Nationalism, Violence, and Reconciliation



by Stephen Hayes







This article deals with nationalism, violence and reconciliation in the Balkans, especially in the former Yugoslavia, and also in Russia. The Serbian Orthodox Church had regarded itself as protector of Serbian national identity, but this role had been usurped by the state, especially under Slobodan Milosevic. The Christian notion of national identity clashed with that of secular nationalism, and this hampered the reconciling ministry of the church. The South African experience of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission might be relevant to the Balkans, but if the conflict is to be resolved there must be an abandonment of the idea of the "zero sum game" - that the freedom of one group can only be guaranteed by taking away the freedom of another.




The problem of nationalism, violence and reconciliation is one that faces Christians in many parts of the world. In this article I shall discuss this problem primarily in the Balkans, and especially the former Yugoslavia, with occasional references to South Africa and other places.

Some of the material in this article is taken from my doctoral thesis on Orthodox mission methods, or from research I did for my thesis. I am interested in it because as an Orthodox Christian I see that the Orthodox Church has both a challenge and an opportunity to deal with this problem in the Balkans, where it faces Orthodox Christians in its most acute form. As a South African I am also interested in the very different approaches taken in South Africa and in the former Yugoslavia, where the former has abandoned apartheid after 45 years, while the latter has embraced it.

It is very difficult to write about, however, because the problem is enormously complicated, and it is continuing even as I write, so that what I write here may be overtaken by events. Because the problem is such an immediate one, it is also difficult to get accurate information. Much of what is written is propaganda, written from partisan viewpoints, and designed to put the motives and actions of others in the worst possible light. Distinguishing truth from falsehood in such a situation is not easy.


Another problem is where to start. The problem has historical roots, some of which go back a long way, and the temptation is to go further and further back, until the immediate problem is lost in the mists of ancient history. Nevertheless, some historical background is necessary, though it will be oversimplified. Since Missionalia is published in South Africa, I shall assume that most readers are familiar with the South African situation, and I shall concentrate on the Balkans in the historical background section, and will deal with the South African background more sketchily.



The Balkans is the name given to a group of countries in south-eastern Europe, close to the Balkan mountain range, which runs through Bulgaria. The Balkan countries include Romania, Bulgaria, the former Yugoslavia, Albania, Greece and European Turkey. At the beginning of the 19th century they were controlled by the Austro-Hungarian (Habsburg) and Ottoman Empires. They had largely peasant economies and had less industrial development than the countries of Western and Central Europe. The ruling classes (Austrians, Hungarians and Turks) spoke a different language, and had a different culture, and in some cases a different religion from the natives of the Balkan countries.

At the end of the First World War, the Balkan countries were independent, and the multi-national empires that had ruled them had disappeared from the map. One of the factors that contributed to this change was nationalism.


European nationalism

Nationalism developed differently in Eastern and Western Europe. Western European nationalism, especially in England, France and Spain, grew up with the idea of the nation-state. It was primarily a political notion, and a nation was seen as the people who were part of a nation-state, living in the same territory, under a common political system (Stambrook 1969:15). This idea grew gradually, and so Western European nationalism never became as self-assertive and strident as Eastern European nationalism (Stambrook 1969:12). In the West nationalism was linked with the idea of popular sovereignty and went hand in hand with the cult of individualism.

Eastern European nationalism developed in different circumstances. People had fewer political and legal rights, they were generally poorer, and were ethnically more heterogeneous (Stambrook 1969:16). At the beginning of the 19th century France dominated much of Central and Eastern Europe both politically (through the Napoleonic conquests) and culturally. In reaction to this the idea arose that people should use their native language for all their creative thinking. This idea was stressed by the German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803), who put the stress on individuals finding their identity as part of the nation, and every nation having its own national spirit (Volksgeist). There was less emphasis on human rights and personal freedom than there was in French and British nationalism (Gotovska-Popova 1993:173). For Herder, freedom was primarily freedom to speak and write in one's own language; it was freedom from domination by an alien culture (Stambrook 1969:17). Herder's ideas also influenced German mission thinking, especially the understanding of mission as the "Christianisation of peoples" propagated by Gustav Warneck (see Bosch 1991:299-300,308).

In most of Africa, African nationalism has tended to follow the British and French model. The nation is seen primarily in political terms, as those living in a common territory and governed by a common political system. Nationalism in the Eastern European sense, based on language and culture, has generally been looked down on as "tribalism", though Afrikaner nationalism in South Africa was based on those assumptions, and apartheid was an attempt to impose the Eastern European model on South Africa.


The case of Yugoslavia

Yugoslavia appeared as a state only after the First World War, when it was formed from the remnants of the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires, which had disappeared in the course of that conflict. It could be said that the result was a triumph for Serbia, because the war started as a result of the assassination of the Crown Prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the streets of Sarajevo by a Bosnian Serb nationalist, Gavrilo Princip. Austria blamed Serbia for the assassination, and gave Serbia an impossible ultimatum. War followed, and devastated Europe over the next four years.

