Category Archives: Domestic Affairs

Georgian LGBTQI+: Story of the Wrong Tactic

On May 17, international society witnessed the celebration of the so-called “Family Day” in Tbilisi. Rep­resentatives of the Georgian Orthodox Church, with many members of local society, marched from the city center to the Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tbilisi (“Sameba”), where they expressed devotion to traditional family values. This totally overshadowed another important event, International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia that was publicly commemorated by only a few. Representatives of human rights groups and the LGBTQI+ community, afraid to organize a public event on this date, only dared to rise the “rainbow” flag, but had it quickly removed. Instead, they spoke of holding the first Tbilisi Gay Pride march with some other activities, such as concerts, in late June, but these aspirations were shattered when the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Georgia officially informed them last week that due to the high possibility of violence, they could not guarantee the safety of pride participants should a public march take place. Instead, they suggested a closed venue, such as the stadium.

Various local and international analysts expressed their dissatisfaction to see the direction of rights and freedom of sexual minorities in Georgia so significantly derailed; derailed so much that in comparison with previous years, representatives of these groups are again being forced into a corner. And while, undoubtedly, the Georgian Orthodox Church has played its role in shaping this state of affairs, it is obvious that supporters of the so-called “liberal values” made a few unforgivable lapses that crucially contributed to the victory of “Family Day”.

A Clash of Narratives

To be fair, both events appear pretty artificial to the state. International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia wasn’t presented to local society until 2012 when the LGBTQI+ movement tried to celebrate it for the first time, while Family Purity Day (full name: “Family Strength and Respect for Parents”) was established by the Georgian Orthodox Church and, in particular, by the spiritual leader Ilia II, to counter attempts by some INGOs and NGOs to re-think traditional concepts of “love”, “marriage” and “family”. We may argue that there was factually no firm demand from general Georgian society to introduce either of these. As it stands, as Georgian historian Nukri Shoshiashvili argues, these are initiatives by two totally different institutions that aim to pursue the right to control, develop existing and create or shape new political, cultural and social narratives. Consequently, by offering these holidays, supporters of “modernity” (liberals) and “traditionality” (conservatives) have clashed for this privilege and initiated a fierce rivalry for the hearts and minds of Georgian society.

Due to its historic achievements and contribution to building-up the Georgian state and nation, the Georgian Orthodox Church was, by default, in a superior position; it held and still holds an important position in the daily lives of regular Georgian citizens. Hence, representatives of the so-called liberal groups should have carefully planned and structured their policy and tactics to outmaneuver these rivals and persuade local society that International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia was never about abandoning and/or disrespecting traditions bur rather about giving an opportunity to members of the LGBTQI+ community to speak up and defend their rights and freedoms.

Unfortunately, defenders of “modernity” opted for an irrational and blunt policy that has suffered dramatic defeats again and again to date.

The Blitzkrieg Tactic

There is only one term that can define the policy pushed by LGBTQI+ movements and its supporters – a blitzkrieg. These groups hoped that an absolute political back-up from American and European institutions/agencies, in combination with an extremely high financial in-flow, would provide them the necessary tools to announce a new political, social and cultural reality; a reality that no one would dare to challenge. They hoped for a fast victory but were deceived by their own false perceptions and assumptions.

Undoubtedly, political and financial guarantees from the country’s strategic partners are significant but are not conclusive. Georgian society has developed its own agenda over the years, transforming into a crucial political actor whose trust and devotion must be gained; it cannot be achieved solely by referring to the West as a trademark as was done in the past. Recent surveys make it obvious that these groups significantly lack internal legitimacy and are mistrusted by the majority of Georgian society. Thus, their attempts to pursue a harsh and blunt policy that disregards existing political, social and cultural realities, including the Georgian Orthodox Church, led to a dramatic opposite chain reaction. Instead of building a safer and freer environment for the LGBTQI+ community, society became even more dangerous and intolerant. Georgian society aspires to become part of the European family but there are some “red lines” that it is not ready to cross.

