Moscow Using the Orthodox Church to Expand its Influence?

8 MINS READJul 26, 2011 | 11:23 GMT
Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and all Russia and priests walk through the streetsof Moscow after a divine liturgy.
Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and all Russia and priests after a divine liturgy at the Assumption Cathedral of the Holy Trinity-St Sergius Lavra on the day of uncovering the relics of Venerable Sergius of Radonezh.
(Photo by Gavriil Grigorov\TASS via Getty Images)

The heads of the Russian, Georgian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches will meet in Kiev from July 26 to July 28, during which they will discuss a number of issues and mark two holidays: the Procession of the Cross and Baptism of Russia Day. One such issue is changes within the Ukrainian and Georgian churches — changes on which Moscow can capitalize by using the Russian Orthodox Church to expand its influence. This is in keeping with moves made by Moscow in the Soviet era, and current Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill I has long been complicit in this tactic.

The three religious leaders will also hold a series of bilateral and trilateral meetings to address the many changes happening in each of their respective churches. Stratfor has long discussed how the Kremlin has used the church as a tool to increase its influence in its former Soviet states, and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill I has been complicit in this tactic. However, the Ukrainian and Georgian churches face a number of problems, and the meeting in Kiev presents just the opportunity Moscow needs to achieve its goal of expanding its influence.


Religion as a Lever

In Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus and Armenia, Orthodoxy is the dominant religion. In the Soviet era, Moscow used this religious connection as a political lever to spread propaganda and spy on its own people, even though the church and the Kremlin always had a tense relationship. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Georgian and Armenian Orthodox Churches gained autonomy when they split off from the Moscow Patriarchy (though during the Soviet period, the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church never formally accepted the Moscow Patriarchy to begin with). The Ukrainian and Belarusian Orthodox Churches instead remained loyal to the Moscow Patriarchy, which gave them a small degree of autonomy.

The Russian Orthodox Church could not capitalize on its ties to neighboring countries because Russia itself was in disarray. In 1997, then-President Boris Yeltsin passed an initiative that banned all religions in the country but Orthodoxy, Judaism and Islam. This gave the Church de facto dominance over Christianity. WhenVladimir Putin assumed the presidency in 2000, he wanted to move the Church to have a political role inside Russia — essentially to influence the Russian population — and to resume ties to the Orthodox churches outside Russia. This sparked a feud between Putin and then-Patriarch Alexei II, who did not want the church to become a political tool of the Kremlin. In 2007, Alexei capitulated to Putin's demands, after which Putin orchestrated a resumption of ties between the Russian Orthodox Church and the autonomous Russian Orthodox Church outside of Russia, which had been separate entities since 1927. This allowed the Moscow Patriarchy to gain influence in churches abroad, especially in the United States, Australia, Germany and France, all of which have a relatively large number of Orthodox churches.



Alexei died in 2008, and Patriarch Kirill came to power. Kirill allegedly worked in the KGB during the Soviet era, helping the KGB spread its propaganda and spy on parishioners in churches outside Russia, including Finland, and he still holds deep ties within the Federal Security Service. Putin embraced this change in leadership, and along with current President Dmitri Medvedev, Kirill and Putin have transformed the church into a highly political machine, with the Patriarchy influencing decisions on such issues as social groups and foreign policy. Kirill has more recently publicly stated that the Moscow Patriarchy should increase its influence over all Slavic and Eastern Orthodox communities. Presently, his statements are directed less at the Central European and Balkan churches and more at those in the former Soviet Union, particularly Ukraine and Georgia. His goal is to strengthen Moscow's influence over Kiev, weaken the Orthodox breakaway churches in Ukraine, and resume ties with the Georgian church. Kirill hopes to further these goals during the meeting in Kiev. Notably, recent problems within the Orthodox churches in Ukraine and Georgia have presented Kirill, and thus Moscow, an opportunity.




Along with current President Dmitri Medvedev, Kirill and Putin have transformed the church into a highly political machine, with the Patriarchy influencing decisions on such issues as social groups and foreign policy.

