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Christ the Saviour church in Banja Luka

Russia uses Banja Luka church centre to gain foothold in Republika Srpska

Aleksandar Brezar

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's most recent visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina did not pass without spectacle. His claim in the capital city Sarajevo on 20 September, two weeks before the Bosnian general election, that Russia had no interest in meddling in Bosnia's internal politics, was undermined by his actions the very next day. His next stop, Banja Luka, the de facto capital and centre of one of Bosnia's entities, the Bosnian Serb-majority Republika Srpska, was punctuated by a very public show of support for the current Russian favourite in the region, but also marked a new chapter in the Kremlin's ever-increasing presence.

Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik welcomed Lavrov in front of the foundations of a Serbian-Russian church and cultural center, a 6,500 square-meter Russian-style, Russian-funded monument to what is becoming a very close relationship between Dodik and Putin and his regime.

Although originally announced as a "modest church on the block" the urban planning regulations in Banja Luka's downtown Gundulićeva Street, in the immediate vicinity of the RS Parliament building and the state TV headquarters, had to be changed to accommodate this massive endeavour. The three-story building, with five of the onion-shaped domes specific to Russian places of worship, was later said to be an exact copy of the cathedral dedicated to the miracles of Archangel Michael, which was once part of the Kremlin.

This is still practically all we know about this building, which is rather unusual for the Balkans, both in terms of architectural style and purpose. The project has been shrouded in a veil of mystery, with only sporadic mentions of its construction and Lavrov's potential visit for almost two years. 

There have been vague mentions of possible cultural events and perhaps, a language school. This is in itself rather strange, given that a Russian cultural centre already exists in Banja Luka. The Russkiy Mir (Russian World) Foundation opened a centre here in September 2012, making Banja Luka its 87th location outside of Russia.

Russkiy Mir, as has been covered extensively by foreign media. As explained by Dr. Andrew Foxall, director of the Russia Studies Centre at The Henry Jackson Society, it was founded with the purpose of promoting values that challenge Western traditions.

Chaired by Vyacheslav Nikonov, a grandson of Soviet statesman Vyacheslav Molotov, and a former deputy head of the KGB, Russkiy Mir is said to be "a propaganda agency operating in Europe under the Kremlin," as reported in Gazeta Polska, citing NATO sources. It is difficult to imagine that this Serb-Russian church and the accompanying cultural centre will not be conducting similar activities – but, given the context, on a much larger scale.

The lack of information about the purpose of the centre was initially papered over with false historical references and the creation of a myth surrounding the Romanov family, giving everything an impenetrable veneer of Slavic and Orthodox brotherhood and unity. The main misconception has been passed around by the Bosnian Serb and Serbian media as a fact since the spring of 2017. At the signing of the gift agreement between the owner of the land, the Krajina Construction Company (Građevinsko preduzeće Krajina) - who in turn got contract to build it – and the Church Municipality of Banja Luka, the Bishop of Banja Luka, Jefrem stated that "this was a century-old idea."

Given the differences between the two churches, it is hard to believe that a Russian church of that size would have been planned in Banja Luka one hundred years ago. In 1917, Banja Luka and Bosnia were still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and there was no significant number of Russian émigrés present at the time. If any Orthodox Christian minority could have made this claim, it would have been the Ukrainians: in around 1900, the Austro-Hungarian government moved a number of Ukrainians to the area around Prnjavor, and the number grew to 12,000 by 1941. 

In comparison, Russians only started to come to the territory of now-Republika Srpska and Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1919 onwards. Even then, most of the 60,000 Russian fleeing the post-October revolution communist regime decided to stay in Serbia. The 1921 census shows that there were only 2,636 ethnic Russians in Bosnia proper, and this number had fallen to 297 by 1991.

Claims by Bishop Jefrem of plans for a monumental church of this size are even more questionable if one takes into account that the one Russian Orthodox church that was built in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was the Church of the Holy Trinity in Belgrade, which was constructed in 1924. The church, which can be still found in Belgrade, is miniscule in comparison to the one planned for Banja Luka.