We should also speak about the highly destructive and thoughtless behavior of some representatives of the liberal movement too, who, it seems have become so arrogant, selfish and self-confident due to external political and financial backing, that they don’t even bother to try and foresee or care about the consequences of their statements and steps. For example, Irakli Vacharadze, who chaired the leading LGBTQI+ organization ‘Identoba’ was keen to officially and publicly verbally insult the Georgian Orthodox Church and its spiritual leader, Ilia II; further, to label and threaten everyone who opposed his (Irakli’s) ideas and approaches. Other associated speakers had and still have a tendency to unmindfully pursue harsh rhetoric, including by labeling those against them as pro-Russians, “enablers” of Kremlin propaganda and ideology- all things that only serve to worsen the situation.

The history of the celebrating International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia in Georgia is probably one of the best examples of an incorrect tactic that led to dramatic consequences and an absolutely opposite chain reaction. Political and financial support from abroad made Georgian activists both arrogant and unable to critically assess their capabilities. They opted for a straightforward and blunt policy that they were unable to factually implement. As a result, the Georgian Orthodox Church easily outmaneuvered them and took the majority of hearts and minds of Georgian society. Unfortunately, this further complicated the lives of the LGBTQI+ community in the country; and it will not change unless liberal forces re-think their approaches and push for a more sophisticated policy.

The article was initially published by GeorgiaToday. It is accessible here.

“Yanukovich regreted about it”. Eastern Partnership countries took stock

Representatives of the so-called Eastern Partnership countries gathered in Brussels to celebrate 10th anniversary of the initiative. RIA Novosti journalist, Galia Ibragimova with support of local experts summarizes main achievements and failures.

Read the article in Russian here.

NATO’s “Small Talk”

On March 26, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg arrived in Tbilisi and met high officials, including PM Giorgi Bakhtadze and President Salome Zurabishvili. During his “blitzkrieg” visit, Stoltenberg firmly re-iterated the Alliance’s official standpoint once again: Georgia will become a member of the military bloc and Russia has no rights or power to oppose it. Yet, according to mainstream media outlets, this time Secretary-General added “very soon,” wording that offered more concrete timing and raised hopes that the so-called MAP (Membership Action Plan) will finally be granted to the small Caucasus country.

Unarguable, such high-level visits are extremely important to maintaining Georgia’s aspirations for NATO membership and, generally, to keep spirits high on the ground. But Tbilisi has been hearing such promises of commitment on a regular basis for the last decade, with visits from NATO officials having become something of an annual tradition. We can easily argue that Jens Stoltenberg’s trip to Tbilisi was another example of NATO “small talk” without real outcomes for MAP issuance, but with more serious consequences for local society and its perception of the real ongoing processes in global politics.

NATO & Democracy

NATO has little to do with democracy. The Alliance is a military bloc based on ideology and with concrete geopolitical interests; in this case, democracy is just an additional advantage. These assumptions must be made clear when it comes issuing membership. It is obvious that, according to Western democratic standards, neither Georgia nor Ukraine are actually ready to satisfy such strong requirements; to say nothing of the 2008 period when Tbilisi and Kiev hoped to get MAP and had strong support from the US government. The promise given by the Bucharest Summit Declaration to open doors for these two states in the future was clearly the result of geopolitical calculations that dealt with strengthening the Eastern flank of the bloc and bringing NATO forces closer to the Russian border.

So far, using lack of democracy in Georgia as an explanatory variable for MAP refusal is an outdated trick to avoid naming the real reasons; seemingly, the only group of people who might still trust such arguments are regular citizens.

Russia, Rights & the Black Sea Region

Despite loud claims that Russia has no rights and no powers to oppose Georgia’s integration, it actually has. Moscow’s geopolitical interests stopped Tbilisi from getting MAP in 2008 and it is the only opinion that matters when it comes to the decision-making process. Putting aside political rhetoric, Russia does not need special rights to counter NATO’s policy on the Eastern flank. Every single political actor by default has the right to protect its own political, economic and social standpoints. Thus, the Kremlin has the right to defend its national interests without being granted “permission” from the West or any other actor. What actually matters is whether Russia also has the economic and military strength to back up any protest. Even though Moscow is no match for Washington in general, the state currently possesses enough accumulated power to counter the West, especially near its borders and geopolitically important life-space. Furthermore, the Russian policy of containing NATO enlargement is perceived as crucial by the majority of society; this is not constructed by Putin’s regime but a factual given. As such, the Kremlin will do its best not to let Tbilisi or Kiev be granted Alliance membership.

