By Goran Lefkov, for Meta

Even before Vasian Zmeev, Russian agents in North Macedonia were carrying out hostile activities related to religion, but through Greece. Russia tries to exercise its influence and dominance through donations in churches

Putin’s regime is using the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) for spreading influence in Orthodox countries. The ROC  is exerting enormous pressure on other churches and preventing the recognition of autocephaly status the Macedonian Orthodox Church (MOC). By means of intelligence actions, Russian priests are recruiting members of the clergy all over the local Balkan churches, writes in the article that we are republishing in full.

Following the Russian aggression in Ukraine in 2022 and the introduction of sanctions by Western countries, many Russian agents were expelled from the democratic states. By introducing sanctions for Russian companies, many Russian agents–sent as trade representatives in those countries–were also expelled. Subsequently, the regime in Moscow resorted to using the services of those agents who were not expelled. For Orthodox countries, that meant agents who had infiltrated local churches. Eventually this lead to a Russian priest to be expelled from North Macedonia, an act that inspired Bulgaria to do the same.

On 15 September 2023, Vasian Zmeev, Chief of the vestry of the Russian Church in Sofia was banned entrance in North Macedonia. Media reported that the behavior of the Russian clergyman exceeded by far the limits of activities permitted by international law, and included bringing the relations with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople to a standstill, hampering the process of gaining autocephaly for MOC.

In June 2023, quoting information received from NATO, President Stevo Pendarovski said for the news portal 360 Degrees that some members of the highest ruling body of the Macedonian Orthodox Church, i.e. several of the bishops or metropolitans, had been collaborating with the Russian Secret Service. In his statement, the President carefully noted an exception, emphasizing that the Head of the Church, Archbishop Stephen, is not one of the priests who collaborate with Russian intelligence.

Macedonian priests and the Russian Secret Services

This was a good reason for Truthmeter to investigate the Russian influence in the country through the church. In the 2023 interview, President Pendarovski didn’t mention specific names of church metropolitans recruited to work for Russian interests. We tried to reach those bishops through our own sources.

Zoran Bojarovski, an experienced journalist, editor and historian of church events, believes that the behavior of several metropolitans is opposed to the interests of the Macedonian Orthodox Church.

“There is no doubt that the KGB (Federal Security Service)  is using the Russian Church to spread its influence in Orthodox countries. Ample evidence is pointing to the fact that clergy officials, including Patriarch Kirill and his predecessor Alexy II, had been working for the KGB during Soviet times. By expelling Vasian Zmeev, that connection became obvious. On one occasion, President Pendarovski stated that Vasian Zmeev was undertaking activities beyond those of the church, and since the agencies share information with the President, that most probably is true. He had meetings with some metropolitans like Petar and Ilarion,” said Bojarovski.

Z. Bojarovski /
Photo: G. Lefkov

Bojarovski added that the situation in the Macedonian Orthodox Church’s Synod (ruling body) is just a reflection of the struggle between Moscow and Constantinople.

A feature of the current Synod is that, according to a source close to the church who wanted to remain anonymous, is that several metropolitans who belonged to the former Orthodox Ohrid Archbishopric (OOA), which was integrated into MOC in April 2023, do not represent the Russian wing in the Synod.

The source says that it is highly unlikely that the three former OOA bishops Jovan Vraniškovski, David and Marko, who form their own group in the Macedonian Orthodox Church, are pro-Russian because they nurture good relations with the Greek Church and always expressed their own positions to that effect.

“These bishops realized that the Serbs had abandoned them, so now I don’t expect  them to act as a destructive force within the Synod,” our source opined.

The professor at Sofia University, Kalin Janakiev, has a similar stance. He quite well understands Orthodoxy on the Balkans and beyond.

“Russia realized that it cannot be more influential through the church of Jovan Vraniškovski, and is now focusing its attention to the pro-Serbian/pro-Russian bishops in the Synod of the Macedonian Orthodox Church,” said Janakiev.

A MOC bishop that multiple sources allege is under direct Russian influence is younger bishop Grigorij.