Enter the Russian propaganda machine: in February 2018, Sputnik News Serbia published an article titled "A Hundred Year-Long Dream: Banja Luka Sees the Rise of a Serb-Russian Sanctity Never Seen Before in the Balkans". It expanded on Bishop Jefrem's earlier claim, saying the Russian-Serb Centre was being built "as a sign of gratitude to Nikolay II, an idea that waited an entire century to become real." In the article, priest Miladin Mitrović, who is "involved in tasks related to the construction of the church" claims that the idea was the Serbian intelligentsia’s way of thanking the Russian tsar for his support of Serbia during World War I, but that the "events that followed didn't allow for this idea to become reality under communism." The article adds a reminder that the last Russian emperor and his family were canonized by the Russian Church, which adds another layer of sacredness.

But the question still stands: who exactly will be using this building for religious purposes? There is no parish of the Russian Orthodox Church in the RS or Bosnia and Herzegovina, so there is no obvious ecumenical use for it in Banja Luka. It is thus safe to assume that the religious aspect of this centre is purely for show, at least in terms of the actual presence of the Russian Orthodox Church, and will be probably used by Serb Orthodox priests and faithful instead.

The lack of logic in building a church of this size in a central location in Banja Luka never seems to have been questioned by the Banja Luka and RS media, whose attention has been diverted by glamorous 3D renderings of its future appearance, or the constant invocations of Russia’s superstar royal family the Romanovs.

This is visible in Bishop Jefrem's elation at the mention of Russia’s royals in 2017, when he said that "2018 marks the centenary of the execution of the Russian tsarist family, and we will try our best to consecrate the cornerstone by then." Jefrem is the highest ranked priest of the Serb Orthodox Church in Bosnia. How he allowed the Russian-Serb Centre to become Banja Luka's tallest and largest church, even overshadowing the landmark Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, appears to concern no one.

The Sputnik Serbia article about the church is telling: quoting priest Mitrović, it states that the project is actively supported by the city of Banja Luka and the Republika Srpska government, the Russian Federation, but also "the people (of RS) and persons interested in its realisation." Reading between the lines, these "persons" are probably Russian political and religious actors.

Constructing a replica of a Russian church is an obvious way of cementing Russia's presence in Bosnia and Herzegovina's Serb majority entity, as well as using the space provided for the potential indoctrination of its citizens under the guise of cultural work and "building bridges".

These scenarios are nothing new in the region, and were used by other countries, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, for instance, with varying degrees of success. 

The religious aspect is equally interesting. Building a church-based cultural centre allows for much less criticism than a secular one, as any questions can easily be dismissed as encroachment on religious freedoms, especially in a country like Bosnia, where the vast majority of the population is conservatively religious. The renewed rise of religion following the break-up of Yugoslavia and the subsequent wars has created not only a deeply religious culture quite sensitive to any criticism, but also an entirely new generation of those born after the fall of Yugoslavia who were raised in this particular atmosphere. All of these factors create a society where criticism of any holy place constructed in the post-war period would cause an immediate backlash by the public. 

At the same time, this centre also provides the faltering Russian Orthodox Church with the possibility of moving into previously uncharted territory. The recent schism with the Orthodox Church's holy seat in Constantinople over the independence of its Ukrainian counterpart represents a loss of power. It would be more than beneficial to the Russian Orthodox Church to find a new satellite in the Serb Orthodox Church. Attempts to incrementally increase its control over the Serb Orthodox Church can be seen in recent years, with the Russian Church's involvement in the political situation in Kosovo and investments in major Serb churches and holy sites. The Banja Luka centre can be seen as a major step forward in what could be a long-term plan to gain some sort of control.

All this, in turn, translates into what seems to be the long-term plan of Russia in the Republika Srpska: by playing the political and social big brother, Russia in the RS has an ally in the middle of Europe that can be used, for instance, to undermine EU sanctions, or as a springboard for furthering malign interference in the region.

Once they have been indoctrinated, it will be extremely difficult to point out to the public that they are being used for these purposes while receiving very little in return. With public and private media in the RS supporting the process and the church on its side, this time it will not take 100 years to make this “dream into a reality”. 

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