Whether officially noted or not, the highest and most influential political actors in the West are well-aware of Russia’s NATO fears; additionally, Georgia’s strategic partners understand that, historically, Moscow has always been keen to fight such threats by all means necessary. That is why they are not in a hurry to give a green light for the next stage of the military bloc enlargement. Even worse, NATO representatives are unsure whether bringing the organization to the Black Sea region will actually lead to more stability and prosperity or, by intervening in the so-called Russian “zone of interest,” instead lead to a direct or indirect military clash that will destabilize the whole post-Soviet space. Today, the West, and Western European states in particular, are not ready to be involved in such dramatic processes.

Negative effects of the NATO “small talk”

While looking at NATO’s annual “small talk” in Georgia, we need to raise another issue that deals with negative consequences. First, such harsh and provocative statements by high-rank officials create and maintain false expectations and perceptions of global political processes. Georgian society is being kept in a virtual reality where Russia allegedly has no rights and powers while Tbilisi’s NATO membership issue has been stretched over a decade due to unrealistic claims of a “lack of democracy.” Secondly, NATO has been transformed into a fixed idea, an obsession that clouds the judgement of local elites and regular citizens alike, while human resources are shifted from improving domestic challenges to the desperate effort to get that MAP. People have really started to believe that once in the military Alliance, democratic institutions will appear by default and the Russian threat will simply vanish. It’s a bitter pill that at the end of the day may lead to dramatic nihilism and even to a foreign policy shift, as happened with Turkey and its European integration dreams. Ad notam, that is why all main elitist INGOs and NGOs in Georgia tried hard to put the issue of foreign policy orientation into the new constitution. This is the third possible negative outcome of a short-sighted NATO policy.

By and large, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s visit to Tbilisi is important for the country to feel the Alliance’s support. But it could have been even more positive if the organization’s high-officials had held back from giving false promises and “small talk” about granting MAP to Georgia; especially using the argument that Russia has nothing to do with NATO enlargement. These assumptions mislead local elites as well as society. Georgia has achieved a respectable enough level of democracy to appeal and to start slowly becoming an inherent part of the military bloc. But this aspiration will not be satisfied unless the Kremlin stops opposing it. Moscow does not need permission to defend its national interests; moreover, it has enough strength to do so. At the same time, NATO’s annual “small talk” has significant negative outcomes for Georgia. People are being kept in a bubble of falsehood where the basic laws of global politics are abandoned; secondly, the issue itself has become so politicized that it clouds the judgement of decision-makers on the ground who put more effort into becoming a NATO member than into building democratic institutions. And finally, the absence of real outcomes of Georgian-NATO cooperation may push for more nihilism and even to a foreign policy shift.

The article was originally published by GeorgiaToday. It is available here.

Georgia’s North Macedonian Dream

On March 12, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization celebrated the 20th anniversary of the membership of the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary. Prominent American politician and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright re-iterated NATO’s open-door policy and assured Georgia and Ukraine that they will become Alliance members once the two countries are ready. Earlier, on June 12, 2018, Greece and the Republic of Macedonia signed the so-called Prespa Agreement according to which the latter will change its name to the Republic of North Macedonia while Greece will finally agree to support its long-standing aspirations of acquiring the NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP). Currently, the Republic of North Macedonia is on its way to joining the military bloc. The latest happenings raised new hopes among the so-called pro-NATO groups in Georgia that their state is next on the list.