Serbia survived, but the Austro-Hungarian empire did not. Serbia then became the core of a south Slav national state, the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, which was renamed Jugoslavia in 1929. It was ruled by a Serbian royal dynasty in an authoritarian manner, and the Serbs, most of whom were Orthodox Christians, were the dominant partners in the union. The Croats and Slovenes were Roman Catholics, and found their interests subordinated to Serbian ones. The rise of Nazi Germany and the Anschluss with Austria made a new Germanic empire dominant in the Balkans again, and Jugoslavia was compliant for the most part, until a putsch in Belgrade in 1941 brought an anti-Nazi group to power. The Germans and Italians then invaded and occupied Jugoslavia, and formed a kind of "Vichy Croatia", with a puppet regime led by Ante Pavelic, and the ruling party, the Ustashi, was strongly pro-fascist. Thousands of Serbs, Jews, Gypsies and opponents of the regime were killed.

In Serbia, units of the former Jugoslav army took to the hills as guerrilla groups called Chetniks. Another group of guerrillas, the communist Partisans, led by Josip Broz, better known by his nom-de-guerre Tito, were judged by the Allies to be more effective at fighting the Germans and Italians than the royalist Chetniks, and eventually received the bulk of the Allied aid, and took power after the war (MacLean 1949:330ff). The Democratic Federal Republic of Yugoslavia that was formed after the war was dominated by the Communist Party, led by Tito.1 It was a federal state made up of six republics (Crnobrnja 1994:68).

This was different from the pre-war royalist state, where the aim had been to encourage people to see themselves as Yugoslavs, of a single nationality. Tito sought to defuse ethnic strife (much-exacerbated by atrocities committed during the war, which for Yugoslavia had been a civil war), by stressing "brotherhood and unity", but between ethnic groups seen as national entities rather than for the country as a whole (Crnobrnja 1994:69). The official policy was to forget the past. The victims of the Ustashi regime demanded retribution, but the Communist Party sought to achieve reconciliation by treating the past as a closed book. So it was said that Yugoslavia had seven neighbours, six republics, five nations, four languages, three religions, two scripts and one goal - to live in brotherhood and unity (Crnobrnja 1994:15). It sounded fine at the time, but we now know that it failed. The failure to deal with the problems in the aftermath of the Second World War was simply storing up trouble for later.

One problem of the pre-war kingdom had been the numerical predominance of the Serbs. Tito "solved" this by splitting off areas of Serbia where there were national minorities, such as Hungarians and Albanians, into autonomous provinces, Vojvodina in the north and Kosovo in the south, which seemed to solve the problem at the time, but would come back to haunt Yugoslavs after his death (Crnobrnja 1994:70). Both Serbs and Croats therefore had grievances - the Croats felt they were stigmatised for their alliance with the oppressors during the war, while the Serbs felt there had been no restitution for their sufferings, and that their autonomous provinces put Serbia at a disadvantage vis a vis the other republics.

Tito broke from Stalin in 1948, which put Yugoslavia in an anomalous position. It was a communist state, but excommunicated from the communist bloc. Tito thereupon helped to form the non-aligned movement, making Yugoslavia the only Third-World country in Europe.

The death of Tito, however, brought to the surface the problems that had been suppressed for so long. In 1981 a student riot in Kosovo led to ethnic cleansing of Serbs from that province by the Albanian nationalist authorities there (Crnobrnja 1994:93).2 The failure of the federal authorities to do anything about it led in turn to a growing wave of Serbian nationalism. This was expressed in a draft memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences, which was leaked to the press and attacked by them. It maintained that the Yugoslav League of Communists had been dominated by an anti-Serb coalition, which suppressed not only the political but also the cultural organisations of Serbs living in Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina (Pancovic 1994:445). It accused Communist historiography of denigrating the democratic tradition of a civil society and independent state, which Serbia had achieved in the 19th century, but in spite of this it did not call for the revival of the ideals of a democratic society, but appealed rather to the original communist principles drafted in 1943 (Pancovic 1994:446). Eventually Slobodan Milosevic, the leader of the League of Communists in Serbia (later renamed the Socialist Party), capitalised on it to increase his own power (Crnobrnja 1994:97).

Milosevic at once went about limiting the autonomy of the provinces of Vojvodina and Kosovo with the use of strong-arm tactics, to restore Serbia's equality with the other republics in the federation. But Milosevic went further, making Serbia "more equal". By rights, Serbia should have had one vote in the federal presidency, but it now had three, controlling the votes formerly exercised by Kosovo and Vojvodina (Crnobrnja 1994:104). The balance had swung the other way. From being disproportionately weak in the federation, Serbia became disproportionately strong, and still the nationalist momentum showed no sign of being checked. Croat and Slovenian fears of Serbian dominance led to nationalistic revivals of their own, which in turn led to fears of a revival of the Ustashi genocide among the Serb population of Croatia, fears that were not calmed by the "rehabilitation" of fascist wartime leaders, and their portrayal as heroes by the Croatian authorities (Crnobrnja 1994:151).