During the summer of 2023 in Kumanovo, Grigorij promoted a book with the title ”Patriarch of Constantinople first among/without equals”, in the presence of the now expelled Vasian Zmeev. Zmeev influence on MOC is deemed instrumental in the appointment of Grigorij as bishop in 2020.

According to the the church laws, existing bishops need to receive a document with a proposal for a certain candidate for a metropolitan. They the members of the Synod then have 15 days to review it before voting for him. According to anonymous source from MOC consulted on this matter, the bishops had 15 minutes to decide on Grigorij’s ordination.

The Tomos and the Ukrainian Church targeted by Russian Secret Service influence in MOC

K. Janakiev / Photo: G. Lefkov

The Russian Church is focused on preventing the award of the Tomos to the Macedonian Orthodox Church by the Constantinople Patriarchate, which is a decree that would grant it autocephaly – independence similar to all other churches from the Orthodox Christian world.

“The Russian state and the Russian Church under no circumstance want MOC to receive autocephaly from Constantinople. They insist that the Tomos received from the Serbian Orthodox Church in 2022 is enough. Russian institutions believe that granting of the Tomos will bring MOC and Constantinople closer together, and allow MOC to step outside the influence of Russian Orthodox Church, which  is now present through the Serbian Orthodox Church,” says professor Janakiev.

According to anonymous MOC sources, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew imposed three key conditions for awarding the Tomos to the Macedonian church:

  • the diaspora,
  • the name of the church and
  • the communion with the Ukrainian Church.

Regarding the diaspora, the MOC should not have an archbishop or a bishop of Australia, but they should hold a title of episcopate of Melbourne or Sydney, while MOC will be able to appoint more bishops in that country. The same approach is required for the USA.

The name of the church was agreed to be Ohrid Archdiocese – Church of North Macedonia. The recognition of autocephaly by the Ecumenical Patriarchate is never by nation, but according to geographical borders of a state. Therefore, there is no such a thing as a Greek Church, but Church of Greece. The same is true with Albanian Church, which is officially called Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Albania.

The third point refers to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which was awarded Tomos of autocephaly by Constantinople in 2018. The Ecumenical Patriarchate required from MOC to be in communion with the Ukrainian Church.

In March 2023 a three-member Synod of the MOC-OA – Archbishop Stefan, bishop Petar and bishop Timotej – adopted a decision forbidding Macedonian priests to serve communion with the Ukrainian Church.

Professor Aleksandar Spasenovski from the Law Faculty in Skopje, claims that following the historical decision of May 9, 2022 of the Ecumenical Patriarchate for recognizing MOC’s canonical status, some strange developments were detected in North Macedonia

“Namely, some structures, whose positions were clearly anti-EU and anti-NATO in the past, started talking in one voice against MOC obtaining autocephaly status from the Ecumenical Patriarchate. In the course of those attacks, threats were made about taking away the name, the diaspora, in other words, semi-truths were spread in order to make the people suspicious. This union was expanding to include actors within and outside of the Church. These continuous attempts were constantly synchronized and directed towards preventing complete implementation of the process of awarding the autocephaly Tomos to the Macedonian church by the Ecumenical Patriarchate,” said professor Spasenovski.

The loudest voice against receiving the Tomos from Constantinople was metropolitan Petar of Prespa and Pelagonia. Petar conveyed his messages  through his personal friend Ljupco Palevski- Palcho, a pro-Kremlin politician and media figure, heading an extremist right wing political party, who is currently chief suspect in a double murder and held in extradition jail in Turkey.

In March 2023 together with metropolitan Petar, Palevski’s party Desna started an action for collecting signatures for a Declaration “for preserving the name of the Macedonian Orthodox Church – Ohrid Archbishopric.” The document deemed that “change of its name, status and dignity is high treason of MOC-OA, the Macedonian people and the state of Macedonia!” Right wing media presented this campaign by church and political party structures as spontaneous popular movement.

Palevski received public support by two other MOC metropolitans, Grigorij of Diocese of Kumanovo and Osogovo, and Agatangel of Diocese of Povardarie. Palevski bragged that his party collected 50.000 signed declarations which were given to bishop Petar.