Meanwhile, there are serious doubts as to whether the offering of NATO membership to the Republic of North Macedonia is a real precedent for Georgia and Ukraine. These Eastern European states face far more serious challenges attached to global politics, geopolitics and confrontation between the West and the East. At present, it is unlikely the North Macedonian experience can be readily applied.

Names Matter

The name dispute is a long-standing confrontation with old roots. Macedonia is a historical region associated with Greece and Alexander the Great. Nowadays, ancient Macedonia approximately corresponds with the modern Greek region of Macedonia and has little to do with the Republic of North Macedonia. Athens blamed Skopje of trying to assign symbols and figures that were initially perceived as part of Greek culture. Furthermore, there were fears of irredentism. Millions of Greeks identify themselves as Macedonians, and officials in Athens had concerns this might lead to some concepts of so-called United Macedonia threatening the territorial integrity of the state.

So far, the case of the Republic of North Macedonia is unique and inapplicable to Georgia and Ukraine due to its comparative simplicity. The only actor that opposed Macedonia joining NATO was Alliance member Greece. No global politics was involved. Furthermore, there was only one demand that Athens had for Skopje – to change its constitutional name. Generally speaking, the whole dispute surrounded the name of the state and the main challenge was to persuade local elites to negotiate and make a deal using a “win-win” approach. Former confronting sides belonged to so-called small actors that are more vulnerable to external pressure and influence.

The Georgia Case

Whether you perceive NATO as a military bloc, democracy promoter, hybrid organization or something else, it is obvious that modern Ukraine is not ready to join the club. This lack of readiness can be seen on every level of the state build-up. On the opposite side, there is Georgia, which has by all means managed to satisfy NATO requirements; Tbilisi does not need to be ready for Alliance membership because it already is. Thus, we need to abandon this frequently-used-by-various-Western-high officials argument and be clear about the real challenges, recognizing that they are much more complicated than Athens and Skopje.

Perhaps the biggest need is to acknowledge separatism and irredentism as actually-happened facts. Georgia has two separatist regions supported by its northern neighbor, the Russian Federation. Additionally, at least some actors in Tbilisi realize that, besides the Russian factor, there are also significant issues to deal with on the ground, especially when it comes to conflict in the Abkhazia region. An even more complicated situation is seen in Ukraine, where the Crimean Peninsula was integrated by the Kremlin into the state while self-proclaimed Donbas and Luhansk on the east receive military and financial support.

We also need to consider Moscow and its geopolitical agenda. Unlike Greece and Macedonia, Russia is a “great power”. Of course, it is no match for the USSR, US and/or China, but it still possesses enough accumulated military power, backed by a vast territory and natural resources, to promote national interests and counter any other global actor. The Kremlin perceives both Georgia and Ukraine as zones of influence, “living space” and “security belt” and so the integration of these two states into NATO is a direct threat to its fundamental interests. And there is no point presenting the Alliance as a Russia-friendly military bloc: the Kremlin will perceive it as a threat while NATO prospers and Russia is not a member.

Unfortunately for Tbilisi and Kiev, their separatist regions have become battlefields between the united West and the East, meaning Russia, China and all those actors that aspire to shake the existing global political order, with the US on top. This fact makes it even more complicated to solve disputes on the ground due to their transformation from local (especially in Georgia’s case) to global: global actors are involved, and their goals go far beyond simple conflict resolution.

The reasons outlined above are real challenges that Georgia and Ukraine experience on their way to NATO membership. And while on the ground, Alliance representatives may speak about an open-door policy, but factually these “doors” will be opened only verbally.

By and large, the so-called Macedonian precedent has nothing to do with NATO aspirations for Tbilisi and Kiev. The name dispute between Greece and the Republic of Macedonia was comparatively simple, while Georgia and Ukraine face extremely serious challenges, including separatism, irredentism, the Kremlin’s geopolitical agenda and, of course, war for the future of global politics.

Thus, Georgia will need to wait a while on the list. But it is highly important for these two countries to continue state building, whether with MAP or not; officials must finally understand and accept that the ongoing build-up is not for NATO but for the prosperity of the people on the ground.

The article was initially published by GeorgiaToday. It is available here.

