Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 11

In a soft replay of another historic territorial dispute in this region, the Russian and Romanian Orthodox Churches are negotiating the fate of Moldova’s Orthodox Church. The two claimant churches are treating Moldova’s more or less as Russia and Romania historically treated Moldova itself–namely, as a coveted object termed “Bessarabia.” This time, however, the claimants at least accept the Moldovans as a party to the negotiations.

Delegations of the Russian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate, the Romanian Orthodox Church and Moldova’s Metropolitanate held high-level talks on January 15 in Chisinau. Leading the delegations were Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, head of the Russian Church’s foreign relations department; two top Romanian clergymen of Metropolitan rank; and the Metropolitan Vladimir of Moldova and Chisinau. It was the fourth round of negotiations since 1997, and the first to be held in Moldova. The sides managed to agree only to continue the discussions. These are likely to be as arduous as the others (Flux, Basapress, January 15, 16).

The dispute dates back to the Russian Empire’s nineteenth century annexation of Bessarabia–a territory whose borders closely parallel those of the present Moldovan Republic. The conquest brought in its wake the authority of the Russian Orthodox Church over the local church. Romania gained Bessarabia during World War I and imposed the authority of its own Orthodox Church. The Soviet Union occupied the territory during World War II and returned the authority of the Russian Orthodox Church, which held sway until the collapse of the USSR. Both churches assisted state efforts to russify or, respectively, romanize the Moldovan national consciousness.

Moldova’s state independence since 1991 has not brought with it ecclesiastical independence. The Russian Church has granted the Moldovan Church full autonomy, but insists on retaining canonical supremacy. This situation, a post-colonial relict, is also most unnatural in that the Moldovans are outside the Slavic world in every respect. As in other parts of the former Russian Empire and of the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church regards itself as a legatee of the old empire’s patrimony in the sphere of ecclesiastical jurisdiction, despite the unraveling of the state’s territorial jurisdiction.

On the other hand, the Romanian Orthodox Church has created a “Metropolitanate of Bessarabia” in Moldova under the Romanian Patriarchate in Bucharest. It claims ecclesiastical authority both in the Republic of Moldova and in areas of Bessarabia which are now part of Ukraine. The Bucharest Patriarchate promotes the political unification of Moldova with Romania, and its affiliate in Moldova is associated with local pro-Romanian irredentist groups. The splinter church has made very little headway, partly because the Romanian cause is unpopular in Moldova, and partly because the authorities refuse to grant this organization legal recognition. The Metropolitanate of Bessarabia has brought its case against the Moldovan government before the Council of Europe and other international organizations. Meanwhile, the Metropolitanate of Moldova and Chisinau is successfully holding its own in terms of the allegiance of Orthodox believers in the republic.