An ongoing discussion about the Tomos of autocephaly for the Ukrainian church reached Georgia with an arrival of archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev, a chairman of the Department of External Church Relations and a permanent member of the Holy Synod of the Moscow Patriarchate. The Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC) stated that “…Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfayev) visited the Patriarchate of Georgia along with two accompanying persons. The aim of the visit was to inform the position of the Russian Church on recent developments around the Church of Ukraine”. This statement did not give enough information on discussions held in Tbilisi between archbishop Hilarion and his Georgian brothers in Christ. However, bishop Anton of western Georgian eparchy of Vani and Baghdati gave more details about the demand of the Russian side. According to the bishop, [surprise, surprise!] “the Russian side did not want us [GOC] to support Ukrainian autocephaly.”
Archbishop Hilarion’s visit to Georgia raises at least two questions. First, how can GOC legitimize its position in front of Georgian parishioners if it does not support Ukrainian autocephaly given that Georgians are generally supportive of Ukraine in its war with Russia? Second, what can be on the table as a trading chip for Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) to influence the decision of the Georgian side not to support Ukrainian church autonomy?
The first legitimacy question can be partly answered by GOC’s hegemonic position on religious market in Georgia. Unlike in Ukraine, where the religious market is diverse and fiercely competitive between UOC-MP and UOC-KP, in Georgia GOC is the major Orthodox Christian organization. One might argue that costs of potentially unpopular decision to GOC won’t be significant because of limited competition. However, given its declining public trust – 75% reported fully trusting in 2008 as opposed to 33% in 2017, and an ongoing internal sagas - the discourse of not being on the side of Ukraine against Russia could be costly.
Now what could be ROC’s trading chips on Ukrainian question against Georgia? Two possible options why GOC might still abstain from supporting Ukrainian autocephaly is the fear of replicating Tomos in Georgia’s break-away region of Abkhazia. In other words, Georgian religious elites might fear either a recognition of Abkhazian church’s autonomy by ROC (currently it is under Georgia’s canonical jurisdiction), or its integration into ROC as an eparchy. If the two options are part of the conversation (or an ultimatum), this is the Georgia’s moment to call the Russian bluff.
First, ROC cannot just act unilaterally. Even if Abkhazian church’s autocephaly is recognized by Moscow, it still needs some form of recognition/legitimacy from other autonomous Orthodox churches worldwide. Even with ROC’s influential position in Orthodox Christian world, convincing other autonomous churches to support Abkhazian autonomy will be a challenging task because many of these churches have their own insecurities about the replication of Ukrainian Tomos in their canonical jurisdictions.
The other bargaining chip for ROC against GOC might be integration of Abkhazian eparchy into ROC. Yet again, this will not be canonical as well as Abkhazian eparchy is internally divided about the integration question. Lastly, on a more symbolic level, patriarch Kirill of Russia has never addressed Georgian Patriarch Ilia with his full title – which is the Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia, the Archbishop of Mtskheta-Tbilisi and Metropolitan Bishop of Bichvinta and Tskhum-Abkhazia, thus technically de-legitimizing patriarch Ilia’s authority over the territory of Abkhazia. Thus one might argue that in ROC's geospiritual imaginary Abkhazian eparchy is already its own part.
If Georgian church, as a social actor, is interested to successfully perform a socially acceptable impression of self in front of Georgian public - supporting Ukrainian Tomos is it’s a monumental moment. It is a litmus test the result of which will put Georgian church either on the side of Constantinople and Ukraine or succumb it to the Russian bluff.