The separation of church and state in Russia has been all but erased this week as Patriarch Alexy II of the Russian Orthodox Church has gone on state television for an extended special to officially bless First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as the next president. The public gesture by the Patriarch, who also voiced his support for the ongoing role of Vladimir Putin in government as prime minister, has raised strong opposition from some quarters. A Moscow Times editorial declares “Church leaders should realize that supporting specific politicians — no matter how much they like them — will drag them into politics. This may eventually bring the church under the control of the ruling elite at the cost of its independence. … What if the Kremlinologists who see politics in a Machiavellian light are right and Putin decides to endorse a second candidate for the sake of a “fair” competition in the presidential election? What if that candidate also promised to continue Putin’s course? What would the patriarch say then?” However Putin’s Orthodox endorsement should be no surprise, and actually was years in the making.
Last May the Putin administration succeeded in bringing to a close the 90-year-old feud between the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and the breakaway Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) dating back to the Bolshevik Revolution. The government’s efforts to bring about the great reunification go back four years to a critical meeting in the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where President Putin himself attended a meeting to address leaders of the ROCOR, during which he is reported to have said “I want to assure all of you that this godless regime is no longer there.“Considered a powerful symbol of Russian nationalism and boasting a combined membership of more than 70 million people, the newly reunified Orthodox Church has been heavily courted by Putin for incorporation into the state’s political apparatus – the second most important instrument next to state control over television. Not only can the Kremlin count on its ties with the church to influence Russian voters, but also it is believed there are plans for expansion through ROCOR’s networks and congregations to function as a foreign policy arm in places such as Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Greece. In the past, Stratfor has reported on the Kremlin’s pressuring of Alexy II by backing a potential successor, Archbishop Kalinin. They write that the reunification “will allow the Kremlin to extend its influence to any of the 400 churches outside the former Soviet Union and push its agenda of a more powerful Russia abroad.“If the blessing of Putin’s succession plans weren’t enough, the Wall Street Journal reports that the Church has also finally forgiven the repentant Father Sergey – the priest who was defrocked for punishment for having recognized Mikhail Khodorkovsky as a political prisoner (see our correspondent Grigory Pasko’s coverage).The Journal article, which is well worth reading, quotes Gleb Yakunin, a dissident priest who gained access to the archives of the Orthodox Church to investigate the clergy’s ties to the KGB. Yakunin said the evidence “left a shocking impression” and that the church was “practically a subsidiary, a sister company of the KGB.”