Bishop Gregorij of Kumanovo and Osogovo had been exposing views against the awarding of the Tomos from Constantinople to the MOC for several years. In December 2020 he criticized the positions and actions of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in an interview. Word of this attack reached the ears of the Ecumenical Patriarch. Several days later, MOC’s Synod refrained from the position taken by Metropolitan Grigorij.

Tomos from Constantinople

All autocephalous Orthodox churches up to now have received Tomos from Constantinople – including the Russian Church, the Serbian Church, the Bulgarian Church, and the Greek Church. None of the  sources consulted for this article remembered of a case of a church to receive Tomos from another church of the  same rank, as the Macedonian Church did from the Serbian Church.

A. Spasenovski, PhD / Photo: G. Lefkov

According to professor Spasenovski – whose PhD research examined “the position and the role of religious communities in the Constitutional order of the contemporary states, with a special emphasis on the Republic of Macedonia” – several factors pushed for the recognition of the Macedonian Orthodox Church.

“For some time now, there has been one somewhat forgotten rule providing for the Ecumenical Patriarchate to have the main right of appeal in the intra-church disputes. The Ecumenical Patriarchate has had that right for centuries. It used that right to serve as an appellate institution in intra-church disputes,” stresses Spasenovski.

This rule simplified means: If one has a dispute with one church, as MOC had with SOC, the resolution process is conducted directly with that church. However, if more than one church is involved, then the dispute is referred to the Court of Appeals in Constantinople.

“I have not researched the relation of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church (BOC) towards the process of obtaining autocephaly of MOC, but personally I think that the Bulgarian Church missed the opportunity to go much deeper into the positive annals of our church history,  although subconsciously or unintentionally, it contributed to an additional boost of these processes. Namely, the positive thing about the Bulgarian Church is that it established an internal-church commission connected with the Macedonian church issue thereby giving another, most probably key argument to the Ecumenical Patriarch to use their right of appeal in the case of MOC, because apart from the SOC, the BOC got involved,” says Spasenovski.

Sources knowledgeable about the situation believe that if the dispute was not referred to the Appeals Court in Constantinople, the Serbian Church would not have approved autocephaly status to MOC. This can be seen from the first statement given after the enthronement of Serbian Patriarch Porfirije in the Spring of 2021, when he stressed that he would not deviate from the current policy towards MOC. Soon, after several months, seeing that a decision was prepared for MOC, the Serbian Patriarchy rushed in to recognize us before Constantinople.

“The Russian Church played an unfair game to the end. Russian bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, who had the status of Foreign Affairs Minister of the Russian Church, demanded from Macedonian authorities to release Jovan Vraniskovski from prison promising that he would advocate the recognition of our autonomous church with the Serbs. The Serbs did not recognize the autocephaly of  the Macedonian church until the start of Constantinople’s arbitration”, says our source who insisted to remain anonymous.

Professor Spasenovski further explained:

“Apart from international church reasons related to the decision of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to award autocephaly status to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, including the domestic developments related to overcoming the name dispute and involving the Bulgarian Orthodox Church which was used as an excuse for the Ecumenical Patriarchate to apply its historical right to an appeal in intra-church disputes, another important aspect was the ongoing strengthening of human potential of the Macedonian Orthodox Church. Those young monks were raised in the 90-ies in the Orthodox spirit, and they decided to go to Mount Athos thereby establishing strong relations and friendship ties so that upon their return to Macedonia they would be able to plant the seed of new monasticism in the country, further advancing the Church. Here I am referring to the Mount Athos monks – Naum, Partenij and Kliment. In continuity, these people have managed to present the Macedonian truth in the decision-making centre – the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The Serbian Orthodox Church was motivated by these decisions by the Ecumenical Patriarchate and rushed in with awarding us the Tomos. However, the question raised was why didn’t the Serbian Orthodox Church award us the Tomos 50 years ago, and decided to do that now, immediately after the response of the Ecumenical Patriarchate that started resolving the decade-long frozen issue of the Macedonian Church. Nevertheless, this process with the Ecumenical Patriarchate makes sense only if it is carried out to the end. Namely, if we do not receive the Tomos from the Ecumenical Patriarchate, yet again we will be in a world under the strong influence of the Serbian Orthodox Church. This process must be finalized with Tomos award by the Ecumenical Patriarchate,” deems Spasenovski.

