Aleksandr Lukashenko's first European destination: the Vatican

Pope Benedict XVI (L) poses with Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko (AFP Photo / Osservatore Romano / Francesco Sforza)
Belarusian leader joins the club of Gordon Brown, Angela Merkel and Tony Blair and other heads of state who have paid a visit to Pope Benedict XVI

It is remarkable that the Belarusian president chose Italy as the first EU country to visit after officials in Brussels lifted visa restrictions on his travels to the European Union last year. It is more remarkable that the first person he met with there was Pope Benedict XVI.

It is no secret that contact with the Pope is an important part of world politics. Any president or other remarkable figure feels it his duty to meet the Holy Father. The Belarusian leader was well aware of the meaning of such a meeting. After he talked privately to Benedict XVI he now has at least one thing in common with major European politicians: Gordon Brown, Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy, Tony Blair, etc. In light of the upcoming Prague summit, where the EU is to launch its ambitious European partnership program, this meeting definitely gives Aleksandr Lukashenko certain advantages. The trivial knocks he got from some Czech officials, who promised not to shake hands with him and not to let him out of the plane, have lost their edge after the Belarusian president has improved his image in the Pope’s parlour.

Many birds – many stones

However, it is not only his wish to receive political dividends prior to the Prague summit that has driven Aleksandr Lukashenko to go to the Vatican. Before the meeting, the Belarusian president said he was going to present the Pope with a number of questions from the Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia, Kirill. Talking to the Pope, he also expressed hope that Benedict XVI would come to Belarus. The visit of the Pope to Belarus, which is a canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church, would itself be a notable event. Clearly, the Belarusian leader wants to play a role in organizing a historical meeting of the Pope and the Patriarch on Belarusian territory, and that was what he proposed to Patriarch Kirill while in Moscow this spring.

The idea to bring leaders of the two branches of Christianity together in Belarus is not a new one. Aleksandr Lukashenko proposed it as early as in 2002. However, today it has taken on an interesting twist: Kirill already met Benedict XVI several times as a head of the Department for External Church Relations of the Russian Orthodox Church. He was also often criticized for his ecumenical policies, as he advocates for deeper cooperation with the Catholic Church. All this makes the possibility of a meeting between the leaders of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches greater than ever. And if Lukashenko’s proposal is accepted, Belarus will play an important role as a conciliator and a peacemaker. In this sense, Lukashenko is doing a great job, improving Belarus’ image on an international level and doing a favor for Kirill who, according to all indications, would like to meet the Pope.

At the same moment, by inviting Benedict XVI, Lukashenko may hope to solve another problem. The Catholic Church in Belarus has traditionally been regarded as a Polish church. Though the situation is changing, around 40% of Catholic priests in Belarus are from Poland (and have Polish citizenship). And while there are no inter-confessional problems on this ground, Catholicism in Belarus widely maintains a Polish identity for those Poles living there, which undermines the country’s ethnic unity. To change the situation, Belarusian authorities hope to put forth an idea of supporting the non-Polish Catholic Church in Belarus at the heart of the Pope’s visit. However, does the Belarusian leadership have the right understanding of the consequences of such a move?

Wait and see

If Aleksandr Lukashenko succeeds in making the Catholic Church in Belarus less associated with the Poles, the Church will become more popular. But contrary to what the Belarusian leadership wants, the “Polish party” will not play a smaller role there. At the moment Poland is implementing its “Polish Card” program for Belarusians, which is very popular in the Western regions. Polish Catholic priests are obtaining Belarusian citizenship. Also, Belarusia sees economic cooperation with Poland as a source of benefit during the crisis and Warsaw as one of the chief operators of the Eastern partnership program. Therefore, the real influence of Warsaw in Belarus will strengthen, though it will take another form.

In the global context, there are signs that the worldwide ecumenical project can be launched very soon. Just to mention Kirill’s pro-ecumenical views, the Urbi et Orbi blessing without the Filioque clause “and the Son” (according to the Orthodox tradition), which the Pope gave last year, as well as positive messages from both sides. However, if the Pope comes to Belarus and meets the Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia, the reaction of the Orthodox Church would not be as united and positive as it seems to be now. We would, inevitably, see the development of sectarianism and other internal conflicts.

We would see a similar reaction in Belarusian society. Though Aleksandr Lukashenko calls himself an Orthodox atheist, the leadership of the country partly receives its legitimacy from its Orthodoxy. The Belarusian president used to visit all Orthodox Easter services where he talked about the unique role of the Orthodox Church as a stabilizing factor in Belarusian society. This year he was not there. After Lukashenko’s meeting with Benedict XVI, and amidst talks of the possible Pope’s meeting with the Patriarch on Belarusian territory, many Orthodox Belarusians would regard their president’s behaviour as double-dealing. This change in attitude could lead to a very interesting shift in the political landscape, especially at a time of rapprochement with the West. Moreover, the same reaction can be expected from the large number of Orthodox Russians, who traditionally regarded Lukashenko as a defender of traditional values. Is the game worth the candle?

Darya Sologub for RT