Moscow Relies on Russian Orthodox Church to Retain Control over Minds in the North Caucasus

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 72

On March 22, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church decreed redrawing the eparchial boundaries in the North Caucasus. Since the Russian Orthodox Church has been known for close cooperation with the Russian state over the past decade, the move attracted substantial attention from the expert community. A new Vladikavkaz eparchy was established that will govern Orthodox communities across Dagestan, Ingushetia, Chechnya and North Ossetia. Among these four territories the majority of the Orthodox Christians are concentrated in North Ossetia, where the seat of the newly appointed Archbishop Zosima from Kalmykia was designated. The relatively numerous Orthodox communities in Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria and adjacent parts of the ethnic Russian-populated Stavropol region were united with the center in Pyatigorsk under Bishop Feofilakt from central Russia. The cities of Stavropol and Nevinnomyssk, where the ethnic Russian concentration is the greatest, were detached from the rest of the North Caucasus and put under Patriarch Kirill from Moscow (www.patriarchia.ru, March 22).

Before the most recent changes were announced, the Russian Orthodox clergy treated Dagestan as part of Azerbaijani-Dagestani eparchy. Vladikavkaz was part of Stavropol eparchy, the latter becoming the primary seat of the Russian Orthodox Church in the region. With the latest changes, the Orthodox eparchies became more specific and readjusted according to administrative and state borders, experts say. The former Archbishop of Vladikavkaz and Stavropol Feofan, who had essentially ruled most of the Orthodox population of the North Caucasus since 2003, was reassigned to the Chelyabinsk region. Some observers regard this as a “sensational exile,” citing his initial opposition to appointment of Kirill, the current patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, April 11).

“It is beyond any doubt that the Russian Orthodox Church is increasing its influence in the North Caucasus with the creation of new eparchies in the region,” religion expert Aleksandr Soldatov told the Kavkazsky Uzel (Caucasian Knot) website. “It is clear that Patriarch Kirill pays special attention to the Caucasus region.” According to Soldatov, the new eparchy with its center in North Ossetia reflects the increased importance of this republic. North Ossetia has a dominant population of Orthodox Christians that potentially makes it a key ally for the Russian Orthodox Church in the predominantly Muslim North Caucasus. Besides, there is an important cleavage. South Ossetia, which was recognized by Russia as an independent state, following the war with Georgia in August 2008, has defied supremacy of the Russian Orthodox Church, opting instead for the Greek Orthodox Church. Bishop Feolaktit, according to Soldatov, is very close to Patriarch Kirill, so his appointment to oversee Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachaevo-Cherkessia and several nearby territories signifies the importance of this part of the North Caucasus in the calculations of both the Russian Patriarchate and the Russian government (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, April 11).

According to Kavkazsky Uzel, some Russian activists in Stavropol regard the reshaping of eparchial borders in the North Caucasus as “disastrous,” leading to a weakening of the Russian Orthodox Church’s positions in the region. Others argue that the North Caucasus “was given three spiritual leaders instead of one,” which supposedly attested to a strengthening of the Russian Orthodox Church in the region.

The striking implication of the expert commentaries is that the Russian Orthodox Church’s presence in the North Caucasus is equated to the ability of Moscow to hold on to this region, which traditionally harbors separatist aspirations. The thinking in the Russian expert community apparently is that the Church would fill the glaring gap left by the fall of communist ideology, which held the country together in the past.

Another expert on religion, Yuri Mikhailov, played down the importance of the redrawing of the ecclesiastical borders in the North Caucasus. “Religious activists should speak about society’s problems in a modern language; instead, a majority of the Orthodox leaders speak in a medieval tongue,” he said, referring to the old-Slavic language that the Russian Orthodox Church uses in its liturgies. According to Mikhailov, the Russian Orthodox Church largely ignored the pogroms in Moscow in December 2010, when Russian nationalists staged riots and attacked non-Russian ethnic groups, mostly those from the North Caucasus (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, April 11).

In fact, Patriarch Kirill had a very interesting reaction to the riots on Moscow’s Manezh Square last December 11. While the patriarch condemned the mob for attacking peaceful civilians just because they were not ethnic Russians, he also issued a warning. “Interethnic relations are a connected vessel,” he said. “We should not point our finger just at the one side of the vessel, ignoring its other side. The rise of radicalism in ethnically associated groups, especially the rise of criminal radical ethnic groups, immediately provokes a reaction from the majority, also a radical one.” Thus Kirill obliquely approved of the principle of collective punishment of non-Russians, meaning first and foremost the North Caucasians, for the misdeeds of some of them. Patriarch Kirill also cautioned that those same forces that used the multi-ethnic makeup of the USSR to break it up were trying to do the same thing to the Russian Federation (www.patriarchia.ru, December 14, 2010). For the patriarch of a church that was severely prosecuted and constantly pressured by the Soviet authorities, the patriarch displayed a surprising amount of care about the former Soviet empire.

Divisions between the Russian Orthodox clergy and the North Caucasians are not limited to different approaches to inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations. A conflict between the Karachays and the Russian Orthodox Church over ancient Christian temples in the republic has been brewing for the past two decades. The Russian Church aspires to own the so-called Alans’ churches in Karachaevo-Cherkessia, while the Karachays, who claim the ancient Alans as their ancestors, regard these churches as their national treasure. The Russian Orthodox Churches claim rights over these temples, referring to their having belonged to the Byzantine tradition, while the Karachays are Muslim and therefore supposedly have nothing to do with Christian churches. The Karachays say that the churches were built before Russia adopted Christianity and therefore belong to them as the rightful heirs to the Alans, people who built the churches (http://skfonews.ru/article/108).

Moscow appears to be determined to make use of the Russian Orthodox Church in the North Caucasus, while the church shows signs of readiness to work side by side with the Russian state. However, the danger for the Russian Orthodox Church comes from its overly close affiliation with the Russian state, which will eventually make it responsible for the state’s mistakes and ultimately be dependent on the state’s ability to sustain the church.