The intensifying clash between Moldova’s two Eastern Orthodox churches reflects the growing conflict over Chisinau’s turn away from Moscow and pursuit of integration with the West. The larger of the two churches, the Metropolitanate of Chisinau and All Moldova, is a self-governing hierarchy under the Moscow Patriarchate, has strongholds in the traditionally pro-Moscow bastions of Transnistria and Gagauzia and favors continued close ties with Russia. The smaller church, with just over 10 percent of the Moldovan population, is the Bessarabian Orthodox Church, an autonomous hierarchy under the Romanian Orthodox Church. It backs the unification of Moldova with Romania, the most radical form of Westernization. In the past, Chisinau sought to maintain amicable relations with both; however, new attacks on the pro-Moscow church by the pro-Romanian one have made that position ever-less tenable. This in turn gives Moscow one more lever to use against Chisinau’s moves (Nezavisimaya gazeta, August 1).
This situation, mostly missed on the West’s radar, is complicated because it does not fit the templates of Orthodox church developments elsewhere. Instead, it is the product of the complicated history of Moldova itself whose borders were expanded by Stalin during World War II. That means the widespread assumption that Chisinau will follow Ukraine and other former Soviet republics and seek to create a national church by pursuing autocephaly may not happen. (On such assumptions, see EDM, August 12, 2021, December 8, 2022.) As a result, the situation in Moldova is one that both Chisinau and its Western allies will have to navigate carefully lest the Kremlin uses its church to destabilize President Maia Sandu’s government, which has adopted an increasingly anti-Moscow position (Glavny.tv, August 16).
Indeed, tensions between Russia and Moldova have escalated in the past few months, with Chisinau attacking Moscow’s positions, expelling Russian diplomats and talking more often about a Moldovan union with Romania. Such a union would immediately include what is now Moldova within both the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the worst possible outcome as far as Moscow is concerned and something Russian supporters in Moldova have opposed vigorously (Report.az, May 17). At the end of May 2023, Sandu ensured that the two churches would become involved by labeling the pro-Russian Orthodox church in Moldova “an agent of Russian influence” and by taking actions that many in that church felt presaged a broader attack on the Metropolitanate and even an effort to ban it (Nezavisimaya gazeta, August 1).
While Chisinau has taken no such steps, the Bessarabian church added fuel to the fire by declaring that it did not recognize any actions by the Russian church and that it stood ready to take into its ranks “all clergy and believers” who want to be subordinate to the Bessarabian church, which the pro-Romanian church described as “the church of the nation.” That was followed by the publication of the Bessarabian church’s declaration concerning what it called “the non-canonical nature of the structure of the Russian church,” in which it was asserted that “the Chisinau Metropolitanate is an occupation structure of the Moscow Patriarchate [emphasis added]” (Noi.md, July 6). Not surprisingly, leading pro-Moscow politicians reacted with anger, as did clerics and congregants in Gagauzia and Transnistria (Comunist.md, July 28). For his part, Metropolitan Vladimir (Cantarean), leader of the pro-Russian church, remained relatively quiet, possibly hoping to avoid the kind of explosion that could lead Chisinau to turn against his church completely and pursue autocephaly for a national Moldovan Orthodox church.
That is the conclusion of Moscow political analyst Alexey Makarkin, who says that Metropolitan Vladimir is “a very experienced official” who has worked with a variety of Moldovan governments and who is navigating his own church through these turbulent waters. On the one hand, the Russian analyst says, the Orthodox leader must take into consideration that “the Moldovan church is very conservative” and is opposed to everything “connected with European influence.” Yet, on the other, Vladimir does not want to do anything that others might use to portray his church as an agent of Moscow to the point of promoting autocephaly for the Bessarabian church or the union of Moldova and Romania. He is thus being exceedingly careful, Makarkin suggests, hoping that the majority of believers are on his side and that Sandu will back away from her attacks and support his church because of its dominance in Moldova (Nezavisimaya gazeta, August 1).
The Moscow analyst argues that Vladimir’s careful approach means that “a Ukrainian scenario” for church affairs is not likely in Moldova as it would trigger problems for Sandu and others seeking integration with the West. Instead, what appears more likely is a continuation of the current situation—one in which the Bessarabian church will attack the pro-Moscow Moldovan church and Chisinau will move away from its past support of the Moscow church to a more balanced approach to the two churches. If that is the case—and Makarkin’s argument on this point seems persuasive—then yet another path to the dismantling of the influence of the Moscow Patriarchate and the Kremlin will open, not only for Moldova but in other former Soviet republics as well.
Not all the approaches that the former Soviet republics or formerly occupied Baltic countries have adopted to the Moscow church are comprehended by the term autocephaly and policies similar to those adopted in Ukraine. In Estonia, for example, there are now two Orthodox churches, one subordinate to Moscow and a second to the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople. Of course, there, the situation is easier because the share of Estonians who are Orthodox is rather small. (On these varieties of transitions, see EDM, September 13, 2022, December 8, 2022). Moldova seems to be on course to follow the Estonian model at least for a time; however, as it is a predominantly Orthodox country, that is likely to prove difficult and the problems with such an approach are likely to intensify as Chisinau continues its move toward the West. At the very least, political analysts and policymakers sympathetic to Moldova very much need to keep this developing situation in mind.