First Slovenia and then Croatia tried to secede from the Yugoslav federation, which the Yugoslav Peoples Army (JNA) tried to prevent. The army had its own agenda. It was devoted to the sovereignty and territorial preservation of Yugoslavia (Crnobrnja 1994:121). As the power of the Yugoslav federal authorities crumbled, the JNA became increasingly independent of civilian control (Basom 1996:514).

Historians will no doubt debate the point for years, but the turning point in the slide into violence was probably the recognition of the independence of Croatia and Slovenia by the European Union, under very strong diplomatic pressure from Germany. The promise or threat of recognition was the strongest bargaining tool in the hands of the European nations, which they could use to encourage the various groups in Yugoslavia to renegotiate their future peacefully. By prematurely recognising Croatia and Slovenia they threw this bargaining tool away, and vastly increased the Serbian weight in what was left of the federation, and in the JNA itself. In the subsequent fighting, the Serbs, who inherited most of the heavy weaponry of the JNA, were able to inflict much more damage.


The recognition of Slovenia and Croatia led to the breakaway of Bosnia-Hercegovina. This was far more violent, mainly because no single ethnic group formed a majority. Bosnian Serbs and Croats wanted no part of it, and sought to link their territory with that of their fellow Serbs and Croats in neighbouring republics. The problem was that they were geographically separated. Bosnian Serbs did not live on the borders of Bosnia and Serbia, but many of them lived on the border with Croatia. Many Bosnian Croats lived in territory adjoining Montenegro in the south. The result was a grab for territory by the various ethnic groups, and ethnic cleansing to rid those areas of the other groups. Bosnian Serbs, for example, sought to establish a corridor across northern Bosnia, which would link Serbia with the Krajina region of Croatia, which was inhabited by ethnic Serbs. Non-Serbs were driven out by force and violence where persuasion failed. In Krajina, on the other hand, some 300000 Serbs were ethnically cleansed, and forced as refugees into Serbia, where the Milosevic regime directed most of them to the formerly autonomous provinces of Vojvodina and Kosovo.

In Kosovo, with the removal of autonomy, the Serbs who had formerly been oppressed became the favoured ones, and Albanian speakers faced unfair discrimination. When peaceful protest and resistance did not seem to solve the problem, the UCK (Kosovo Liberation Army) began to expand its activities. Even in Tito's time there had been elements in Kosovo that wanted a Greater Albania, and sought closer links with Enver Hoxha's Albania. These formed the core of the Kosovo Liberation Army. Its main tactics were to attack police, in the hope of provoking violent reprisals. In this way, low-intensity conflict spread, fuelled by the intransigence of the Milosevic regime, which continued to deprive Albanian speakers of their civil rights. Observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) were brought in to try to mitigate the conflict, but it continued to grow slowly until Nato tried to solve the problem by bombing the whole of Yugoslavia. When the bombing started, Serb troops and paramilitary forces began ethnic cleansing on an unprecedented scale, resulting in about 700000 Albanian speakers being driven from their homes. Nato troops entered Kosovo in July 1999, and the population flow reversed, with Albanian-speaking refugees returning, and Serbs, Gypsies and Jews being ethnically cleansed in their turn. The Nato action increased ethnic hatred exponentially, making reconciliation much more difficult to achieve or hope for. Where previously there had certainly been ethnic prejudice, violence and hatred had been confined to a relatively small number of extremists. Many people were content to live with, and even be friends with their neighbours of different ethnic groups. Since the Nato bombing, however very few people believe that it is possible any longer to live together or to trust their neighbours. The violence and hatred have become general.


Nationalism was not the only problem that led to the break-up of the Yugoslav federation. Economic problems certainly played a part as well. Ramet (1992:27) points out that the dividing line between rich and poor corresponded almost exactly to the old frontier that once divided the Habsburg and Ottoman empires, and that the gap between rich and poor grew during the communist period, in spite of efforts to redistribute wealth. In 1963, for instance, the average per capita income in Slovenia was 95 percent above the national average, while that in Macedonia was 36 percent below the national average (Ramet 1992:9). The richer republics certainly resented their taxes being used to promote development in the poorer ones, and this contributed to the desire for secession. But if the economic factor had been the only, or even the most significant factor, the pattern would have been a simple rivalry of North and South in a loose bipolar system. But this did not always happen. Ramet (1992:31) points out that the pattern of conflict between the republics and nationalities in Yugoslavia was balance of power one, rather than a bipolar one. The rise to power of Slobodan Milosevic in the late 1980s, on a wave of Serbian nationalism that he deliberately promoted, upset the balance of power, and made the demise of the federation almost inevitable.


