown in Estonia and has no previous connection with Estonia whatsoever. He had only briefly visited the country during church holidays. Vereya was born on 9 October 1957 in Kazakhstan and has been working as rector at the Moscow Religious Academy since 1995.3 Furthermore, in 2011, he was elected a member of the Supreme Church Council of the Russian Orthodox Church.4 He is also known to have close connections with the Russian state. For example, two weeks after the annexation of Crimea, Vereya was dispatched with a number of colleagues to St. Vladimir’s Cathedral in Sevastopol as a representative of the Russian Orthodox Church, with the aim of developing deeper relations with the Russian armed forces and law-enforcement personnel.5

Although the EOCMP is under the canonical jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate – through which the religious unity and canonical communication with other local orthodox churches is managed – it is, according to its constitution, a self-administering local church with its own insignia, seal and constitution.6 Despite this, the EOCMP synod secretary Daniel Lepinski has admitted that Vereya’s candidacy was put forward by Moscow before the election took place. Vereya himself admitted in his interview after the election that he has no knowledge of the current situation in Estonia, but that one of his goals is to strengthen cooperation with Moscow.7 Vereya also stated pointedly that the Church could not be a passive bystander if parliament adopts laws that were fundamentally in conflict with the Gospel. 8 Moreover, EOCMP synod member Sergey Myannik stated that the close relationship between Vereya Yevgeny and Patriarch Kirill ought to strengthen the EOCMP’s position in Estonia.9

There are other indications that Russia is seeking to align the EOCMP with the policy of the Russian state. This has been alleged directly by former Moscow Religious Academy lecturer  Andrei Kurayev, who had previously worked under Yevgeny’ but was fired in 2013 after bringing attention to corruption in the Church.10 In his pre-election blog post called ‘Estonians - Citizens of the European Union or livestock of the Moscow Patriarchy?’, Kurayev warned Estonians that the Moscow patriarchate was determined  to appoint Yevgeny as Kornelius’s successor.11 According to him, the succession had most likely been decided by Moscow before the election.  Only by organising a two-stage election would the EOCMP be able to thwart Moscow’s intentions.  Nevertheless, the warning was disregarded. The election was held in the traditional way, whereby EOCMP puts forward its preferred candidate and Moscow makes the final decision. In this election, the process was opaque due to secret ballots, and the 73/34 vote distribution in favour of Yevgeny  came as a surprise even for synod members.12.

The latest developments inside the Estonian Orthodox Church should not be viewed in isolation. On 6 May Moscow published its list of Estonians to be banned from the Russian Federation in retaliation for Estonia’s sanctions against 49 Russian citizens on the ‘Magnitsky list’. Here, a curious consistency emerges. Instead of banning ethnic Estonians known for their ‘Russophobic’ views, the list also comprises ethnic Russian (but Estonian-minded) activists, academics and politicians: e.g. activists Yevgeny Krištafovitš and Sergei Metlev, as well as the respected historian Igor Kopõtin. But prominent anti-Russian chauvinists, e.g. former national conservative party leader Margus Tsahkna and former Reform party Secretary-General Kristen Micha, who both have publicly criticized Russia’s recent actions, are not on the list.

The rationale for these decisions was obliquely explained by President Putin during his annual TV phone-in, Pryamaya Liniya, on 8 June. Asked if the bans against citizens of the Baltic states were ‘too harsh’, Putin replied that while he did not support sanctions on principle and wished to develop relations, the bans are designed to show the West that the Baltic states have created nation-less people and are limiting the rights of Russian speakers and compatriots. In other words, odious Russophobes, who help keep this narrative alive, should be free to shout their lungs out. Russians working for harmony and integration should be discredited and marginalised. It is with this in mind that the latter were targeted.

The logic behind the ROC policy is the same: to keep the local Russian-speaking minority (many of them affiliated to the EOCMP) in the Russian sphere of influence and do everything possible to impede their integration with the majority population. 13


Historical Note: Although Estonia formed part of the domain of Western Christianity  for the greater part of the 13th-17th centuries, Orthodox missionaries had been  active in the southeast of today’s Estonian territory from the 10th century. Incorporation into the Russian Empire was accompanied by large-scale conversion, by the promise of land, free from the suppression of nobility.  After 1850, most of the Estonian Orthodox parishes formed part of the Diocese of Riga, but when the Estonian Republic was established in 1918, the Russian Patriarch recognised the independence of the Estonian Orthodox Church.  Following the effective crushing of the Russian Orthodox Church by the Bolshevik regime in 1922, the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church entered into direct communion with the Patriarch of Constantinople.  Yet by the end of the Soviet era, the Estonian Church (Moscow Patriarchate) had begun to re-establish itself – and as a foretaste of the events discussed below – with the covert support of the state.  Today, the Estonian Apostolic Church is by far the smaller of the two (some 25,000 believers). The Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (EOCMP) encompasses some 175,000 believers, roughly equivalent to half  the ethnic Slavic population. Today it is also the largest denomination in the country owing to the non-affiliation of the majority of Estonians: a striking change from the interwar period, when 80 percent of citizens were practising Lutherans.14

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