Sunday, March 23, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Struggle to Succeed Russian Orthodox Patriarch Heats Up

Paul Goble

Baku, March 24 – Several factions in and around the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church are organizing behind the scenes their own versions of President Vladimir Putin’s “Operation ‘Successor’” -- even though Aleksii II remains in relatively good health and is still very much in charge.
Indeed, commentator Aleksandr Soldatov writes in Ogonyek, this struggle, which no cleric will openly acknowledge, is today “being discussed actively and ‘without complexes’ in the corridors of the Church.” Given the stakes involved, he says, the upcoming succession is “no laughing matter.” (
For many years and especially after Aleksii II’s major illness in 2003-2004, most senior clerics and almost all outside observers assumed that Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad was “naturally” the most likely to assume the top post after the passing of Aleksii.
The reasons Kirill was viewed in this way are easy to understand, Soldatov says. Compared to his aging and “archaic” colleagues, the metropolitan is remarkably “energetic” and “abreast of all issues,” both within the Church itself and in the broader society.
Moreover, as the longtime head of the “enormous apparatus of the Patriarchate’s Department for External Relations,” he has created “a genuine expert-analytic center with its own PR and business subdivisions,” become wealthy, and developed close ties with key foreign and Russian constituencies – including the FSB.
And, perhaps most important of all, Kirill demonstrated both his power and his political skills by the cadre “revolution” within the Church he carried out in May 2003. At that time, with the patriarch extremely ill and not expected to survive, Kirill exiled several potential “heavy weight” competitors.
Metropolitan Mefodii, who had served editor of “The Orthodox Encyclopedia,” controlled the Sofrino factory, and had close ties with the Kremlin, was sent off to Astana. And Metropolitan Sergei, the church’s top administrative official was dispatched to Voronezh, a see whose importance Kirill reduced further by dividing it into two parts.
But after “the latest achievements of American-Swiss medicine” unexpectedly brought Aleksii back from the edge of death, Kirill’s own standing with the Kremlin has declined, and a new competitor for the Church’s top job has emerged thanks to changes within the Patriarchate itself.
On the one hand, Soldatov said, many in the Kremlin have become dissatisfied with what some viewed as “the hyperactivity” and “too independent” stance of Kirill. And consequently, Putin personally intervened to put another cleric in charge of unifying the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad with the Moscow Patriarchate.
In addition to this insult – after all, Kirill’s department was the logical place to oversee this action – Putin did not appoint the metropolitan to the Social Chamber “even though the metropolitan very much wanted to be a member.” One official said the Kremlin did not want him to acquire in that way even greater “independence.”
In this way, Soldatov continues, the Kremlin signaled that, just like its Soviet predecessor, the senior political elite of the country wants a patriarch who will carefully toe the line rather than one who might seek to use the country’s largest denomination to advance its religious and corporate goals.
Moreover, both the political establishment and the current patriarch have signaled their support for Metropolitan Kliment, administrator of the church since 2005 – the position from which all Soviet and post-Soviet patriarchs have come, incidentally – and a someone whom Putin did appoint to the Social Chamber.
When Kliment assumed his Church post, Kirill believed that he was his “own” man: Kliment had been his deputy for more than ten years and had always deferred to his boss. But since that time, Soldatov says, Kliment “created a real counterweight to [Kirill’s] department and subordinated to himself a number of key church structures.”
Moreover, from the Kremlin’s point of view, Kliment is a much more attractive candidate for patriarch. He is not as “impulsive” as Kirill, he was “never ‘a liberal,’” and he has never challenged the government. Moreover, unlike Kirill, Kliment never was involved in the church’s economic activities and thus cannot be accused of corruption.
But what is perhaps most important, Kliment has made the right political choices in the last year. While Kirill frequently travelled with the Russian defense minister, perhaps indicating his preference for Putin’s successor, Kliment made close friends with Svetlana Medvedeva, the wife of the man Putin and the country in fact chose.
All this is common ground for both the competitors and their backers, something that makes their ability to make use of church rules and to organize this very special kind of campaign critical, Soldatov points out. And in that struggle, each has certain advantages.
Kirill rewrote Church rules in 2000 so that much but far from the entire struggle for power will take place before the hierarchs assemble. Moreover, according to those rules, the role of the Ukrainian Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, because of its unique standing and recent actions, may have the final world.
Although this Ukrainian church is not subordinate to the Moscow church in all questions, its hierarchs can vote for the Russian patriarch. And in the last two years, the Ukrainian church has been creating new Episcopal districts and appointing new bishops far more rapidly than has its Russian counterparts.
As a result of this “boom in bishops,” Soldatov says, the Ukrainians could soon have just as many votes in the body that will at least on paper choose the next patriarch as will the Russian hierarchs, something that could tip the balance in the election in ways that are difficult to predict.
On the one hand, some of the Ukrainian hierarchs might be expected to favor Kirill because of his greater independence from the Kremlin. But on the other, many may fear that his activism will ultimately be directed toward acquiring greater control over their own activities.
Given what may prove to be a standoff between Kirill and Kliment, Soldatov asks whether a dark horse could emerge. The patriarchal candidates of 1990 are too old to make a comeback, he suggests, but he points to two possible compromise figures as long shot possibilities – Archbishop Viktor of Tver and Archbishop Longin of Saratov.
But whatever Kirill and Kliment do and however the Church organizes in advance of this election, the last word, even the deciding vote, is likely to be cast not by churchmen and maybe not even by believers but rather by those in the Kremlin who both want to use but at the same time fear the Russian Orthodox Church.

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