The fires of nationalism were easy to kindle, but a lot more difficult to extinguish, and this is because most of those who kindled them had no desire to extinguish them, but continue to fan the flames in order to achieve their aims.


Serbian nationalism and mission

In this article, I concentrate on Serbian nationalism as a missiological problem. Though other nationalisms contributed to the break-up of the old Yugoslav Federation, Serbian nationalism played a greater role, and I shall use it as a case study of Balkan and Eastern European, nationalism, though I will refer to other examples in passing.

Two Serbian religious cults, that of St Sava (c. 1175-1235) and that of the Kosovo martyrs and St Tsar Lazar are the earliest defining marks of a Serb national identity. St Sava is the founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church, and being a member of the Church founded by St Sava is the distinguishing mark of a Christian Serb. Those who died in the battle of Kosovo are regarded as martyrs, because by confronting a larger Ottoman force they showed that they preferred death and the heavenly kingdom to a life of slavery under the infidel (Pankovic 1994:442).

In the 19th century, with the growth of secular nationalism, language also became a criterion for national identity. Those speaking the Serbo-Croatian language were regarded as one nation, even though they belonged to three different religious groups -- Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Muslim. At that time nationalism was a struggle against the multi-national empires, such as the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, and language became an important identifying mark, and helped to give rise to the Yugoslav idea (Pavkovic 1994:444). As I have pointed out above, however, nationalism in Eastern Europe was not as closely linked with bourgeois liberalism as it was in the West, and was less concerned about political rights than about language and cultural rights.

Nineteenth-century Balkan nationalism was also often anti-clerical, as in Western Europe. When the Balkan states became independent, they were not interested in either separation of church and state on the one hand, or a Byzantine "symphony of the powers" on the other. They were more interested in using and controlling the Church (Papadakis 1988:49).

In Western Europe, the national states were the result of a struggle against domestic monarchies, and there was a unification and centralisation process. In the east the struggle was for national identities against big multinational empires. The national movements fought against foreign rule, and there was an identifiable enemy, so there was more of an "us and them" mentality (Gotovska-Popova 1993:174). Communism continued this image of the "enemy" and deepened this pattern, though the enemy changed from the Emperor and the Sultan to the bourgeois-capitalist West.

During the Yugoslav period there was a drop in the number of people claiming Christian affiliation in Yugoslavia, and a rise in the number claiming no denominational affiliation. The Orthodox Church showed the most marked drop in affiliation. In 1931, almost half the population of Yugoslavia claimed to be Orthodox (49%). By 1953 this had dropped to 42% and by 1987 to 28% (Flere 1991:153-154). By comparison, the number of those claiming affiliation to the Roman Catholic Church had dropped by a smaller proportion, from 37% in 1931 to 32% in 1953 and 24% in 1987 (Flere 1991:152). The Muslim proportion of the population grew slightly in the corresponding period, from 11% in 1931 to 12% in 1953 and 16% in 1987 (Flere 1991:154). The greatest change, however, was in non-affiliation, which was negligible in 1931, grew to 12,5% in 1953 and was 31,6% in 1987. In part, this was part of a general pattern of increasing secularism that affected Western Europe as well as the East, though in Eastern Europe it was actively encouraged by governments.


As a corollary, it may be noted that the proportion of Serbs and Montenegrins who were members of the Communist Party was higher than the proportion of the population as a whole. One in four Montenegrins and one in six Serbs was a member of the Communist Party, compared with one in eight (Bosnian) Muslims, one in 10 Croats and one in 11 Albanians (Gotovska-Popova 1993:179). Because of the decline in religion, nationalism tended to become more fanatical, and the nation became a kind of substitute God. Nationalism becomes ethnolatry, and the communists tended to have a similar attitude towards the Communist Party. These attitudes therefore led to a growing belief that violence is justified in defence of the cause. When the two were combined, as in Serbia in the late 1980s, the result was disastrous. The Communist Party in Serbia, from being firmly internationalist in the 1940s, was riding the nationalist lion in the 1980s (Gotovska-Popova 1993:181f). This then put the party in direct competition with the Serbian Orthodox Church in another way, by claiming, in effect, to be the guardian of the Serbian people and Serbian national identity.

In countering this claim, the Serbian Orthodox Church reasserted its own claim. The claim perhaps needed to be asserted, but the circumstances were distinctly unfavourable for doing so. The voice of the church had been suppressed for 40 years, and, as I have pointed out, the Serbs were the most secularised people in Yugoslavia. For the most part, the message fell on deaf ears, and if it was heard at all, the distinction between the religious nationalism of the Church and the secular nationalism of the Party simply did not get through to most people.

This phenomenon was not, however, confined to Yugoslavia, but was found in most of the communist states in Eastern Europe. In the 1980s, for example the communist government of Bulgaria forced ethnic minorities, such as Turks, to take "Bulgarian" names. In Russia, the successor party to the former Communist Party of the Soviet Union is far more nationalistic than many others.

