Thursday, October 16, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Orthodoxy Becomes an Obstacle rather than a Bridge in Russian-Georgian Relations

Paul Goble

Vienna, October 16 – Many in Eastern Christendom were dismayed when Russia and Georgia, two historically Orthodox countries, went to war and assumed that whatever the politics of Moscow and Tbilisi, the fraternal churches could help to bridge the gap between the two. But now there is evidence that these churches are deepening rather than overcoming the division.
Last week, Iliya II, the Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia, organized an international forum to promote dialogue between the two, and the Moscow Patriarchate refused to take control of Orthodox parishes in the two breakaway republics that the Russian government has recognized (
But despite the hopes these two actions generated that the churches could help bridge the divide that Russian actions in Georgia helped to create, the statements of the leader of the Georgina Church and the actions of the two churches in Abkhazia and South Ossetia have dashed almost all of them.
In his speech to the forum, the Catholicos took a hard line, reaffirming that “Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region are part of Georgia, that Georgians will not allow their loss, and that efforts by the Abkhazian officials to re-identify Georgians in the Kodori gorge as “Svans” rather than Georgians.
And Father David Sharashenidze, the head of the press center of the Georgian Orthodox church, said that Tbilisi welcomed the decision of the Moscow Patriarchate relative to the parishes in the breakaway republics but challenged the Moscow church to work to ensure that the Georgian priests in those two regions will be able to carry out their mission.
This tough line under the circumstances, however, has not worked “to the advantage of the Georgians,” according to an analysis by Roman Lunkin, one of Moscow’s most thoughtful if often most critical commentators on the situation in the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (
Abkhazia and South Ossetia “in fact are outside the reach of the Georgian clergy, and if on these territories there remain Georgian priests, they will not be able to conduct any serious activity [because] local residents, the Abkhaz and Ossetians who are Orthodox brothers would not permit them to do so.”
But because of the Moscow Patriarchate’s decision, a “paradoxical situation” has arisen: “not in either of the [two] republics will the Russian or the Georgian church exist and be able to act openly,” a situation that will almost inevitably cost Orthodoxy much authority in the eyes of the respective populations.
Archpriest Nikolai Balashov, the Moscow Patriarchate official responsible for inter-Orthodox ties, has suggested that an effort should be made to find a provision resolution of this situation for the good of believers, possibly by making use of the Stavropol and Vladikavkaz bishoprics of the Russian Orthodox Church.
But that would both undermine the principle that Moscow was trying to uphold – it fears the impact of such a precedent on its control of parishes and bishoprics in Ukraine – and infuriate the Georgian Church, which is not willing to accept any Russian role on these territories even if it means that believers will not have access to the services and mysteries of the church.
“A more absurd situation it is difficult to imagine,” Lunkin says, and he goes on to provide details of the problems that the Orthodox from both Moscow and Tbilisi face in the two breakaway republics even though the situation in Abkhazia and that in South Ossetia are very different from one another in many respects.
In South Ossetia, there is a Church of South Ossetia – the Alania exarchate headed by Bishop Georgy (Tsukhate), which is linked to the “old style” Synod opposed to the True Orthodox church of Greece. It is that church rather than the Moscow patriarchate which has parishes in that republic.
In Abkhazia, on the other hand, “semi-official relations” were established with the Moscow Patriarchate already in the 1990s, a development that encouraged the Abkhaz national movement while infuriating the Orthodox leadership in Tbilisi. But precisely because of their existing ties, the Abkhaz have been pushing harder now for links with Moscow.
Neither Moscow nor Tbilisi is likely to back away from its current position, and “this means that in the next few years, the status quo will be preserved in the republics recognized by the Russian Federation: a situation that in turn means that “neither the Moscow Patriarchate nor the Georgians will agree about their involvement in the church life” in the two.
Because of the Russian military presence, the Moscow church may be in a better position to do things, but it is constrained by its fear that anything it does in these two republics will have an impact on its status elsewhere and will exacerbate problems with the Universal Patriarch and other Orthodox communities (
But even if the Moscow Patriarchate acts with restraint, the unresolved conflict it has with Tbilisi will cast a shadow on the unity of the Eastern Church, and that will weaken the Moscow Church in the eyes of both other Christians and also of the Kremlin which hopes to use it to advance Moscow’s interests (

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