http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/insightb/articles/eav021609.shtml GEORGIA: TBILISI USES DIVINE DIPLOMACY IN ITS DEALINGS WITH RUSSIA
Giorgi Lomsadze 2/16/09
With diplomatic ties between Georgia and Russia
ruptured, the two countries' shared Orthodox
Christian faith has emerged as the primary
conduit for dialogue between Tbilisi and Moscow.
That post-war connection first came into play on
August 15, three days after the end of active
fighting between Georgian and Russian troops,
when the 76-year-old Georgian Orthodox Church
Patriarch Ilia II traveled into the
Russian-occupied territory to bring back the
bodies of slain Georgian soldiers. He traveled at
the intercession of his Russian counterpart, the late Patriarch Alexy II.
Nearly four months later, at Alexy II's funeral,
Ilia II again acted as intermediary. This time,
he reportedly delivered a message from Georgian
President Mikheil Saakashvili to Russian leader
Dmitry Medvedev concerning Georgia's "territorial
integrity." A Georgian church delegation again
returned to the Russian capital for the February
1 installation of Alexy II's successor, Kirill.
The Georgian government, however, has been
circumspect about commenting on or publicly
acknowledging the patriarch's role in restoring
some form of communication with Moscow. [For
background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In remarks to reporters in December, President
Saakashvili stated that he had met with Ilia II
on the eve of his departure for Moscow, and
described himself as "very grateful" for the
patriarch's "diplomatic mission." Foreign
Minister Grigol Varshadze later stated that Ilia
II had shared some "very interesting" information
about his conversation with Medvedev, but declined to elaborate.
"This was a public diplomacy effort meant to coax
politicians to the negotiations table," commented
Deacon Mikael, who also serves as the Georgian
patriarch's secretary. "The patriarch's position
is that we should be able to have neighborly
relations with Russia, but not at the expense of
giving up Georgian territories."
Moscow responded to Ilia II's efforts in late
December by dispatching to Tbilisi its own public
diplomacy mission, led by Medvedev's
international cultural affairs envoy Mikhail Shvidkoy.
But with Ilia II now in Germany for medical
treatment of a virus and a new, untested
patriarch in Moscow, how those Georgian-Russian
church contacts will further develop remains unclear.
Asked to comment in February on the Georgian
patriarchy's missions to Moscow, an official
within the Georgian Foreign Ministry told
EurasiaNet that the topic was "irrelevant," given
the primacy of government concerns about the
European Union investigation into the 2008 war with Russia.Within Georgia, the greatest concern focuses on
whether or not the Russian Orthodox Church will
reverse its October 2008 decision to recognize
the Orthodox congregations in Abkhazia and South
Ossetia as still subject to the Georgian Orthodox
Church. The Russian Orthodox Church and the
Georgian Orthodox Church function as separate entities.
Religious history scholar Beka Mindiashvili
believes that the Russian patriarchy will avoid
antagonizing the Georgian church and, thus,
inviting retaliation. In case of any reversal of
Alexy II's decision, Mindiashvili noted, "the
Georgian church can then recognize the
autocephaly of the Kiev patriarchy [an Orthodox
church that rivals the Moscow patriarchy], which
is not recognized by other canonical Eastern Orthodox churches."
In a November 2008 interview with the Russian TV
channel Vesti, Kirill said that a "temporary,
transitional model" should be found to meet the
needs of the Abkhaz and South Ossetian Orthodox
communities without angering the Georgian church.
Mindiashvili, an outspoken church critic,
contends, though, that the Kremlin's doors are
now open to the Georgian Orthodox Church since it
is viewed as a natural partner in the fight
against Western influence in the Caucasus. "While
Russia is struggling against growing Western
influence throughout its sphere, the church in
Georgia is against Western-style liberal
democracy's taking hold, as it would inevitably
lead to an erosion of the church's powers,"
Mindiashvili argued. "This is one area where the
two can cooperate, and the Russians view the
[Georgian Orthodox] church as a potential foothold in Georgia."
Conservative religious publications have
reinforced this view. In a recent editorial,
Kvakutkhedi (Cornerstone), a magazine financed by
Metropolitan Job of Akiashvili, wrote that
Georgia should remain under the fold of
"righteous" Russia and stop seeking integration with the "unorthodox" [West.
But the Georgian patriarchy's Deacon Mikael takes
a different position, regretting what he
described as the United States and European
Union's "weak-willed" support for Georgia's
integration with Western institutions. The
Georgian church, he said, completely supports the
government's campaign for democratic reform.
Aside from the patriarchy's growing influence
within Georgia, Ilia II, who has led the Georgian
Orthodox Church since 1977, has longstanding
influence within other Orthodox communities.
During the Soviet era, he served as co-president
of the World Council of Churches for six years
and has received various honors from Orthodox churches worldwide.
One former Georgian ambassador to Moscow,
however, notes that there are limits to the
church's actual influence on Moscow. Patriarchal
missions can do nothing to reverse Russia's
recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as
independent states, said Zurab Abashidze, who
served as ambassador to Russia from 2000 to 2004.
"This leaves us in a bind that no cultural
diplomacy can resolve," said Abashidze, who
traveled to Moscow for Patriarch Kirill's
installation. "It's next to impossible to imagine
any real turnaround, when within 40 kilometers
from the capital there is Russian artillery stationed and trained on Tbilisi."
But Abashidze believes that the church can help
deter any resumption of hostilities by creating a
backdrop that is conducive to negotiations. "Many
in Moscow feel that in August the job was not
completed," he said. "The threat of renewed
hostilities is real, so Georgia should have
recourse to all international and cultural means
to bring the political temperature down."
Editor's Note: Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance reporter in Tbilisi.
Posted February 16, 2009 © Eurasianethttp://www.eurasianet.org