As a South African looking at this situation, it is tempting to make comparisons with the relationship of the Dutch Reformed Church with Afrikaner nationalism, and there are certain points of comparison. Both Afrikaners and Serbs saw a battle as a focus of the nation -- the Battle of Blood River and the Battle of Kosovo, and both were seen as battles of Christians against infidels. A difference, however, is that the Serbs lost the Battle of Kosovo, while the Afrikaners won the Battle of Blood River. In both nationalisms, things like language played a strong part, though in the Serb case it was more the Cyrillic script than the language itself. Since the break-up of Yugoslavia, however, Serbs and Croats are tending more and more to emphasise the differences in the language rather than just the script. In both, the church saw itself as the defender of the rights of the people. And in both the religious element came to be accompanied, and later supplanted, by a secular element. The new nationalism of Serbia has been a fundamentally secular phenomenon, and its flames were fanned primarily by the communists (see e.g. Meyendorff 1978:87,156).

As the figures above show, of all the ethnic groups in the former Yugoslavia, the Serbs were the most secularised. But since Serb national identity also had religious roots, going back a long way before the growth of liberal nationalism in the 19th century, the growth of a new Serb nationalism in the 1980s provided the Serbian Orthodox Church with both a difficulty and an opportunity. The opportunity lay in the fact that a reviving nationalism could stimulate a new interest in the religious symbolism of St Sava. The difficulty was that a Church that had not merely been ignored, but also suppressed for the last 40 years, could now be exploited for political gain by demagogues who had both the power and experience to coopt the church as a political tool, and who were the very ones who had suppressed the church and prevented its voice from being heard (see van Dartel 1992:278).

Gotovska-Popova (1993:183) points out that one way of defusing the nationalist tensions would be for people to find a sense of identity and belonging in a group larger than the nation. She acknowledges that the idea of a "Yugoslav" identity failed, and considered the possibility of people seeing themselves as members of the human race in general, or Europe in particular. What she does not consider at all is the possibility of the church being a source of such identity. This is not surprising, since the church has generally been written out of history in most of the Balkan countries by Marxist historians, or included only peripherally as an agent of capitalism or feudalism, or grudgingly as a bearer of national culture. It has not only been Marxist historians who have done this, but secular Western historians have done so as well, so the religious motives of kings and rulers in the past have been downplayed, or presented purely as rationalisations for political or economic motives (see van Dartel 1992:275). The history that most people in the Balkans learnt at school has been slanted in this way (van Dartel 1992:276).

There are signs, however, that a wider consciousness is beginning to emerge in church circles. One such sign is the formation of the Balkan Orthodox Youth Association, which is creating a network of contacts across national and state boundaries. While this may not do much for relations between groups such as Serbs and Croats, who are divided by religion, it is succeeding in bringing together Serbs, Bulgarians, Romanians, Greeks and Albanians. Though these countries are nominally Orthodox, they do have a recent history of conflict on such questions as Macedonia, which could easily become another Balkan flash point. Some of those who pioneered such contacts are now teaching in the newly reopened faculties of theology at the Balkan universities, and thus are in turn influencing the younger generation of theologians, church teachers, clergy and monastics.

Some of the tension between nationalism and religion can be seen in the fighting over Kosovo in 1999. Thousands of Albanian-speaking refugees, most of whom were Muslims, poured into Albania, Montenegro and the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia. Many had been driven from their homes and abused by Serbian police and para-military units. Since the Serbs were nominally Orthodox, the Orthodox Church in Albania felt the tension between solidarity with the refugees on the grounds of ethnicity and language, and links with the Serbs on the grounds of religion. Perhaps the only thing they could do in the circumstances would be to keep a low profile and pray for a solution to be found by others. Instead, however, the Albanian Orthodox Church was actively involved in ministry to the refugees, regardless of their religious affiliations. The leaders of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo distanced themselves from both the violence and oppression of the Belgrade regime and that of the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK). Monasteries such as Decani gave shelter to refugees from the violence -- both Albanian refugees from Serb violence and Serb refugees from Albanian violence.

Nationalism and mission elsewhere in Eastern Europe

As in Serbia, so in most of the other countries of the Second World, nationalism affects mission both positively and negatively. In Russia, opinion polls have consistently shown that the Russian Orthodox Church is the most trusted public body in post-Soviet Russia (Bacon 1997:253). In the eyes of many, the church represents the "true Russia" that was suppressed in the Soviet period. It has been suggested that adherence to the church represents adherence to "the Russian idea" rather than to Christianity as such (Bacon 1997:255). The initial popularity of the church in the early 1990s may have been because of the novelty of church attendance in the immediate post-Soviet period, or perhaps because the church was seen as a focal point of opposition to communism (Daniel 1996:371).


