The future of Christian Orthodoxy in Latvia faces a choice between the Estonian scenario, in which there will be two Orthodox Churches recognized by Riga (one subordinate to Moscow and the other to Constantinople), or the Ukrainian one, in which there will emerge a single autocephalous Orthodox Church subordinate not to Moscow but to the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople. The Latvian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate is trying to head off both these possibilities with demonstrations of loyalty to Riga, but those efforts are increasingly distancing that Church from Moscow. As such, they indicate that the Russian Orthodox Church’s Moscow Patriarchate (ROC-MP) as well as the Kremlin have already suffered yet another loss abroad and will now be hampered from using the Orthodox Church in Latvia to mobilize ethnic Russians. It is as yet unclear which course the Church in Latvia will follow, but one thing is certain: the current situation is unsustainable (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 1; Pareizticiba.lv, October 16).
As is often the case with Orthodox Church affairs, much of this fight, which involves church hierarchs, the laity, and the governments of Latvia and the Russian Federation, is taking place out of public view. Often, those involved have made a conscious effort to keep things secret. Nevertheless, enough evidence has surfaced over the last month to suggest that the situation is becoming critical, sparking hopes among Latvian nationalists and fears in Moscow that fundamental changes are about to overtake the Orthodox Church in Latvia.
In Latvia, there currently are de facto two Orthodox Churches: the Latvian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, which since 1992 has been autonomous but not autocephalous and has more than 100 congregations, and the much smaller Latvian Orthodox Autonomous Church, which looks to Constantinople. The former enjoys the recognition of the Latvian state, while the latter is seeking it. Many of the displays of loyalty to Riga that the hierarchs of the Moscow Patriarchal Church have shown appear designed in the first instance to prevent that from happening.
Over the last decade, however, three things have occurred that have raised questions about the Patriarchal Church’s ability to maintain itself as the only officially recognized Orthodox Church in Latvia. First, the Latvian government has published records from Soviet times showing that the metropolitan of that Church, 80-year-old Aleksandr, was recruited as a KGB agent in the 1980s. Second, the Latvian government has passed a law requiring that the head of any denomination in Latvia must be a Latvian citizen and have lived in the republic for at least a decade; this means that Moscow has limited options for replacing him and has had to live with Aleksandr’s violation of ROC-MP rules specifying that a hierarch must resign at 75. Finally, the Latvian Autonomous Orthodox Church has picked up support among Latvians and Latvian officials and appears set to secure a ruling by the Latvian Supreme Court that will give it official status, albeit breaking the one faith–one religious organization principle that has defined Riga’s approach in the past and on which the Patriarchal Church has counted.
The situation has heated up dramatically in the last two weeks. On October 9, on an emergency basis, Metropolitan Aleksandr convened a Church Council, which praised him on his 80th birthday; celebrated the growth of the Latvian Orthodox and their good relations with the Latvian government; and approved without details additional modifications to its rules of order, which are different than those of the Moscow Church. It dispatched two clerics to Moscow for talks to obtain approval from the Patriarchate, but no details about those discussions have yet surfaced (Pareizticiba.lv, October 16).
The suddenness of the meeting and the secrecy surrounding it—all delegates had to turn in their cellphones in advance, observers said—have sparked concerns in Moscow that its Church in Latvia is thinking about autocephaly or at the very least is guilty (from the Russian Church’s point of view) of “double loyalty” to Russia and Latvia. That worries Moscow because its Church’s efforts to curry favor with the Latvian government have already meant, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin of the ROC-MP argues, that that Church is not “defending the rights of Russian-speaking believers who suffer from ethnic discrimination” in Latvia (Credo.press, October 11; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 15).
In addition, Russian commentators like Artur Priymak of Nezavisimaya Gazeta–Religiihave concluded that the threat of official recognition of the Latvian Autonomous Orthodox Church and the creation of an Estonian-style situation is causing the Moscow Church in Latvia to defer so much to the Latvian authorities that it is becoming a separate Church in all but name—something the ROC-MP and the Kremlin do not want (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 1). If the Moscow Church succeeds in stopping recognition of the Latvian Autonomous Orthodox Church, that would clearly be welcome in the Russian capital, but if it does so only by ceasing to be a Russian Church, that would be a disaster, a move toward autocephaly in all but name and a step that would further weaken the ROC-MP in Russia and abroad, thus weakening the Kremlin’s ability to use the Church for political purposes.
Though many might view these developments as little more than a tempest in a teapot, in fact it is a far more important development. What is happening in Latvia represents the continuing nationalization of Orthodoxy throughout the region—as most recently on display in Ukraine. And as such, it is another nail in the coffin of Vladimir Putin’s much-ballyhooed “Russian World.”