Russia and Georgia have no diplomatic relations. There are no commercial flights between Moscow and Tbilisi. And the Kremlin has made no secret of the fact that it wants to remove Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili from power.
But nevertheless, one of Russia's top public figures plans to visit Georgia soon and will no doubt be greeted with all the pomp and circumstance of a head of state. That public official is Patriarch Kirill. No date has been announced for the visit yet, although the Moscow Patriarchate says
it will happen "by the end of this year."
Visiting Georgia so soon after his high-profile trip to Ukraine
earlier this month is anything but subtle. Both countries are governed by pro-Western leaders who are desperately trying to navigate their way out of Moscow's orbit, and both have large, devout, Orthodox Christian populations.
Writing in "The Moscow Times" this week, Fyodor Lukyanov
, editor in chief of the journal "Russia In Global Affairs," argues that with his visit to Ukraine, Kirill has emerged as an important new weapon in the Kremlin's foreign-policy arsenal:
The visit by the head of the Russian Orthodox Church showed that there's a new public figure in Russia whose political weight and diplomatic skills surpass those of the secular authorities. He combines tact and kind civility with a firmness of his ideological positions, and his address to worshippers calling for unity and reconciliation is a demonstration of the 'soft,' non-state power that Moscow has long been criticized for lacking.
Shortly after Kirill returned from his visit, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev wrote a blisteringly critical letter
to his Ukrainian counterpart Viktor Yushchenko informing him that Moscow would hold off on sending an ambassador to Kyiv.
The next day, Lukyanov notes
, Kirill sent his own letter to Yushchenko -- thanking him for his hospitality during the visit:
Not only did Kirill thank the Ukrainian leader for his attention and help in organizing the visit, he also noted that 'despite all of the difficulties, Ukraine is successfully consolidating its statehood.' His letter to the president concludes: 'May God’s blessing be with the people of beautiful Ukraine, with its leaders and military, and with all of us.'
The patriarch's visit to Ukraine was hardly free of controversy
. Thousands protested, arguing that he was using an ostensibly spiritual visit as cover for a political mission to further the Kremlin's political agenda.
Kirill did little to allay these fears when, in a speech on Ukrainian television on July 28, he argued that Russians and Ukrainians were one people. He also implored Ukrainians not to sacrifice their common values with Russia in the pursuit of closer ties with Europe, a clear reference to Kyiv's efforts to join NATO and the European Union.
Nevertheless, I think Lukyanov is right about Moscow's strategy, which is more sophisticated than a simple game of good cop-bad cop:
The patriarch addresses his congregation, which by its very definition should not be divided by citizenship or state loyalties. Medvedev appeals directly to the Ukrainian people, letting them know in no uncertain terms that the dialog with their political elite has become unproductive. In fact, the symbolic meaning of not sending a new Russian ambassador to Kiev also ties into this desire to reduce official dialog to a purely technical level.
And there are strong hints that a similar gambit is on the horizon with Georgia.
Back in July, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin met a Georgian Orthodox Church delegation
in Moscow. Here's the Russian Foreign Ministry's statement on that meeting:
"In the current, uneasy situation existing in relations between the two countries, cultural-humanitarian ties between the churches of Russia and Georgia continue to be an important channel for maintaining tradition of friendship and mutual understanding between our people."
The delegation also met with Kirill, who called their visit "a new positive step towards brotherly relations of our churches and improvement of relations between our countries."
The phrase "brotherly relations," of course, has historically meant very different things for Tbilisi than it has for Moscow.
-- Brian Whitmore