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Kremlin Looms Large In Choosing Aleksy's Successor

Patriarch Aleksy II (standing) at an archbishops' congress in June
Barely had tributes begun to pour in for Patriarch Aleksy II when speculation started about his successor as Russian Orthodox Church leader. Who will it be? The safe bet is on the candidate closest to the Kremlin.

The Kremlin was quick to pay homage to Aleksy, who presided over the revival of a church decimated by communism, after the 79-year-old's death on December 5 of undisclosed causes. "From the very first day of his patriarchy Aleksy II sought to overcome the tragic division of the Russian Orthodox Church and to revive it in all of its greatness,” President Dmitry Medvedev said in a statement from New Delhi.

Russia's chief rabbi, Berl Lazar, and Ravil Gainutdin, head of Russia's Council of Muftis, also praised the patriarch. Both men said he had worked for peace among all the peoples of Russia.

Tributes came too from the Vatican, with which Aleksy often clashed, particularly over perceived Catholic proselytism in Russia. Cardinal Walter Kasper, in charge of Vatican-Orthodox relations, praised Aleksy for "great responsibility" in piloting his church through the post-Soviet tumult and his efforts to improve ties with Rome.

Centrist Legacy

As thoughts now turn to possible successors, the patriarch's own religious and political views, seen as moderate in Russia, may be the best indication of where the Russian Orthodox Church is heading, analysts say.

Boris Falikov, a historian of religion at the Russian State Humanitarian University, says Aleksy's biggest achievement may have been to prevent the church from embracing fundamentalism during the 1990s when that was a major temptation among the Soviet-hardened faithful.

"Aleksy's main characteristic is that he was a centrist, spiritually and as a politician," Falikov says. "And in that sense perhaps he can be compared to Mikhail Gorbachev among secular politicians."

Father Andrei Kurayev, a professor at the Moscow Theological Academy, also notes Aleksy's ability to talk to all sides. "Aleksy II was able to unite," Kurayev says. "His favorite saying was, 'I'm not going to make anybody a martyr.' And his ability to tolerate, to maintain a dialogue with very different people, to think his actions through has been very important for the church, which did not disintegrate during the disintegration years in the 1990s."

The next patriarch is to be chosen by what is known as a Local Synod, or gathering of bishops. In 1990, it was convened about a month after the death of Aleksy's predecessor, Patriarch Pimen.

But the church's governing council was likely to convene as soon as December 6 to select an interim head.

Two-Horse Race?

Two candidates now appear in strong positions to succeed Aleksy: Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad and Metropolitan Kliment of Kaluga and Borovsk.

Falikov, the historian, sees Kliment as the favorite because of his perceived moderation. Pribylovsky, the analyst, agrees. He says Kliment, the church's chief diplomat, believes the church should not be independent of the state and would continue Aleksy's policies "in supporting all factions of the Kremlin coalition."

Kirill, by contrast, would be a radical choice.

"Metropolitan Kirill actually thinks that [the patriarch] has more authority than a tsar," Pribylovsky says. "Kirill believes the state must submit to the church. Of course, he doesn't say it openly, but if Metropolitan Kirill becomes patriarch, the church will attempt to become an independent institution that will, among other things, want to command the state. So out of self-preservation, I think the state must be pushing for Kliment [to become patriarch]."

RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report