UNHOLY COMMUNION

Priests, Putin, and a Suitcase of Cyanide

An unorthodox alleged murder plot is testing Georgia’s Orthodox order.

02.15.17 6:13 AM ET

TBILISI, Georgia—This small Black Sea country was scandalized on Monday by news that a high-ranking priest—a member of the inner circle of the Georgian Orthodox Church—was arrested for the attempted murder of another even higher “high-ranking cleric.” Several news organizations claimed that the intended victim was none other than Ilia II, the 84-year-old patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church.

The Georgia State Prosecutor’s Office has not confirmed this officially. Yet as it releases more and more details the implication is that the patriarch was indeed the target if, indeed, the charges are true to begin with.

On Tuesday morning Georgia’s prime minister, Giorgi Kvirikashvili, issued a statement that “a fatal attack against the Church” had been avoided.  Given “the extraordinary circumstances,” the prime minister said, he has sent his own personal bodyguards to Berlin where the patriarch is recovering from surgery.

What we know is that Archpriest (a priest who presides over several parishes) Giorgi Mamaladze, a powerful member of the church, was arrested by prosecutors on Feb. 10 at Tbilisi International Airport allegedly carrying cyanide in his suitcase. Mamaladze was headed for Germany where the patriarch is currently hospitalized. Mamaladze is chief of the property department of the Georgian Orthodox Church, managing the church’s vast assets and real-estate holdings.

Late Monday night, the Georgian news network Rustavi 2, released a letter allegedly written (though it remains unverified) by Mamaladze to the patriarch accusing the Georgian church of immense graft, corruption, and illegal alcohol production among other unlawful activities. In the letter, the archpriest claims that he was sacked from his former position as head of the church’s property management service (though he remained with the department), after he submitted a report on the corruption he had witnessed in his position.

In the letter, Mamaladze also refers to a debt of 5 million GEL ($1.9 million USD), “accumulated [by the church] through fraudulent schemes by unscrupulous management and the alleged criminal offenses.”

The priest supposedly claims in the letter, “There were also threats against me, but I want to speak personally. I have a lot of material, which will reveal the crimes committed against the church.” It is unclear—if not baffling—how or why the archpriest went from the loyal servant of the patriarch conveyed in the letter to a would-be international assassin collecting unregistered weapons and cyanide.

Ilia II is an extremely popular figure among the Georgian population, almost 85 percent of whom identify as Orthodox Christian. Indeed, the patriarch has the highest approval rating of any public figure in the country. Although he originally assumed the top post in the church in 1977, when Georgia was part of the now-defunct Soviet Union, he has since been known for passing sweeping reforms and reengaging the church with Georgian society.

In recent years, the patriarch’s health has declined significantly, which led to his most recent hospitalization and gall bladder surgery in Berlin. Meanwhile reports continue to emerge from within the church indicating a conflict between pro-Russian and pro-Western factions of the church at the highest levels.

Because of the church’s immense influence over Georgian society, the last three Georgian governments have been forced to appease it politically on every issue it deemed important, and as Ilia II appears to be reaching the end of his life, there is intense infighting and public speculation about who will replace him. That, in turn, has led to suspicion and speculation about the version of events the prosecutor’s office has made public.

For years the Georgian Orthodox Church has had a close relationship with the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church, despite the fact that Moscow’s forces continue to occupy 20 percent of Georgia’s territory, which they invaded in 2008

While the Georgian Orthodox Church is a foundation of Georgia’s cultural and national identity, it is also Georgia’s most direct connection to Russia. This may not be obvious to the average Georgian, but it’s a fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin certainly understands and the Kremlin, obviously, has its own interests in the patriarchal succession.

Exactly four months after the August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, even as Moscow continued to ignore the terms of the ceasefire, Georgian Patriarch Ilia II visited the Russian capital and met with then-President Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s loyal acolyte.

For five years after the 2008 war, Russia and Georgia severed all diplomatic ties—and Ilia II and his crew were the only Georgians to meet with Russian leaders in an official capacity. As a result, for those five years the Georgian Orthodox Church held a monopoly on the Georgia-Russia relationship. Ilia II and Vladimir Putin met numerous times and they continued to do so as recently as Nov. 29 of last year—something that never failed to raise eyebrows Tbilisi.

Considering Putin’s past, some sort of involvement between Russian intelligence services and the most elite sectors of the Georgian Orthodox Church would appear to be probable. And given Putin’s alleged penchant for poison as a tool of statecraft, rumors are inevitable. But the Kremlin’s alleged toxins are usually much more exotic, and reserved for persistent critics.

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According to regional analyst Ani Chkhikvadze, “This all might be a game wherein the [Georgian] government is trying to play a role in the coming transition. It seems that the government is trying to take a side in the fight that is about to start over the inner transfer of power within the church.”

Prosecutors first began investigating Archpriest Mamaladze on Feb. 2 after they were informed by an anonymous source that Mamaladze was attempting to purchase cyanide. It is unclear exactly whom he was attempting to poison or why. But upon his arrest at the airport, authorities discovered cyanide in his luggage. And at his home, they allegedly found, “[illegal unregistered] hand-made guns and six cartridges,” the prosecutor’s office claims.

According to Georgia’s prominent pro-Western news site, magazine, and television channel, Tabula, “Prosecutor General Irakli Shotadze stated at the special briefing that the Prosecutor’s Office has audio and video evidence, however they will not release the evidence or talk about the details ‘due to the sensitivity of the case.’”

Mamaladze had direct access to the Patriarch and others in his inner circle including several of the individuals in line to take his place.

Perhaps strangest of all is the choice of cyanide as the alleged murder weapon. As one Western commentator (who asked to remain anonymous) dryly pointed out, “Leave it to the Georgian Orthodox Church to keep it old school when choosing a poison.”