These two factors probably contribute to the desire of political leaders to be associated with the Russian Orthodox Church in the public mind, and especially to seek to be photographed with the clergy, to be seen with them on public platforms and so on (Bacon 1997:257). During the 1996 election campaign the leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, and runner-up in the election, Gennadi Zyuganov, played the nationalist card, with overtones of xenophobia and anti-Semitism, and overtly made use of Orthodox symbols. Perhaps he felt it necessary to give more emphasis to Orthodoxy and to show that he favoured it to counterbalance the record of over 200000 clergy and monastics killed by his predecessors (Bacon 1997:258).


In view of the rise of nationalist sentiment, and the identification of the Orthodox Church with the "Russian idea", and its public popularity, one might expect the situation to be favourable for mission. People might be more willing to give the church a hearing. The Russian Orthodox Church, however, has generally maintained a position of official political neutrality, and had given no overt support to any political group. Thus while politicians have been wooing the church, the church has not reciprocated, but in line with the idea of separation of church and state, has not demonstrated any political agenda. Some clergy and laity have shown signs of activism for the right or the left, both in church and in society, but the patriarch and most of the bishops have not done this. As a result, there is also a public perception that the church has very little influence on politics, daily life, and the morals of the people. Though churches are full in many places, only 7% of the population of Russia attend services once a month or more, while 60% have never attended a church service (Bacon 1997:255).


One problem that the church faces in this situation is that of how to respond. There is a lack of trained clergy, of teachers who can teach others. After years of isolation, the church cannot really influence society as a whole. To do so requires the cultivation of an Orthodox mind, or fronima (Rom 8:6-8). Nationalism may provide an opportunity, but it brings with it the danger of chauvinism and xenophobia. And whereas it can provide a favourable climate for mission in one sense, it can be a hindrance in others. Among the national minorities in the Russian Federation, Russian nationalism can be seen as alienating factor rather than as an attraction. Most Russians implicitly regard Orthodoxy as their ethnic church. Though it is not stated, it can put pressure on those of other groups to support Russian interests and has in fact led to a resurgence of paganism and the growth of neopaganism among some national minorities (Filatov & Shchipkov 1997:179).

Similarly, in Yugoslavia, the rising nationalism and ethnic tensions made it very difficult for the Serbian Orthodox Church to undertake mission in Kosovo, for example, where most of the population is Albanian and Muslim. In any case the mission priority of the Serbian Orthodox Church had to be the reevangelisation of the Serbs. In this, it eventually became apparent that the secular nationalism of Milosevic was an obstacle. At the beginning of Milosevic's rise to power, in the late 1980s, it might have seemed that his attempts to coopt the church were creating opportunities for mission. The church, weakened by decades of repression, was unable to articulate a clear response. The inner life of the church needed to be strengthened before it could resist the blandishments of Milosevic, or speak out against his political messianism. And so the secularised Serbs looked to Milosevic, and not to Christ, as their saviour.

As time passed, however, the inner life of the church was strengthened. The revival of the monastic life strengthened the vision. St Seraphim of Sarov, one of those responsible for the revival of Russian monasticism in the early 19th century, once said, "Find inner peace, and thousands around you will be saved". To many Western Christians, such an attitude seems like a cop out. Monasticism seems like escapism, a retreat from the problems of the world.

At the political level, in the Balkans and elsewhere, rival nationalisms have been playing a "zero-sum game". A zero-sum game is one in which one player can gain only if another loses. There can only be a "win-lose" situation, and never a "win-win" situation. So nationalism seeks to gain freedom from fear and insecurity by terrorism. We reduce our fear by making others fear us more. We increase our security by making others insecure. In Kosovo, Albanians and Serbs have been playing this game for decades. Whichever group has been politically ascendant has sought to gain security by making the other insecure.

But as the monastic life of the church has strengthened, the call has gone out from the monasteries for an end to the zero-sum game. Those who have found inner peace have also been calling for human rights for all, regardless of their ethnic origin. The government in Belgrade, the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK), and, more recently, Nato, refused to listen. They have systematically gone about the business of terrorism -- increasing the fear and insecurity of others by driving them from their homes, destroying their property, killing and torturing them. At times it has seemed, especially in the case of Nato, that they have been more concerned that others should lose than that they themselves should win. Though the assumptions were based on the principle of a zero-sum game, the net effect was not even "win-lose", but rather "lose-lose". People throughout Yugoslavia, and not just in Kosovo, lost their jobs, their homes and their lives.

Decani Monastery, in western Kosovo, has become well-known for calling for freedom, democracy and respect for human rights for all -- in other words, an end to the zero-sum game. It has become well known because it has done this partly through the Internet. But it has done it not merely by words, but by example. It has housed Serb refugees who have fled from the UCK, and Albanian-speaking refugees who have fled from Milosevic's forces. When Serb forces withdrew from Decani to make way for KFOR, some of them embarked on an orgy of destruction, burning houses and terrorising the Albanian-speaking inhabitants. Monks from Decani Monastery turned them back in some places, and gave victims refuge in the monastery.3 One of the themes for the January 2000 conference of the International Association of Mission Studies is "Christ crucified and living in the context of ethnic and racial conflict". And perhaps one of the places where Christ can be seen crucified and living in such a context is Decani Monastery.