Resolving the name issue helped Macedonian Orthodox Church move forward the process of obtaining autocephaly status. Having signed the Prespa Agreement, a series of letters from Macedonian top officials to the Ecumenical Patriarchate followed requesting to apply the right of an appeal and act in the case of Macedonian Orthodox Church.

Who are the expelled priests from North Macedonia and Bulgaria

А week after North Macedonia proclaimed Vasian Zmeev persona non grata, Bulgaria expelled him also, together with two citizens of Belarus who were also servants of the Russian Church. Another priest was expelled from Bulgaria together with him, that being Juhen Plaviascuk (Яухен Павялчук).

According to professor Janakiev, Vasian Zmeev has a very dark biography. He was a member of the Rector Council of the Moscow Theological Seminary where he was involved in a sex-scandal. A letter from pupils and students of that seminary shows that a group of professors and spiritual leaders performed prohibited sexual behavior with the students.

Immediately after that scandal, Vasian Zmeev was sent to Belarus. The Belarusian Orthodox Church is an exarchate of the Moscow Patriarchate and led by an Exarch, subordinate to the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Professor Janakiev noted that it was quite strange that Zmeev was sent to Belarus knowing that the Exarch there is subordinate to the Russian Patriarch. That was happening in 2014, at the moment when Metropolitan Pavel of Minsk and Zaslavye, the Exarch of the Belarus Orthodox Church requested to initiate a process for autonomy of his Church. Later, the Exarch expressed sympathy for pro-democracy protests in Belarus, and was removed from his position by the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church in August 2020. Vasian Zmeev was sent there to spy on the activities of the Belarus Exarch. Having accomplished that task, he was sent to the Russian Church in Sofia.

“I assume he is proceeding with his spying mission in Bulgaria and North Macedonia in order to prevent the Tomos award to the Macedonian Orthodox Church by Constantinople. You know that Macedonian Orthodox Church is divided between a pro-Russian part and a pro-Constantinople part. Most probably, he was coordinating the pro-Russian elements in the Synod of MOC, alienating it from Constantinople,” says the professor at Sofia University, Janakiev.

D. Nikolchev / Photo: G. Lefkov

For the professor at the Faculty of Theology in Sofia, Dilian Nikolchev the circumstances surrounding Zmeev are quite evident and clear.

“There are different categories of agents. When you are an influence agent, you are an influence agent. He needs not plant explosives if he is an influence agent – he engages in meetings and sermons to implement the policy of the Russian Orthodox Church. Some agents are only for recruiting people. I think that Vasian Zmeev was an influence agent,” deems Nikolchev.

The second expelled priest from Bulgaria, Plavlaiscuk, as a young spiritual leaders was involved in recruiting young boys who needed to be trained for participation in military conflicts and reared in the church doctrine. The purpose was to establish youth paramilitary formations under the auspices of the Russian Church. This citizen of Belarus working on that in clubs around Moscow before he was sent to Bulgaria, where he was assumed to be responsible for the so-called “Kazak organization” that is trying to operate as a Russian paramilitary formation in Bulgaria.

Examples of paramilitary formations in Russia are the Wagner Group of late Yevegeny Prigozhin, as well as the private military formation of Gazprom and several others.

Russian church agents in Bulgaria

To understand Russian agents in mantles, we carried on our research to Sofia, where the church influence is best reflected. Before the collapse of the Communist regime in the Eastern Вloc, the Bulgarian Church was fully subordinated to KGB. There is a Russian temple in the center of Sofia where Vasian Zmeev himself served.

According to professor Janakiev, Russian patriarchs have been sending priests with the blessing of the Russian secret services for years.

“The priests appointed to the Russian Church in Sofia – every single one of them – are agents of the Russian services,” says Janakiev.

Bishop Tihon | Photo: G. Lefkov

In addition to the Russian agents in Sofia, the Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church has been “under Russian boots” for years, he adds.