I was surprised by zhuzes in Kazakhstan – scientist from Georgia

Archil Sikharulidze, Georgian scholar in political science has been invited by one of the universities from South Kazakhstan to lecture local students and conduct master-classes for academic staff. He shared his experience and thoughts about time spent in Kazakhstan with 365info.kz

Read more in Russian here.

Archil Sikharulidze: Azerbaijan is a guarantor of Georgia’s energy security

President of Georgia, Salome Zurabishvili has visited Baku with official meetings. Georgian political analyst Archil Sikharulidze argues that key issue for discussion will be to keep Azerbaijan as a guarantor of Georgia’s energy security.

Read more in Russian here.

The Lucifer Effect: How to Turn Georgian Judges Good

Archil Sikharulidze & Teimuraz Sikharulidze

Georgia has a plethora of issues needing attention and reform, but there is probably no topic as significant and crucial as the judiciary. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Georgian governments have been trying hard to build a comprehensive, sophisticated, independent and, most importantly, publicly trusted judicial system. Unfortunately, these attempts have been unsuccessful, largely due to the unwillingness of the ruling political powers to give up such a strong and influential mechanism, a tool still widely used by ruling regimes in non-democratic states to oppress and punish counterparts.

The current rulers, Georgian Dream, are today pushing for another grand reform that, in theory, should finally put into the judiciary some widely accepted, recognized and embedded democratic standards such as the check-and-balances model. This process is chock-full of controversy due to a number of highly questionable decisions that have so far been made, among them the appointment of judges who are blamed for unlawful past judgements in extremely sensitive and scandalous criminal cases. The majority of local and foreign experts and NGO/INGOs expressed their astonishment at the appointments and are calling on the government to show the political will to truly reform the system.

In the wake of such turbulence, Irakli Kobakhidze, Chairman of Parliament, poured fuel on the fire during a TV appearance on February 5 where he commented on the appointments, stating that those judges who had misdemeanors in the past had in fact been “made good” as a result of systemic and environmental changes. These remarks were considered by some as unacceptable and unethical. But if we put political and ideological rivalry as well as populism aside, it is obvious that Kobakhidze’s statements perfectly fit into the social psychology paradigm and reflect a working policy that, at the end of the day, must be pursued with minor changes.

The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil

Social Psychology is a field that studies the influence of social processes and environment on people’s behavior. It basically argues that individual behavior is not determined solely by a human being’s personal character, ethics, values and attitudes; obviously, it is highly sensitive to external impact and/or pressure that independent variables such as environment or a stressful situation may have. Human beings are not, by default, “bad” or “good”, meaning that their behavior is not pre-determined by nature but rather conditioned by a set of internal and external characteristics that may force “good” people to turn “bad” and “bad” people to turn “good”.

One the most prominent representatives of the Social Psychology school is Stanford University Professor, Philip Zimbardo, who argued these ideas in his prominent work The Lucifer Effect (TLE), How Good People Turn Evil. Zimbardo takes a look at the so-called Stanford Experiment and misbehavior of American soldiers in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. He is confident in his judgements that the cases prove the significant role of the system and environment on the behavior of individuals who had previously never had records of violence and misconduct but who were keen to engage in such actions once affected and pushed by external factors.

Irakli Kobakhidze’s comments may sound cynical and irrelevant, but actually the creation of a healthy, free, independent and transparent environment/system is crucial for the establishment of publicly trusted institutions that will contribute to a judicial system that supports “good” people and keeps away and/or sets a working framework for the “bad”. Kobakhidze raised the important issue of systemic change but did so in a non-diplomatic manner and without explanation.

Applying the Framework

Before arguing the steps the government needs to take to achieve a successful reform, we should speak about at least two important issues that are frequently overlooked.

Readiness to Obey

While debating the judicial system reform, analysts often undermine the importance of the Georgian mentality and political culture. Representatives of Georgian society, as well as elites, frequently talk about building a publicly trusted institution, but, factually, neither side is really ready to contribute to the building.

