The Battle for Political Influence in the Georgian Orthodox Church
Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 101
The political crisis continues in Georgia, as crowds angry at Russia and their own government refuse to vacate the streets of Tbilisi. The ongoing standoff began on June 20, when tens of thousands of Georgians came out to protest the arrogant actions of Russian parliamentarian Sergei Gavrilov, who was invited to an inter-parliamentary assembly in Georgia and sat in the seat normally reserved for the speaker of the Georgian parliament (see EDM, June 24). Law enforcement violently cracked down on the initial demonstrations, but new rallies have now been held on 27 consecutive days (Civil.ge, July 16). These events have exacerbated preexisting disputes in Georgian society about the “sustainability” of the pro-Western orientation of the ruling Georgian Dream party and its leader, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili.
At the same time, the crisis has highlighted the successful use of Russian “soft power” and influence assets in Georgia. It is no coincidence that the provocative invitation of Gavrilov had the support of the Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC), which was the main initiator behind holding in Tbilisi the above-mentioned Inter-Parliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy. “Common faith” with Russia remains the main political narrative of many—though not all—GOC hierarchs.
Taking into account the high levels of political and social influence the GOC has over Georgian society, current leadership struggles within the Church may have an important impact on whether the pro-Western orientation of the country can be preserved.
On November 23, 2017 (St. George’s Day), during a liturgical service at the Kashueti Church, in Tbilisi, 86-year-old Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia Ilia II essentially announced his own successor. Reading from his decree, Ilia appointed Metropolitan of Senaki and Chkhorotsku Shio Mujiri as the Locum Tenens, or guardian of the patriarchal throne. The Locum Tenens acts as a temporary head of the GOC for 40 days after the incumbent patriarch dies, until the Holy Synod, made up of 47 senior bishops, elects a new Church leader. Patriarch Ilia II, who has sat at the top of the GOC hierarchy since 1977, wields tremendous authority over the Holy Synod; thus its members are almost certain to take his apparent endorsement into account when it comes time to choose the next leader of the Church (Jam-news.net, November 23, 2017).
Metropolitan Shio’s secular name is Elizbar Mujiri. He was born in 1969, in Tbilisi, and took his vows as a monk in 1993. He ascended to the rank of metropolitan in August 2010. Mujiri studied theology in Russia (Jam-news.net, November 23, 2017) and is seen by some experts as a proponent of closer ties with the Russian Church.
One of the top Georgian specialists on the GOC, Gocha Mirtskhulava, told this author that, in 2017, Russia sent a close confidante of Moscow Patriarch Kiril—Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, a chairperson of the Department of External Church Relations and a permanent member of the Russian Orthodox Church Holy Synod—to transmit a message to the Georgian patriarch that Moscow would support Shio Mujiri as heir to the patriarchal throne in Georgia. “Metropolitan Shio is well known for his pro-Russian aspirations. Not only did he study in Russia and does not support Ukraine’s autocephaly, but he also has close business ties to his childhood friend Levan Vasadze—a Georgian businessman famous for his anti-Western rhetoric and fundamentalist views,” Mirtskhulava said (Author’s interview, July 6).
The expert further recalled that Vasadze has close relations with Russian ultranationalist “philosopher” Alexander Dugin, the founder of the “Eurasianist” movement who promotes Russian expansion and Russia’s superior spiritual (i.e., Christian Orthodox) and political role on the Eurasian continent. Dugin believes that Eurasia should become a federation of countries led by Russia. For his role in Crimea’s annexation and his actions against Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, Dugin was sanctioned by the United States.
Mirtskhulava stressed that almost all members of the GOC’s Holy Synod have close links to Russia or the Russian Church. “I am absolutely sure that at the top of the Georgian Orthodox Church, there is no ‘pro-Western group’ now. This does not mean there are no [Georgian] hierarchs who share Western values, who are pro-American or pro-European; but they have no organization because pro-Western hierarchs currently have no leader,” the expert underlined (Author’s interview, July 6).
According to Mirtskhulava, it will be important to pay attention to the leading GOC hierarchs’ positions on the crucial issue of recognizing the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Church. Crucially, the Holy Synod decided to postpone the GOC’s final decision on this matter. But it is precisely the position on this issue that may signal the Georgian Church’s level of independence from Moscow.
Senior GOC clerics Bishops Ioseb (of Shemokmedi), Petre (of Chkondidi) and Grigol (of Poti and Khobi) have all publicly welcomed the granting of independence to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church earlier this year. A few standing members of the Holy Synod—Bishops Iakob Iakobishvili (of Bodbe), Zosime Shioshvili (of Tsilkani and Dusheti), Vakhtang Akhvlediani (of Tsurtavi), Dositheos Bogveradze (of Belgium and Netherlands), Saba Instkirveli (of North America) and Zenon Iarajuli (of Dmanisi and Agarak-Tashiri, the United Kingdom and Ireland)—have also expressed support at various times for granting autocephaly to the Ukrainian Church (Netgazeti.ge, September 12, 2018; Rustavi 2, December 25, 27, 2018; Facebook.com, December 23, 2018). But all other members of the 38-person Holy Synod, including Locum Tenens Metropolitan Shio, have so far refused to support the Ukrainian Church until after having “studied” the Universal Patriarch’s decision on the matter (Civil.ge, January 15)
None of this should imply, however, that a genuine pro-Western power base within the GOC does not exist and cannot be successfully engaged. In November 2017, 12 leading Georgian hierarchs traveled to the United States. The delegation consisted of several bishops often associated with anti-Western propaganda and anti-democratic activity. Yet, as a result of their trip, one of most conservative Holy Synod members, Archbishop Jacob, actually complimented the US “…for never betraying Georgia” and argued that “Russia has been at war with us for our aspiration to freedom for many years. America’s support is crucial for us” (Civil.ge, July 26 2018).
Several days after the GOC’s North American tour, the conservative clerical leaders headed to Moscow. Archbishop Theodore of Akhaltsikhe and Tao Klarjeti discussed with Russian hierarchs the control over Georgia’s two occupied regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. What is most noteworthy is that both visits—to the West and to Russia—were explicitly sanctioned by Patriarch Ilia.
This fact confirms that any change in the “pro-Russian orientation” of the GOC is likely to be motivated by Moscow’s unwillingness to stop its aggressive policies regarding the occupied territories as well as more visible Western efforts help the Georgian state reestablish full territorial integrity, return refugees to their homes and restore the influence of the GOC in the former autonomies.