The head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia II, will visit Moscow on January 21 at the invitation of Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church (https://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=25612). Official press releases of both churches say that Patriarch Ilia II will be given an award of the International Foundation for the Unity of Orthodox Christian Nations “for special contribution to strengthening unity of the Orthodox Christian nations and Churches.” The awarding ceremony will be held in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral. The award is also timed to mark the 80th birthday of the Patriarch and the 35th anniversary of his service as the leader of the Georgian Orthodox Church.
The International Foundation for the Unity of Orthodox Christian Nations of the Russian Orthodox Church acknowledges spiritual, social and political leaders every year. However, given the current state of bilateral Russian-Georgian relations, giving the award to the Georgian Patriarch, combined with his invitation to Russia, bears unmistakably political overtones. This is even more so given the historical tradition of both countries, Russia and Georgia, where the Orthodox Church has played a very important role.
According to all surveys and available research, the Georgian Orthodox Church and Patriarch Ilia II in particular, enjoy an extremely high reputation among the citizens of the country (https://www.ndi.org/node/19897). Following the rise to power of the Georgian Dream coalition led by Bidzina Ivanishvili, this fact is certainly being taken into account by politicians in Moscow and Tbilisi as they attempt to devise various schemes for the gradual restoration of bilateral relations (https://en.rian.ru/world/20121003/176371829.html).
In the past, Patriarch Ilia has repeatedly mediated between Russian and Georgian politicians and even the two countries’ militaries. In August 2008, after hostilities between Russia and Georgia were over, he visited areas adjacent to South Ossetia accompanied by the Russian forces’ commander, General Vyacheslav Borisov, and facilitated a war prisoners’ exchange (https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/1151389/print). Later, Ilia II met Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow (https://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=20105) and managed to reach an agreement with him about the withdrawal of Russian troops from some villages of the Sachkhera and Gori districts of Georgia (https://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=20145). However, at the time, Russian leaders refused to have any contacts with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and his administration. Hence, the Patriarch’s mediation could not go beyond humanitarian issues.
The situation changed after Georgian Dream came to power and the official representatives of both countries held their first bilateral meeting in Geneva (https://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=25550). Moscow has welcomed this improving trend, but clearly regards Patriarch Ilia’s upcoming visit as part of its long-term strategy to make use of the two countries’ shared religious ties to bring Georgia back into Russia’s sphere of influence.
This tradition has a long historical legacy that dates back to the attempts of Georgian elites, including the clergy, to use their common faith tradition to gain political union with Russia during the medieval period. However, while the Georgian elites’ aim was to use the union to improve their state’s survivability, in reality, after the Georgian areas joined Russia (https://www.parliament.ge/pages/archive_en/history/his9.html) the Russian Empire abolished Georgian statehood and the Georgian Church’s independence. Paradoxically, the Georgian Orthodox Church managed to regain its autonomy only during the communist period, with the help of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin (https://www.vestikavkaza.ru/interview/12719.html).
It is not surprising, therefore, that Russians always regarded the Church as an important factor for the advancement of their influence and interests. However, despite their common religion and the connections between the churches, intractable political problems in Russian-Georgian bilateral relations persisted. Tbilisi accused Moscow of supporting separatism in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and Ilia II himself has publicly tied strategic improvement of Russian-Georgian relations to the withdrawal of Russian support for the Abkhazian and Ossetian separatists. Notably, the attempts of the former Russian Ambassador to Georgia Vyacheslav Kovalenko to “buy” the loyalty of the Georgian Church’s leaders with modest handouts—for example when the Russian company Telasi provided free illumination of the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Tbilisi (https://www.civil.ge/rus/article.php?id=16268)—were met with indignant statements by the Patriarch.
Therefore, the alacrity of the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church to visit Russia and accept the award is now even more noteworthy considering that Moscow had officially recognized the independence of the former Georgian autonomous regions, while President Putin has again recently proclaimed this decision “irrevocable” (https://cominf.org/en/node/1166495970). Against this backdrop and whatever his inner motives may be, the Patriarch’s visit gives the outward impression that he is willing to accept the loss of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as continued Russian military presence in these territories, as the new status quo, thus necessitating a restart of Georgia’s dialogue with Russian from scratch.
For Moscow, such an approach fits well with the policies of Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, who emphasizes a restoration of trade and economic relations between Georgia and Russia, including the return of Georgian wines and mineral water to the Russian market (https://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=25586). Thereby, the new Georgian government practically accepts the rules set by the Kremlin, which proposes to factor the issue of territorial integrity of Georgia out of the bilateral relations agenda.
It is also plausible, however, that Moscow expects to eventually receive much more out of Patriarch Ilia’s visit. For Russia, the strengthening of the connections between the two countries’ churches may be the first step toward reintegrating Georgia into the Commonwealth of Independent States and then into Putin’s dream framework, the Eurasian Union.