La bataille d'influence au sein de l'Eglise Orthodoxe Géorgienne
The political crisis continues in Georgia, as crowds angry at Russia and their own government refuse to vacate the streets of Tbilisi. The ongoing standoff began on June 20, when tens of thousands of Georgians came out to protest the arrogant actions of Russian parliamentarian Sergei Gavrilov, who was invited to an inter-parliamentary assembly in Georgia and sat in the seat normally reserved for the speaker of the Georgian parliament (see EDM, June 24). Law enforcement violently cracked down on the initial demonstrations, but new rallies have now been held on 27 consecutive days (Civil.ge, July 16). These events have exacerbated preexisting disputes in Georgian society about the “sustainability” of the pro-Western orientation of the ruling Georgian Dream party and its leader, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili.
At the same time, the crisis has highlighted the successful use of Russian “soft power” and influence assets in Georgia. It is no coincidence that the provocative invitation of Gavrilov had the support of the Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC), which was the main initiator behind holding in Tbilisi the above-mentioned Inter-Parliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy. “Common faith” with Russia remains the main political narrative of many—though not all—GOC hierarchs.
Taking into account the high levels of political and social influence the GOC has over Georgian society, current leadership struggles within the Church may have an important impact on whether the pro-Western orientation of the country can be preserved.
On November 23, 2017 (St. George’s Day), during a liturgical service at the Kashueti Church, in Tbilisi, 86-year-old Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia Ilia II essentially announced his own successor. Reading from his decree, Ilia appointed Metropolitan of Senaki and Chkhorotsku Shio Mujiri as the Locum Tenens, or guardian of the patriarchal throne. The Locum Tenens acts as a temporary head of the GOC for 40 days after the incumbent patriarch dies, until the Holy Synod, made up of 47 senior bishops, elects a new Church leader. Patriarch Ilia II, who has sat at the top of the GOC hierarchy since 1977, wields tremendous authority over the Holy Synod; thus its members are almost certain to take his apparent endorsement into account when it comes time to choose the next leader of the Church (Jam-news.net, November 23, 2017). Metropolitan Shio’s secular name is Elizbar Mujiri. He was born in 1969, in Tbilisi, and took his vows as a monk in 1993. He ascended to the rank of metropolitan in August 2010. Mujiri studied theology in Russia (Jam-news.net, November 23, 2017) and is seen by some experts as a proponent of closer ties with the Russian Church.
One of the top Georgian specialists on the GOC, Gocha Mirtskhulava, told this author that, in 2017, Russia sent a close confidante of Moscow Patriarch Kiril—Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, a chairperson of the Department of External Church Relations and a permanent member of the Russian Orthodox Church Holy Synod—to transmit a message to the Georgian patriarch that Moscow would support Shio Mujiri as heir to the patriarchal throne in Georgia. “Metropolitan Shio is well known for his pro-Russian aspirations. Not only did he study in Russia and does not support Ukraine’s autocephaly, but he also has close business ties to his childhood friend Levan Vasadze—a Georgian businessman famous for his anti-Western rhetoric and fundamentalist views,” Mirtskhulava said (Author’s interview, July 6).