Georgia: Poison plot shakes the country's faith

Woman prays in Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta, Georgia © Fotokon / Shutterstock

On 10 February, police arrested a high-ranking Georgian Orthodox priest, Father Giorgi Mamaladze, just before he was due to travel to Germany. On searching his luggage, they found cyanide; the evidence they needed to charge him with conspiracy to murder. Mamaladze had been on his way to see the leader of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia II, who was recovering from surgery in Berlin.

The investigation began after an anonymous individual contacted the police claiming Mamaladze had promised him money and ‘unlawful benefits’ in exchange for cyanide. Though investigators have not named the ‘high-ranking cleric’ they believe Mamaladze wanted to kill, local media sources unanimously identified him as Ilia II.

In this deeply religious country, Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili’s assertion that ‘a major calamity’ had been averted was not an exaggeration. Ilia II has led the Georgian Orthodox Church since 1977, through Soviet-era repression to a major revival in the 1990s.

Ilia II at the inauguration of President of Georgia Giorgi Margvelashvili in November 2013 in Tbilisi. © Mamuka Gotsiridze / Shutterstock

The case has provoked an unprecedented media frenzy as journalists speculate on the possible motive. One theory is that Mamaladze has been framed; the identity of the informant remains unknown, as does his ability to source cyanide, and indeed Mamaladze’s possible motives. Mamaladze has pleaded not guilty, and another archpriest, Father Shio Paichadze, said he did not believe the allegations, pointing to Mamaladze’s close relationship with the religious leader.

Rustavi 2, the most popular national broadcaster, has obtained a letter, purportedly from Mamaladze, alleging corruption and mismanagement in the Patriarchate’s property management department, where he holds a senior position. This has fuelled rumours that some elements within the Church had the motive to frame the priest.

Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, of the Russian Orthodox Church, was quick to weigh in with his theory, claiming that the assassination attempt was perhaps to ‘pressure’ or ‘intervene in’ the Georgian Orthodox Church, particularly as Ilia II is immensely popular and wields significant power over politics.

The scandal, coupled with the patriarch’s old age and failing health, has raised the issue of a successor. The Church has been vocally supportive of K’art’uli ots’neba – demokratiuli Sak’art’velo (Georgian Dream) and played a major part in the party’s rise to power. It has been in government since 2012 and pursues a traditionalist agenda, which suits the conservatism of the Georgian Orthodox Church.

Ilia has been broadly supportive of the government’s pro-Western foreign policy…