“During Communism, in our case, a rigid personal policy was enforced. There was a seminary that produced 25 people per annum. Only a few of them would become priests. Some of us were children of persecuted parents and we had no means of accomplishing high-school education. They did everything to have the lower quality people remain in the church. In the period when I was studying there, from 8 generations only 4-5 people became monks,” says bishop Tihon, who originates from the Delcevo village Star Istevnik.

He explained how Russian services pressed the bishops of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church:

“Everyone putting on a monk’s hat is immediately seized by the services and sent to Russia. I am the only bishop of the Synod of BOC who has not been to Russia, nor the US. Once in Russia, he is left alone to see how he would behave. Then he sits on a table to see how much he can drink. Then he is surrounded by a “cloud” of girls to see whether he will hold back or not. Many candidates did not make it. All that is noted somewhere and then these people are blackmailed.”

Russian influence in Bulgaria is very big. According to research of the Bulgarian unit of Radio Free Europe, the Russian Federation in Bulgaria owns more property than USA, Germany, France and China together.

The professor of the Faculty of Theology in Sofia, Nikolcev, who has been studying the church-relate contents within the archives of the Bulgarian secret services, says that during Communism, 95 percent of the metropolitans in BOC were agents.

KGB had a plan to destroy the Constantinople Patriarchate

Russian secret services in the past had secret plans to plant explosives in very significant religious buildings, according to the research made by professor Nikolchev. One of those plans, allegedly drafted in Bulgaria during the 1950s and 1960s, included blowing up of Patriarchate of Constantinople.

Professor Nikolchev dedicated a great deal of effort to these plans.

“I have several publications about the attempts of the “Prvo Glavno Upravlenie (PGU) (First Main Administration) of State Security” from the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s, to set on fire or explode Constantinople Patriarchate. One of our professors took part in that operation, but most probably unknowingly. He served as a logistics agent. He was sent with the Ecumenical Patriarch to meet several professors of the Academy of Theology. He was tasked to see where the chapel was located, how many people came to liturgy on holidays and that was the information he was supplying. He did not know what that information was used for. He did not know that PGU was developing a plan to blow up Constantinople Patriarchate,” says Nikolcev.

Nikolchev ads that such an operation was developed in order to antagonize NATO’s South Wing, with Greece, Turkey, and the USA. Inciting tense relations between Turkey and Greece was a KGB priority.

“In our PGU, this operation had the code name “Cross”. But they seem to have been illiterate to write it as “Cros” in half of the documents. They have been developing the plan for seven or eight years. There are also documents for burning down the birth house of Ataturk in Thessaloniki. This a very large dossier and in one of the files, a document in Russian language appears to have been sent to KGB mentioning the plan for setting fire to the largest mosque Al Aksa in Jerusalem. That is the case when they are trying to incite a war between the Jews and the Arabs on the Middle East. I think that KGB developed that plan,” added Nikolcev.

First officer, then priest

During the time when Communist parties was in power, diplomats from the Eastern Bloc, almost always also served as intelligence agents. Although Communists did not like the church, in 1943 Stalin reckoned that the church could help his fight against the Nazis and thus the church became mainstream.

According to the documents found by professor Nikolchev, after the archives of Bulgarian State Security were opened, if the metropolitans was recruited by Russia, a letter was sent to the Bulgarian authorities to leave that person alone.

“They do not say why, but one can tell that the person was recruited. In rare cases, double files were maintained in both the Bulgarian secret service and in the KGB,” he says.

Nikolchev added that metropolitan Simeon from the Western European Diocese of BOC was recruited by both services.

“He is the only state officer under another name and a member of the Bulgarian Communist Party. For many years before that he was a vicar bishop. His dossier consists of 28 chapters and each chapter has 200-300 pages. All members of the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church had officer ranks. In Bulgaria, apart from Simeon as an officer, the other bishops were collaborators of the services,” says Nikolchev.

Andrey Zakharov, investigative journalist from the Russian service of the BBC who fled to Western Europe believed that these agents were especially dangerous for the security of any country in the long run. State Security was then known as NKBD (KGB) and used people from the Russian Church who traveled to other churches as agents.