This reality is determined by the widely-shared perception that a fair and free court is a court that makes “respective” judgements which are acceptable for everyone. But this is practically impossible, as the “loser” always opposes and questions the judgement made and, thus, questions the judiciary. Furthermore, representatives of Georgian society have no general culture of obeying court decisions unless they are victorious. As such, at the end of the day, the demand for an impartial, fair and free trial is never-ending.

Another obstacle is the local political culture that, according to the best traditions of Georgian mentality, is tolerant only towards those institutions which are politically and ideologically acceptable and beneficial. Mikhail Saakashvili’s regime had no issues with the corrupt judicial system of the time until it was subordinated to the political elite. Yet, representatives of the former ruling movement are dissatisfied with this less (but still) corrupt institution under Georgian Dream governance. The unwillingness of local political powers to give up the judiciary as a political mechanism prevents the establishment of a truly independent institution.

Thus, it makes no sense to debate judicial system reform unless we bring significant changes into the Georgian mentality and local political culture.

Must Dos

We should express and keep in mind three basic assumptions. The first: there is no way we can build a judiciary that is fully trusted by all, meaning that we will never have a system that is acceptable for everyone; hence, we need to learn to obey judgements unless they are clearly partial. Second, we need to make it clear to local political powers that the judiciary is not a subordinated-to-the-ruling-elite political mechanism or weapon. Finally, we cannot afford to fire every judge who had a past misconduct; Georgian society does not have the human resources required to repeat Saakashvili’s period formula of “fire everyone and hire new staff”. As such, we must work with those people who are in the system today.

Based on these three pillars, the government should push for systemic and environmental change, meaning that “good” people are not pushed to do bad and “bad” people are turned “good” or are kept out of the system. Those judges who had a strong background of misconduct must be severely punished and expelled from the judiciary, while others are given chance to prove their professionalism and devotion to the new democratic standards. The idea of life-long judges must be temporarily abandoned. The existing political reality and human resources are not enough to pursue this approach. Rather, we need a long-standing project, perhaps “judge of the future”, which will prepare a new generation of public servants who will be appointed on a life-long basis later on. These decisions ensure that the most prominent “guilty judges” are punished, others are given a second chance, relatives of victims get at least minimum justice and Georgian society has time to establish a functional judiciary with trusted life-long judges.

By and large, the judiciary reform is probably one of the most relevant and sensitive topics today. Kobakhidze’s arguments are not by default false; moreover, his views totally fit into the Social Psychology paradigm which argues for a healthy system and environment to prevent “good” people turning “bad”: the “bad” may turn “good” if they are put into such conditions. Georgian society needs not only to reform the judiciary but also to reform its mentality and political culture. Furthermore, it needs to recognize that we cannot simply fire everyone who does not satisfy the high moral and ethical standards- Georgia lacks the human resources for that. That said, it is wise to punish those who deserve it (within reasonable and existing limits) while continuing to cooperate with others. The idea of life-long judges must be postponed in order to prepare a new generation of public servants to be appointed according to the approach later on.

The article was originally published by GeorgiaToday. It is available here.

God Engaged: Orthodox Christianity in the “Big Game”

On January 5, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the head of the global Orthodox Church and the first among equals, signed a decree “Tomos” in Istanbul granting the Ukrainian Church autonomy from the Russian Orthodox Church (alternatively, the Moscow Patriarchate, abb. ROC) and recognizing its autocephaly (independence). The event was attended by the head of the Ukrainian government, President Petro Poroshenko and other high officials. Earlier, Bartholomew called on leaders of other autocephalous churches, most importantly in Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania and Georgia, to support his initiative. The decision to remove the Ukrainian Church from the subordination of the ROC which had existed as such for centuries was highly criticized by Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the head of the Moscow Patriarchate, as a rude violation of religious laws and an obvious political step leading to religious strife and a division in the global Orthodox community.