Patriarch Pavle of the Serbian Orthodox Church has been denounced by the Milosevic regime as an enemy of the nation, yet, as in Russia, public-opinion surveys have shown that the Church is more widely trusted than the politicians, the news media, and the military. Church leaders like Patriarch Pavle, however, have not sought an overtly political role for themselves. The see the role of the Church as the conscience of the nation, rather than as taking political leadership or acting as king makers.

In Yugoslavia the Serbian Orthodox Church has sought an end to conflict, and has taken the line that problems can best be solved peacefully. In Kosovo, in the view of the Church, the problem was the violence and intransigence of both the UCK and the Belgrade regime, and the solution the Church proposed was peaceful negotiations to create a society in which the human rights of all would be respected. It took quite a long time before the Church clearly articulated this position publicly, partly for the reasons I have already noted - that even after its freedom to speak was restored, it needed to restore its inner spiritual life before it could speak to the world.

The Church has also observed that the political leaders of all sides were all educated in the same school. Whether they are members of the Milosevic regime, or of the Kosovo Liberation Army, they have the same spirit, the same attitude, and therefore these people cannot bring anything new.4 The Church can hope through education and feeding people spiritually and materially to give people hope, and perhaps a new generation of leaders will arise who will be able to offer something new. But the Church in Serbia is poor, and does not have resources for this. The Church may also find itself drawn into a more directly political role, though it does not seek such a role.


Thus far, military force has not solved the problem of ethnic and racial conflict in the Balkans, and it cannot solve the problem. Ultimately political solutions must be found. The longer it takes the warring parties to acknowledge this, the more people will die.

It was the recognition of this in South Africa in the period 1990-1994 that led to the democratic elections. South Africa has certainly not solved all its problems. There is still racism, and there is still a large gap between rich and poor. There are still human rights abuses. There is still too much violence. But there is a free and democratic constitution, and the apartheid laws have been repealed. The racist social structures of the apartheid society are being dismantled and a new society is being built on the basis that people of different cultural and ethnic groups can live together in peace and harmony. In other words, in South Africa the "zero-sum game" has been abandoned.

An important principle of the process that led to this was that no group should be deliberately excluded from the negotiations. All were invited, though not all agreed to participate. One result of this was that there was a drop in the mutual demonification of each other by the left and the right. Many of the old players left the scene, but their leaving the scene was not made a precondition for negotiations, as it has been in Yugoslavia.

There was also very little demand for "international mediation", and the one party that did insist on it was in fact responsible for most of the violence in the six months preceding the 1994 election. This suggests that the most useful contribution that South Africa could make would be to share this experience with the parties to the conflict within Yugoslavia, and encourage them to do something similar. But in the negotiations themselves, neither South Africa, nor any other country, should play the role of an "international mediator", unless the negotiations break down, and the parties themselves agree on someone who can be called in.

There would also need to be something like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, rather than war crimes tribunals, and the South African experience could help with this too. Experience has shown that where countries have had some kind of truth and reconciliation process, more lasting solutions to such problems have been found. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has certainly not solved all problems, and it would be naive to believe that it has achieved, or can achieve, reconciliation. Reconciliation involves more than just bringing to light the truth of the past. But bringing to light the truth of the past is important. It was the failure to do so after the Second World War, the "let's forget the past and start with a clean slate" policy that proved to be the undoing of Tito's Yugoslavia, with its proclaimed aim of "brotherhood and unity". There must be a serious attempt to find and reveal the truth. But the process in the former Yugoslavia so far seems to have aimed not so much at finding the truth as finding a scapegoat, and not even finding a scapegoat, but rather rubber-stamping the scapegoat that the Nato leaders have pointed to. It is easy to find a scapegoat; it is much more difficult to find a solution.

There are also some important differences between South Africa and the Balkans. One of them is that in the late 1980s and early 1990s there was a growing desire and a will to find a solution. It is easy to look at the former Yugoslavia and its successor states and find parallels to the old South Africa. The authoritarian regimes of Milosevic, Tudjman and others in the region do bear some resemblance to that of P.W. Botha and B.J. Vorster. But what differs markedly is the opposition to these regimes. Few of the opposition groups and parties offer a clear democratic alternative. It would be understandable if, following the barrage of Nato propaganda, South Africans were to even compare the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) with the ANC. Such a comparison would be a mistake. The ANC had as its aim the formation of a non-racial democracy; the UCK's aim is to establish a volkstaat from which all non-Albanian elements -- Slavs (whether Orthodox, Catholic or Muslim), Jews and Gypsies -- will have been ethnically cleansed. In the Balkans it is in the Church (and not even always there) rather than the political parties that any kind of vision for democracy is to be found.