Instability in the Ukrainian Orthodox Churches

Following the creation of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church split in two branches: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchy (UOC-MP) and the autonomous Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC). After the fall of the Soviet Union, another schism created a third church, called the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kievian Patriarchy (UOC-KP). Currently, the UOC-MP is the dominant church, accounting for 75 percent of the Orthodox communities. The UOC-KP accounts for a little more the 15 percent and the UAOC a little less than 10 percent of the Orthodox communities in Ukraine.

Over the past month, the UOC-MP has witnessed much infighting. The head of the UOC-MP, Metropolitan Vladimir, is in poor health and expected to step down soon, and there is fierce competition among those who would replace him. Concurrently, the bishops and archbishops are also debating the degree of autonomy their church has from Moscow. None wants to break with Moscow; rather, they are debating the laws regarding that autonomy. UOC-MP already elects its own bishops and primate, but it does so under the framework of the Moscow Patriarchate Statutes. The disagreement is over whether to continue elections under Moscow Statutes, to create separate statutes or to simply not hold elections and let the Moscow Patriarchate decide. The last of the options all but eliminates any autonomy of the church in Ukraine.

The discussion has become so serious that the UOC-MP held a council on the issue on July 8, the second such high-level meeting since the fall of the Soviet Union. The debate comes at the same time there are some major shifts in the UOC-KP. The UOC-KP began to strengthen after the Orange Revolution, as the new pro-Western leadership under then-President Viktor Yushchenko wanted the church to encroach on the UOC-MP's turf. Yushchenko even had installed his own brother as the political power player behind the UOC-KP's moves. But as the pro-Orangist government fell in 2010, the UOC-KP's influence has begun to dwindle, leaving an opportunity for the UOC-MP to start siphoning off its members and possibly even its churches. The Russian Orthodox Church is fully behind UOC-MP and is ready to assist in any way. Kirill has increased his trips to Ukraine, touring many parts of the country to gather support for the move. Patriarch Kirill also has proclaimed Kiev as the heart of the Russian Orthodox Church. Historically, this is true as the Patriarchy was located there until 1325. But the declaration is intended to show how bonded the two countries' churches are.

A Georgian Break

Georgian Orthodox Church's Patriarch Ilia II's attendance in Kiev is highly controversial. The Georgian Orthodox Church accounts for 84 percent of the population in Georgia, the other 16 percent being mainly secluded in the country's enclaves and autonomous regions like Abkhazia, Adjara and Samtskhe-Javakheti where Islam, Armenian Apostolic Orthodoxy and other faiths are present. The Georgian government has long held the Georgian Orthodox Church as the sole faith in the country, a highly controversial law among those in the international community who promote religious freedom.

In recent weeks there has been a bitter dispute — some have even called it a break — between the Georgian government and the Georgian Orthodox Church. The Georgian Parliament passed a law allowing other faiths to register as religious organizations inside the country. Ilia and many within the country's Orthodox communities rapidly denounced the decision, claiming they were not even consulted in the matter. The Georgian government decided on the change in laws in order to placate international pressure, but also to find a platform to reach out to and monitor the enclaves. The church launched rallies against the move, something the Georgian opposition parties used to push their own agenda.

With the Georgian Orthodox Church so influential in the country, the dispute could have spurred a larger backlash against the government. But Tbilisi has quickly retreated on parts of the new law, still allowing new faiths to register as religions in the country but not allowing them any other rights. Moreover, the government has stated that any discussion of further presence in Georgia must be taken up with the Georgian Patriarchy. But the damage between the Georgian government and Orthodox Church has been done, and Ilia has decided it is unnecessary to follow the government's stances on domestic or foreign policy. He has long wanted to resume ties with the Russian Orthodox Church (the dominant church in the Georgian autonomous republic of South Ossetia and a large community in the autonomous republic of Abkhazia). But with ties between Tbilisi and Moscow broken since the 2008 war, Tbilisi has forbidden Ilia from any such association. With the relationship between Tbilisi and the Georgian Orthodox Church faltering, Ilia has decided to defy the government and move forward with his outreach to Moscow. This was what sparked the decision to go to Kiev to meet with Kirill. Now the Russian Orthodox Church has an opportunity to move in and influence Georgia — a dangerous prospect considering how political the Russian Orthodox Church has now become.

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