And while supporters of Bartholomew’s historic move both in Ukraine and abroad, especially in Georgia, react according to how they perceive the victory over the corrupt Russian Orthodox Church controlled by Putin’s regime, it is obvious that there is much more than just the right of Ukrainian people for religious independence at stake here. The Orthodox Christian god has been officially engaged by all sides in the so-called “big game” now: political and ideological rivalry where religion is used for concrete goals. The absolute majority of the so-called pro-Western and pro-Ukrainian analysts and experts fiercely defend Bartholomew’s step as fair and logical, bringing forth arguments about historical justice and more. At the same time, there are those who are not so positive about it. This pessimism comes from a few extremely puzzling moments that are mainly, frequently intentionally, overlooked and neglected.

Orthodox Christianity and Politics

Unlike other Christian denominations, Orthodox Christianity was and still is extremely involved in domestic and foreign politics. Political actors actively attract religious institutions into various state, political and ideological activities to gain electoral support, legitimacy and to justify their activities, while local churches are keen to use this “dependency” to influence political decision-making and, sometimes, even pursue a harsh policy of proselytism. This mutual interdependence and interconnection make it impossible to build a stable secular state without interference from religious institutions and persons in state affairs.

And so, here is perhaps the biggest question that puzzles experts and analysts: was Bartholomew’s initiative purely a religious one? It is pretty questionable that Ecumenical Patriarch would have dared and/or decided to push the topic of an autocephalous Ukrainian Church in the midst of the fight between Kiev and Moscow and, in general, the West and the East, without any serious political back-up; especially if we take into consideration that Bartholomew, in theory, holds sway over more than 300 million Orthodox Christians around the world, from which the majority are Russian and when the biggest Orthodox Christian Church is the Moscow Patriarchate.

The second important question regards the strong bond between political elites and local religious institutions that have a place in almost all Orthodox Christian countries. We can easily outline at least three exceptional cases: Russian Federation, Ukraine and Georgia.

The Moscow Patriarchate seems to be a continuation of the Russian state (ad notam, historically given condition) and is being actively used by the Kremlin to pursue its domestic and foreign policies through support and justification from the religious institution and its representatives. At the same time, the State acknowledges the Moscow Patriarchate’s support and backs its frequently questionable domestic (the law on protecting religious feelings) and foreign (dominance over global Orthodox Christian community) initiatives. The same could be seen in Ukraine. Until it received “Tomos,” there were three Orthodox Church branches: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church or Kiev Patriarchate (independent), the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (independent) and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (abb. UOC, subordinated to the Moscow Patriarchate). After accepting autocephaly, the first two independent churches formed the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (abb. OCU) that, by initial design and primary mission, was to counter and oppose the UOC that was and still is the leading Orthodox institution in the country. So far, the OCU, a priori, is being considered by all sides and, most importantly, by Poroshenko’s government, as a political tool against the Kremlin; and we may argue that the Ukrainian state will do its best to put the newly formed local autocephalous church at the service of political elites. It is also highly questionable whether the OCU can really counter the UOC without political, ideological, administrative and financial support from the government and affiliated individuals.

Where the Moscow Patriarchate and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine are being used by political elites, the Georgian Orthodox Church (abb. GOC) is intelligently manipulating the Georgian elites; where in the Russian Federation and Ukraine we are witnessing the existence of so-called “pocket churches” that lie as a huge burden both on governments and societies, Georgian society is easily “pocketed” by the Georgian Orthodox Church. As still the most trusted and influential institution in the country, the GOC interferes in almost every single aspect of everyday life in Georgia. This frequently harmful practice restrains the country from transforming into the Western-type secular state it claims it wants to be.

Orthodox Christianity at a Crossroads

The establishment of the Ukrainian autocephalous Orthodox Church not only officially involved Orthodox Christian god in global politics, but also led to historic strife; and if decision of the Moscow Patriarchate to cut ties with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople was somehow a logical retaliation, other autocephalous churches suddenly appeared to be at a crossroads, with only two options – follow Bartholomew or support the ROC. We may argue that no one would want to be involved into this dispute; furthermore, for some autocephalous churches, such as those of Serbia and Georgia, this decision is highly sensitive and is directly attached to important political issues.