In South Africa, the Christian community as a whole often shirked this task. Individual Christians certainly played a part, but mainly through their involvement in NGOs and other organs of civil society. While there are similar groups in Yugoslavia, they are generally much weaker than those in South Africa.


It is often said that violence and conflict in the Balkans are the result of "ancient hatreds". Though there may be some truth in that, the main cause of the conflicts there in the 1990s has been present fear and insecurity. The fear and insecurity have been caused by current political power structures, or by the fear of the effects of changes in political power structures.

Up till now, much of the conflict in the Balkans has been based on the assumption that it is a "zero-sum game", that the peace and security of one group can only be gained at the expense of the peace and security of another. In Kosovo, the Orthodox Church had called for a democratic society in which human rights are guaranteed for all, but neither the government in Belgrade nor the Kosovo Liberation Army nor Nato were prepared to listen. The Nato intervention exacerbated the situation, since it was calculated to increase the fear and insecurity of the Serbs, and thus to perpetuate, and indeed increase the hostility.

If part of the mission of the church is to promote peace, then it will need to continue its efforts to end the "zero-sum" game. There are signs that this has been happening, by witness and by example. Decani Monastery in western Kosovo set an example by its ministry to refugees, both Serb refugees from the KLA and Albanian refugees from the withdrawing Serb forces. The Albanian Orthodox Church, in its ministry to the mostly Muslim Albanian-speaking Kosovars who had taken refuge in Albania, has provided a similar witness and example.


In instances like these, the church has acted in concrete ways to reduce the fear and insecurity of people. These examples may seem insignificant in proportion to the efforts the other way. The ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of Albanian-speaking and Serbian-speaking people from Kosovo, and the 35000 bombing sorties flown by Nato to kill and destroy seem so overpowering by comparison that it might seem that the zero-sum game is the only one being played. But one has to start somewhere. And by refusing to play the zero-sum game, the monks of Decani and other monasteries in Serbia have made a start.

The source of this is not to be found in 19th-century secular nationalism, nor in the attempts of the League of Communists to promote "brotherhood and unity". It has often been reported in the Western media that Kosovo is important to the Serbs because of the battle that was fought there in 1389. What is not reported is just why it is important. The significance of the battle lies in the distinction between freedom and "golden freedom". One can seek to defend or win one's freedom in a zero-sum game, but the freedom won in a zero-sum game is not golden freedom.

And it is precisely at this point that the Serbian Orthodox Church claims that the Church, and not Milosevic, or secular nationalism, is the guardian of Serbian national identity. For Milosevic's behaviour and policies show that he understands nothing of golden freedom, because golden freedom does not exist when anyone is oppressed in the name of freedom.

According to the Serbian epics, an angel came to Prince Lazar before the battle of Kosovo in the guise of a grey falcon, and brought him the message of golden freedom:

"When the external freedom in a nation is transformed into the serfdom of one kinsman to his closest kinsman, and is defiled by a nameless tyranny of one man over another, which continues unpunishable by the law of that land -- then the Almighty, the Compassionate, takes away the freedom of such a nation and casts it into the school of servitude, so that it may learn to recognize and appreciate freedom. Is this not clear to you, noble Prince?"

Lazar replied: "Truly you are telling me things that should be clear to every intelligent man."

Thereupon the angel continued: "Golden freedom, however, is closely tied to the honourable cross. Through the honourable cross, golden freedom was revealed to men. For gold is a symbol of truth. Golden freedom therefore means freedom that is true and unchangeable. We immortal spirits have the freedom in the heavenly kingdom -- this internal spiritual freedom. When someone among mortals acquires this freedom, he, and he alone, is truly free. He is free of worldly cares and cravings; free of delusions of worldly glory and fleeting fame; free of the world, of men, of demons; free also of himself, of his lower, unspiritual being. Bearing this golden freedom in his breast, he feels free whether he is living in external freedom or external slavery. This freedom cannot be increased by his country being free any more than it can be decreased by his country being deprived of its freedom. It is a treasure hidden within the soul, a treasure which thieves cannot steal, tyrants cannot destroy, fire cannot burn, and death cannot annihilate. True freedom is freedom whether one is in a prison or in a palace. Without it a prison is a tomb and a palace is a prison. Without this internal freedom of the children of God, the freedom of the spirit and the heart, man is always a slave no matter what the external circumstances of his life are. This freedom makes external slavery unbitter and external freedom sweet. It is salt for external freedom, and protects it from abuse and corruption; it is light for external bondage, providing light and warmth to enslaved people."



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1 The Communist Party was later known as the League of Communists of Yugoslavia.


2 The term "ethnic cleansing" was first used by a Serb parliamentarian in 1983 to describe the treatment of the Kosovo Serbs by the then-powerful Albanian majority in the province.


3 Associated Press report, "Serb monastery protects all peopes", 17 June 1999.


4 Prof Veselin Kesich in a Voice of America news feature, 3 Nov 1999.