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Tbilisi’s Divine Diplomacy

Georgia’s and Russia’s shared Orthodox faith emerges as a conduit for dialogue. From EurasiaNet. by Giorgi Lomsadze 23 February 2009 With diplomatic ties between Georgia and Russia ruptured, the two countries’ shared Orthodox Christian faith has emerged as the primary conduit for dialogue between Tbilisi and Moscow.

Ilia II
That postwar connection first came into play on 15 August, three days after the end of active fighting between Georgian and Russian troops, when the 76-year-old Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II traveled into the Russian-occupied territory to bring back the bodies of slain Georgian soldiers. He traveled at the intercession of his Russian counterpart, the late Patriarch Alexy II.

Nearly four months later, at Alexy II’s funeral, Ilia again acted as intermediary. This time, he reportedly delivered a message from Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev concerning Georgia’s "territorial integrity." A Georgian church delegation again returned to the Russian capital for the February 1 installation of Alexy II’s successor, Kirill.

The Georgian government, however, has been circumspect about commenting on or publicly acknowledging the patriarch’s role in restoring some form of communication with Moscow.

In remarks to reporters in December, Saakashvili stated that he had met with Ilia II on the eve of his departure for Moscow, and described himself as "very grateful" for the patriarch’s "diplomatic mission." Foreign Minister Grigol Varshadze later stated that Ilia II had shared some "very interesting" information about his conversation with Medvedev, but declined to elaborate.

"This was a public diplomacy effort meant to coax politicians to the negotiations table," commented Deacon Mikael, who also serves as the Georgian patriarch’s secretary. "The patriarch’s position is that we should be able to have neighborly relations with Russia, but not at the expense of giving up Georgian territories."

Moscow responded to Ilia II’s efforts in late December by dispatching its own public diplomacy mission to Tbilisi, led by Medvedev’s international cultural affairs envoy Mikhail Shvidkoy.

But with Ilia II now in Germany for medical treatment of a virus and a new, untested patriarch in Moscow, how those Georgian-Russian church contacts will further develop remains unclear.

Asked to comment on the Georgian patriarchy’s missions to Moscow, an official within the Georgian Foreign Ministry told EurasiaNet that the topic was "irrelevant," given the primacy of government concerns about the European Union investigation into the 2008 war with Russia.

Within Georgia, the greatest concern focuses on whether or not the Russian Orthodox Church will reverse its October 2008 decision to recognize the Orthodox congregations in Abkhazia and South Ossetia as still subject to the Georgian Orthodox Church. The Russian Orthodox Church and the Georgian Orthodox Church function as separate entities.

Religious history scholar Beka Mindiashvili believes that the Russian patriarchy will avoid antagonizing the Georgian church and, thus, inviting retaliation. In case of any reversal of Alexy II’s decision, Mindiashvili noted, "the Georgian church can then recognize the autocephaly of the Kyiv patriarchy [a Ukrainian rival to the Moscow patriarchy], which is not recognized by other canonical Eastern Orthodox churches."

In a November 2008 interview with the Russian TV channel Vesti, Kirill said that a "temporary, transitional model" should be found to meet the needs of the Abkhaz and South Ossetian Orthodox communities without angering the Georgian church.

Mindiashvili, an outspoken church critic, contends, though, that the Kremlin’s doors are now open to the Georgian Orthodox Church since it is viewed as a natural partner in the fight against Western influence in the Caucasus. "While Russia is struggling against growing Western influence throughout its sphere, the church in Georgia is against Western-style liberal democracy’s taking hold, as it would inevitably lead to an erosion of the church’s powers," Mindiashvili argued. "This is one area where the two can cooperate, and the Russians view the [Georgian Orthodox] church as a potential foothold in Georgia."

Conservative religious publications have reinforced this view. In a recent editorial, Kvakutkhedi (Cornerstone), a magazine financed by Metropolitan Job of Akiashvili, wrote that Georgia should remain under the fold of "righteous" Russia and stop seeking integration with the "unorthodox" West.

But the Georgian patriarchy’s Deacon Mikael takes a different position, regretting what he described as the United States’ and European Union’s "weak-willed" support for Georgia’s integration with Western institutions. The Georgian church, he said, completely supports the government’s campaign for democratic reform.

Aside from the patriarchy’s growing influence within Georgia, Ilia II, who has led the Georgian Orthodox Church since 1977, has longstanding influence within other Orthodox communities. During the Soviet era, he served as co-president of the World Council of Churches for six years and has received various honors from Orthodox churches worldwide.

One former Georgian ambassador to Moscow, however, notes that there are limits to the church’s actual influence on Moscow. Patriarchal missions can do nothing to reverse Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, said Zurab Abashidze, who served as ambassador to Russia from 2000 to 2004. "This leaves us in a bind that no cultural diplomacy can resolve," said Abashidze, who traveled to Moscow for Patriarch Kirill’s installation. "It’s next to impossible to imagine any real turnaround, when within 40 kilometers from the capital there is Russian artillery stationed and trained on Tbilisi."

But Abashidze believes that the church can help deter any resumption of hostilities by creating a backdrop that is conducive to negotiations. "Many in Moscow feel that in August the job was not completed," he said. "The threat of renewed hostilities is real, so Georgia should have recourse to all international and cultural means to bring the political temperature down."
Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance reporter in Tbilisi. A partner post from EurasiaNet.
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