“This is not proven since the archives in Russia are still not open. But, in principle, it is quite clear when you see the CV of the current Patriarch Kirill who lived in Geneva for a very long time, where the World Church Union is located. Now, this position is performed by his nephew,” added Zakharov.

“Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society” versus North Macedonia

Less familiar is the fact that even before Vasian Zmeev, Russian agents in North Macedonia were undertaking hostile faith-related activities, but through Greece. Russia through church donations tried to impose its influence and domination.

“There is Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society (IPPD) established by Nicholas I and Alexandar II even before the October Revolution. The society was formed to restore Orthodox monuments in Palestine. After the collapse of Communism or during Putin’s time, this society was renewed. It was implementing big Christian projects, not just in Palestine, but also in Greece – I know of a big project on the island of Corfu, Thessaloniki, and Mount Athos. President of the society was the former Prime-minister of the Russian Federation, Sergey Stepashin. He is from Sankt Petersburg and is Putin’s good friend,” says Zaharov, who investigated this society in 2018.

Russian style church in Gazi Baba, Skopje, North Macedonia. Photo by, April 2022.

Member of the IPPD is Nikolay Tokarev, Putin’s close friend from the time when they were KGB officers in Dresden, Eastern Germany. Tokarev is the President of Transneft, a state-controlled pipeline transport company headquartered in Moscow.

The Committee of Honorary Members of the Society is led by Patriarch Kirill. It includes Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, head of the foundation Elizabeth-Sergius Educational Society, Ana Gromova, spouse of Deputy Head of Presidential Administration, Alexey Gromov, the former mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov and the current mayor, Sergey Sobyanin.

Members of this society from Greece include owners of a construction company well known to us – “Aktor”, covered by the media for laundering millions of Euros.

In July 2018, Greece expelled two Russian diplomats: the former Russian Consul in Thessaloniki, Alexey Popov and another staff member of the Russian Embassy, Viktor Jakovlev. Both were part of IPPD. According to Greek media, Greek authorities considered them to be involved in the internal affairs of the country, more specifically, they were trying to interfere with the agreement on the new name of neighboring Macedonia.

In the past there also was a group of politicians and businessmen from Russia who called themselves “Afonites”, after Afon, the Russian name for Mount Athos. They very often came to Greece and gave a great deal of money to Russian and Greek monasteries on Mount Athos, but also in other places. This activity included frequent visits by the Russian businessman Konstantin Malofeev, who was associated with Russian malign influence in Montenegro, from weaponization of Orthodox Church to attempted coup d’etat in 2016.

Russian tycoons were providing a great deal of funds for the churches on the Balkans. More than 200 million Euros were transferred by the Russians to Orthodox buildings on the Balkans by 2018.

Dirty game of the Russian Church in Orthodoxy

The Russian Orthodox Church is not in eucharistic communion with Constantinople. That means that currently the Russian Church is not communicating with the Constantinople Patriarchate.

“Russian Orthodox Church, under the pressure of the Russian state, is trying to interrupt the relations of the rest of the Orthodox churches with Constantinople. That effort is enormous, but the success in various territories is not that great. Alexandria Church recognized the Ukrainian Church. As revenge, the Russian Orthodox Church started to open uncanonically dioceses on the territory of Africa under the Alexandrian Church,” says professor Janakiev.

He added that the Tomos received by a church always includes the territory of that church. In the territory of the Moscow Patriarchate, the territories of Alexandrian Patriarchate cannot be included. The Greek Orthodox Church recognized the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Russian Orthodox Church is trying in every possible way to create a conflict among the metropolitans of the Greek Orthodox Church, but so far without any big success.

For Bulgarian bishop Tihon, much more irritating is the behavior of Russian diplomats and ambassadors in Orthodox countries.

“The way an ambassador in the Synod demonstrates force, in terms of “I’ll now go there to see what they’ll do” is impertinence. Every Russian ambassador is first resident [agent] of KGB. That is the case all over the world. He knows his agents in the Synod, and will never say who those agents are, but from their actions, you will be able to tell,” says bishop Tihon.

By Goran Lefkov, for Meta