By Giorgi Kvelashvili
The Georgian and Russian churches have long found themselves heavily involved in political antagonism affecting almost all segments of the broad divide between pro-Western Georgia and increasingly isolationist and irredentist Russia. During the war between the two countries in August 2008, the Georgians and the Russians as well as their respective churches defended national interests as Patriarch Ilia II of Georgia gave his full support to his nation’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and the Russian Orthodox Church wasted no time to wholeheartedly subscribe to the official line of the Kremlin.
In August 2009, one year after Russia’s military aggression against Georgia, the two churches once again commemorated the war in the way they thought would best suit their countries’ national interests. Addressing a large gathering in Tbilisi’s Holy Trinity Cathedral, the Georgian patriarch said on August 7, 2009: “We respect Russia and its culture, but we will never come to terms with a loss of territorial integrity; on this issue, we have national consensus” (https://itv.ge/?p=19107). His statement was sharply distinct from what Russian Patriarch Kirill I said the following day. Calling the events of August 2008 “a tragedy for three fraternal Orthodox peoples [Russians, Ossetians and Georgians],” he put blame on “the evil political will” and accused Georgia of committing “aggression” against “the defenseless town [of Tskhinvali]” and “the Russian peacekeepers who acted in compliance with the international agreements” (https://www.rosbalt.ru/2009/08/08/661815.html).
The two religious organizations’ incompatible assessment of the Russo-Georgian war would not necessarily come as a surprise to those who are well familiar with the Georgian Church’s long history of support for Georgia’s independence and the Russian Church’s historical endorsement of Russia’s imperial expansion and domination over the vast Eurasia landscape. But the way that Patriarchs Ilia II and Kirill I have reacted to the recent natural calamity in Haiti could show more than national allegiance and patriotic symbolism.
On January 16, four days after the poor Caribbean nation was hit by a catastrophic magnitude 7.0 earthquake claiming between 100,000 and 200,000 lives and as the whole world was trying to help alleviate the suffering of the Haitian people, Russian Patriarch Kirill I said something unthinkable while on his three-day trip in Kazakhstan where he met with that country’s leadership as a political component of his visit. As reported by Russian media, he literally blamed the Haitians for incurring God’s wrath on themselves. “Haiti is a country of poverty and crime, famine, drugs and corruption, where people have lost their moral face,” Kirill was quoted as saying, “I’ve visited the island divided between two countries, the Dominican Republic and Haiti. One of them is developing, while the other is affected by crimes, economic recession and political unrest; that part of the island was shattered by the earthquake” (https://www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/patriarch-blames-crime-and-drugs-for-haitian-quake/397763.html).
According to The Moscow Times, the Russian patriarch compared Haiti with Kazakhstan, noting that “Kazakhstan has not experienced any earthquakes recently despite its seismological position”( https://www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/patriarch-blames-crime-and-drugs-for-haitian-quake/397763.html). Grani.ru, a Russian Internet publication, brought in another quote from Kirill II’s statement: “[Haiti] had not been capable of realizing itself and putting itself on the road to development, which could bring prosperity to [its] people” (https://grani.ru/Society/Religion/m.173436.html). It is worth mentioning here that Kazakhstan has recently assumed the one-year-long chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and Kirill I’s high-profile visit to that country could be complementary to the Russian political leadership’s desire to use Kazakhstan as a “conduit” for its European security proposals (https://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=35872&tx_ttnews%5BbackPid%5D=13&cHash=3e069b77a8).
Commenting on the issue in his article “We Have Shocked Everyone,” Dmitry Shusharin, a famous Russian political analyst, called Patriarch Kirill’s derogatory words towards Haiti a statement by “a top-ranking political figure” and tried to interpret them as a manifestation of Russia’s growing marginalization and isolationism. “Any nation’s name can be put in a cliché” that was used toward the Haitians, Shusharin wrote (https://www.grani.ru/Politics/Russia/m.173531.html). In the same article, he also suggested that the Russian patriarch’s words could explain “why Russia provided very insignificant aid to Haiti compared to other countries.”
Russia’s spiritual leader’s remark in Kazakhstan on the Haitian tragedy immediately found a huge wave of repercussions in Georgia’s media and public discourse. And not just because Georgia is located in the seismically active Caucasus region—one which is no stranger to earthquakes—or because rising xenophobia and racism, and now an odd religious-environmental prejudice in Russia would not bode well for its smaller neighbors, including Georgia. As a matter of fact, Kirill’s statement occurred at a time when the Georgian government had already dispatched humanitarian aid and a 20-men-strong rescue team to Haiti on January 14 and the Georgian public was in preparation for a gala concert and telethon in support of the Haitian earthquake victims (https://rustavi2.ge/news/news_textg.php?id_news=35216&pg=1&im=main&ct=0&wth=
On January 22, the Georgian charity foundation Iavnana, headed by the famous Georgian opera singer Paata Burchuladze, organized an event in Tbilisi which featured several renowned opera personalities of international acclaim including the Argentine Marcelo Raúl Álvarez, the American Michèle Crider and the Italian Ambrogio Maestri as well as Burchuladze himself (https://rustavi2.com/news/news_textg.php?id_news=35320&pg=1&im=main&ct=0&wth=). Among the attendees was the Georgian Patriarch Ilia II who is known for his penchant for opera, and music and art in general and has himself written several religious hymns and chants. Addressing the audience, the Georgian patriarch said: “May God bless Haiti and its people” (https://www.fact.ge/news.aspx?i=d2865e99-c709-4409-a0ef-599490ad7bf1).
According to information recently made public by the Russian patriarchate, Russia’s religious leader is planning to visit Georgia “to keep and strengthen ties between the peoples of Russia and Georgia” and “to retain the unity of the faith which ties us together” (https://www.regnum.ru/news/1240850.html). Patriarch Kirill’s ill-thought expression on Haiti could soon become yet another reason for the growing liberal movement in Georgia to oppose his visit. This is in addition to Kirill’s ambiguous position on Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and his continuous courting of the “leaders” in the Russian-occupied Georgian regions of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali, which is by far the primary reason for pro-Western and patriotic forces in Georgia to mobilize against his trip in the first place (https://www.rian.ru/p_anonce/20090202/160786484.html).
Analysts believe that as the Russian leadership is trying to “legitimize” its territorial acquisitions at the expense of Georgia’s sovereignty – and with that “a sphere of privileged interest” in Eurasia – and poor countries in Latin America, the Pacific and elsewhere are seen by the Kremlin as potential subscribers to a newly created “reality,” statements similar to those the Russian patriarch made in regards to Haiti would only hurt Russia’s efforts in Third World countries.