It is no secret that Serbia holds strong political, cultural and religious ties with the Russian Federation. Furthermore, Serbian officials openly re-iterate the importance of these ties and are still extremely thankful to the Kremlin for the support given during the breakup of Yugoslavia. Additionally, Moscow was in the vanguard of those states that did not support the separation of Kosovo from Serbia, and Russia is still the main and most important ally of Belgrade in its attempts to bring the partially recognized state under its jurisdiction. It seems the Serbian Orthodox Church will definitely think twice before backing Bartholomew’s decision and by default directly oppose the Moscow Patriarchate.

This situation is even more challenging for the Georgian Orthodox Church. Despite fierce support for the Orthodox Church of Ukraine from local pro-Western forces and parts of Georgian society, which perceive these events as the restoration of historical justice, it is obvious the situation is much more complicated. Georgia has two separatist regions (Abkhazia and the so-called South Ossetia) which were recognized as independent states by the Russian Federation, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru and Syria. Despite supporting Abkhazian “sovereignty,” the Russian Orthodox Church does not officially recognize the Abkhazian Orthodox Church (abb. AOC) and it is, de jure, still subordinated to the Georgian Orthodox Church. Representatives of the GOC are afraid that by recognizing the establishment of the Ukrainian autocephalous Church, they may directly push the Moscow Patriarchate to recognize the AOC. Some may argue that the ROC has de facto already done so and representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church are working secretly on the ground, and yet there is a huge difference between official recognition and masked activities. Finally, Georgia has been surrounded by non-Christian nations for centuries with the Moscow Patriarchate its only neighboring religious ally; thus, this historical memory is also present.

Useless Independence?

Without doubt, the Ukrainian people deserve the right to have religious institutions that reflect their attitudes and aspirations. Nevertheless, it is questionable whether the reception of autocephaly was and is something that Ukraine really needed. Will it solve the country’s challenges and lead to the unification of society? Unlikely.

As said above, the Poroshenko’s government sees autocephaly as a pre-election campaign project that should, in theory, raise support among the local electorate and help its leader to keep his presidential post. This is despite the unpleasant fact that Poroshenko failed to lead the state into a better future. Particularly, we may argue that Ukraine was always and still is in dramatic need of independence from its own oligarchs and other questionable figures rather than autocephaly from the Moscow Patriarchate. The reasoning that the inability of every single pro-Western revolutionary movement and leader to handle the corruption and other anti-state practices lies in the dependence of the Ukrainian Church from the Moscow Patriarchate is highly dubious. The reception of autocephaly will not lead to a dismantling of the corrupt political system that exists in Ukraine, as that is just how Poroshenko wants it to be.

Secondly, frequently both international and domestic observers overlook the issue of social divisions in Ukraine. Approximately half of the eastern population are ethnic Russians, and these will most likely not transfer from the Moscow Patriarchate to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, especially taking when taking into consideration the political context. Furthermore, even among Ukrainians there are plenty who are devoted to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church subordinated to the ROC. Thus, the establishment of an autocephalous church may further deepen the social divisions that have developed due to various questionable decisions made over time by the political elite, such as the controversial language bill restricting and downgrading use of the Russian language in Ukraine.

In conclusion, the establishment of the Ukrainian autocephalous Church can be perceived as an official engagement of the Orthodox Christian god in global politics, where all involved actors try to use religious institutions and affiliated individuals for their own political and ideological interests while local churches try to grab their own benefits. Other autocephalous churches, especially in Serbia and Georgia, now find themselves at a crossroads that may lead to some extremely interesting political developments in the future. If the Georgian Orthodox Church backs Bartholomew’s initiative, we may witness the appearance of another partially recognized Church, the Abkhazian, which will result in the further deterioration of Georgian-Russian relations. At the same time, the Ukrainian autocephalous Church may be not the answer that the majority of Ukrainians hoped for, as it is uncertain how it will help the country to finally escape its corrupt circle or build the modern prosperous and secular state that they seek.

The article was originally published by GeorgiaToday. It is available here.