So when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov agreed to travel to Georgia for Mikheil Saakashvili's inauguration to a controversial second term, it was taken as a sign that warmer ties might be on the way.
And when Lavrov's first meeting during the January trip was with Georgian Patriarch Ilia II -- rather than Saakashvili or members of the ascendant political opposition -- it was seen as a sign that the church might play a key role in persuading a traditionally devout nation to turn the other cheek with regard to their domineering northern neighbor.
Lavrov set aside the harsh rhetoric he has typically adopted during the past two years of open hostilities between Tbilisi and Moscow. Instead, he warmly assured Ilia of Russia's "sincere interest" in collaborating on contentious issues like Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The 75-year-old patriarch, a dignified figure with eyeglasses and a snowy white beard, responded in kind, urging a bilateral partnership and professing "deep respect" for Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he credited with "doing a lot" to improve relations between Tbilisi and Moscow.
Ilia's comments raised the bar significantly in a season when Georgian rhetoric on Russia has often sunk low. It also marked somewhat of a departure for the religious leader. Ilia, patriarch since 1977, has traditionally refrained from making open political statements, much less professing "deep respect" for a figure many Georgians see as an ill-intentioned adversary.
In a country where 80 percent of the population is Orthodox, a gesture of reconciliation from Ilia is not likely to go unnoticed. Indeed, at a time of bitter divisions between the two countries, their common religious heritage may prove a critical -- if not always welcome -- bond.
Kakhaber Kurtanidze, an Orthodox priest, says that it's the linguistic and cultural ties that bind -- and not any shared political ideologies.
"We continue to speak the same language. We have a good command of Russian, so Russian-language texts are easily accessible for us," he says. "Our rituals -- baptism, wakes -- are mostly Russian. The Greek and Romanian rituals are slightly different. So sympathy toward Russia is predominantly determined by the fact that we've shared the same cultural space for two centuries."
Ties between the Russian and Georgian Orthodox churches have not been without their troubles. After the Russian Empire annexed Georgia in the early 1800s, the Georgian church was subject to the authority of the Russian Holy Synod for more than a century.
Harassment by communist officials followed in the Soviet period. More recently, church officials in Georgia have complained that Russian clerics were practicing in churches in Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- a charge the Moscow Patriarchate has denied.
Still, the commonalities appear to outweigh the differences. In the spring of 2007, the Georgian Patriarchate took an early step toward playing the peacemaker amid rising tensions over Tbilisi's arrest of alleged Russian spies and Moscow's retaliatory move to impose economic sanctions, including a ban on air traffic.
The patriarchate succeeded in getting the flight ban lifted, and Ilia traveled out on one of the first Moscow-bound flights to meet with his Russian counterpart, Aleksy II, and attend the unveiling of a new volume of an Orthodox encyclopedia.
An Insular Church
Ties between the Russian and Georgian Orthodox churches have been aided, inadvertently, by the insular tendencies of the Georgian church.
In 1997, amid rising nationalism and concerns that ecumenism would destroy the integrity of the Georgian faith, clerics in Georgia withdrew their country from the World Council of Churches. (In the 1980s, Ilia II had served as one of the presidents of the body, the largest global grouping of Christian churches.) A subsequent visit by Pope John Paul II also alarmed many clerics, who instructed their congregations to stay away from the papal Mass.
According to religious scholar Beka Mindiashvili, the Georgian Orthodox Church was slowly isolating itself from not only other Christian denominations, but other Orthodox churches as well. The one exception, he says, was Russia, where the church is known for its conservative and exclusionary stance.
"For a long time, the Georgian Orthodox Church had fairly cold relations with the World Orthodox Patriarchate, which was very active on the ecumenical scene; and with the old patriarchates -- Antiochian, Alexandria, or others," Mindiashvili says. "At the same time, cordial and friendly relations were deepening with the Russian church."
That friendship, some say, only heightened the isolationist, anti-Western tendencies of the Georgian church -- a tendency that runs counter to the progressive leanings of Georgia's political leadership, and could ultimately be working to Russia's advantage.
Mindiashvili says such skepticism toward Western values can often be detected in church sermons.
"There is talk about all kinds of sexual sins, other kinds of moral degradation, the erosion of our traditions, and so on," he says. "And there is also talk that the West -- the European Union and the United States -- are preparing the way for the Antichrist, because they are denationalized, so to speak."
Church And State
Church representatives, however, reject the notion of an entrenched anti-Western bias. Patriarchate spokesperson Davit Sharashenidze says the church backs the government's Western course. Still, he says, individual clerics are free to endorse their own particular views.
"The church represents the whole spectrum of society," Sharashenidze says. "Some clerics like the Western lifestyle; others find some values characteristic of Western society to be unacceptable for them."
Others say there's no inherent contradiction in the church supporting the state's pro-Western aims even as it harbors its own isolationist tendencies. Religious scholar Levan Abashidze says the Georgian church rarely opposes government policies in public.
"The good relations between the church and the government is characteristic of Eastern churches," Abashidze says. "Since our government is openly pro-Western, the church can't afford to be openly anti-Western."
Nor can officials afford to overlook the importance of the church. Politicians and other officials make a point of attending religious services, and political rhetoric in Georgia is frequently imbued with religious and patriotic undertones.
Religious fervor became so fashionable ahead of the January presidential election, in fact, that the church urged all politicians -- from both the ruling side and the opposition -- to refrain from involving the church in their campaigns. Saakashvili, whose "Georgianness" has come under attack by populist opponents, has nonetheless sought to counter that image with frequent public appearances in church.
Will the church help Saakashvili find peace in relations with Russia? Some Georgians, weary of months of angry rhetoric, threats, and the deprivations of economic blockades, appear to welcome the idea of a detente -- especially one built on the basis of a common faith.
"Religion, in itself, may not be a decisive factor," says one Tbilisi man. “Because it so happens that we and the Russians are both Orthodox, of course we have much more in common. There can be no question about this."
"Of course, this is a plus. And I think it will be best if things normalize," a middle-aged woman adds. "Perhaps Russia is not going to be the same partner it was in the 20th century. But some normal, neighborly relations have to be restored. We are both Orthodox countries."
RFE/RL Caucasus Report
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