The future of the biggest Orthodox church, with 165 million faithful worldwide, is being decided this week in Moscow. Some 711 electors -- including clergy, politicians, and businessman -- have gathered to elect a leader to replace Russian Orthodox Patriarch Aleksy II, who died last month. It is the first such vote since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
Amid singing and chanting in the gold-domed Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the church opened its council to elect a successor to Aleksy, who helped rebuild Orthodoxy after decades of militant atheism. The so-called Local Council includes laymen such as a tobacco tycoon and the son of the leader of Transdniester, a pro-Moscow breakaway region of Moldova.
The council has until January 29 to vote but could announce its decision at any time.
The election comes at a time of unprecedented popularity in Russia for the church. Former President Vladimir Putin, now prime minister, has worked to restore the church to a central role in Russian life -- and rebuild its traditional ties to the Kremlin. Signs of that relationship were evident at Aleksy's funeral last month, when both Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev kissed the dead patriarch during his lying-in-state.
"Given this long tradition [of subservience to the Kremlin], it's unlikely that this tradition could be quickly broken," says Romano Scalfi, an Italian Roman Catholic priest who runs Russia Cristiana, a Milan-based foundation focused on Russian Orthodoxy. "It's not like under the tsars, when they were free to do what they wanted. I think a certain pro-state line, and therefore a pro-Putin line, is inevitable."
Candidates can be nominated up until the start of voting. But the winner is likely to be one of three senior clergymen nominated on January 25 by the senior Bishops' Council. Metropolitan Kirill, who has been acting head of the church since Aleksy's death on December 5, is the favorite, followed by Metropolitan Kliment of Kaluga and Borovsk, and Metropolitan Filaret of Minsk and Slutsk.
Recent weeks saw intense lobbying by the contenders, with Kirill accused by some of engaging in smear tactics reminiscent of political campaigns.
"It was tense, dirty, and aggressive," Aleksandr Soldatov, editor of the Orthodox affairs website credo.ru, told RFE/RL's Russian Service. "On various blogs and Internet forums, Metropolitan Kirill's supporters published compromising material against his opponents and other possible candidates."
As the church's long-standing external relations director, Kirill is Russian Orthodoxy's public face. Known to millions of people across Russia and beyond, Kirill is also seen as an advocate of better ties with the Catholic Church. In December 2007, the 62-year-old from St. Petersburg held a meeting with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican, with which the Orthodox churches split in the "Great Schism" of 1054.
"He has a very good understanding of the church and its relations with other states," Scalfi tells RFE/RL. "He is well prepared for the great mission of being patriarch. He's very ecumenical, so I believe in terms of relations with Catholics and others he has every chance of continuing an agenda that has recently been strengthened, both by the [previous] patriarch as well as by the [Catholic] church."
Kirill dominated the preliminary election on January 25, tallying 97 votes compared to 32 for Kliment and 16 for Filaret of Belarus.
But the final vote could differ dramatically from that ballot. Unlike the Bishops' Council, the full Local Council that will elect the patriarch is larger. It is made up of senior clergy as well as ordinary priests, monks, and laymen from Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, and elsewhere.
Aleksy himself avoided convening the Local Council to escape what he saw as the "dangerous influences" of its "radicals" and "obscurantist groups," says Kirill Kobrin, who covers the church for RFE/RL's Russian Service.
Aleksy also pursued this policy to keep control of the church's economic wealth, Kobrin says.
"This is the main plot of the forthcoming Local Council," he said ahead of its launch. "Could the 'radicals' rise against the Holy Synod and high priests close to the late patriarch?"
Scalfi sees support for such a scenario -- but not enough to tip the balance. "Lately, there's been an upsurge of nationalistic spirit," the priest says. "Especially among the monks, there's a part that is very rigid and strongly opposes ecumenism, and is very nationalistic. But it's a small part, something like 8 to 10 percent."
Should Kirill's bid fail, Kliment, a conservative close to the Kremlin, appears poised to benefit. Aged 59, he heads a state office in charge of Russia's spiritual and cultural heritage. Some say he might be less likely than Kirill to rock the boat with the Kremlin -- which could make him the dark-horse favorite.
Filaret's chances, meanwhile, appear less promising. The 73-year-old metropolitan of Minsk is seen as close to authoritarian Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, and in 2004 angered the opposition by asking Aleksy to decorate a special-forces commander accused of kidnapping activists in the 1990s. Aleksy granted his wish.
The new patriarch would take over on February 1.
RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report