Russian Orthodox Church takes a divisive political gamble on Vladimir Putin

By Reuters Staff
April 4, 2012

(Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (R) and Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill visit the restored rooms of Svyato-Danilov Monastery, the headquarters of the Russian Orthodox church, in Moscow February 1, 2012. REUTERS/Yana Lapikova/RIA Novosti)

At the peak of street protests against Vladimir Putin, the Russian Orthodox Church pitched itself as a potential moderator. Three months later, its shift towards the president-elect has become so clear – and so divisive – that it has issued an unusually tough statement saying it is under threat from anti-Russian forces for backing him.

Its decision to stand firmly behind Putin before he starts a six-year presidential term is a gamble which some experts say could yet backfire and undermine its authority in a society that has been polarised by the protests which began over alleged fraud in a December parliamentary election.

Criticism that Russia’s longest-surviving institution is working hand-in-hand with the Kremlin to suppress dissent and lend legitimacy to Putin’s dominance has been further fuelled by Church hardliners’ uncompromising stance.

“When the Church stands on the side of one political force against another political force without the universal support of society, this is a reason for serious censure,” Andrei Zubov, a historian who has studied Russian church-state relations, said.

“I have heard a lot of unhappiness from the clergy over this recently.”

Led since 2009 by Patriarch Kirill, who has widely been seen as a modernising influence, the Church has taken a more active role in politics, using its privileged status as Russia’s dominant faith to lobby for more power with the state.

Although it had long been close to the authorities, its behaviour has upset liberal groups, including some in the clergy, who see it as a violation of Russia’s secular laws and a sign that the Church’s hierarchy is out of touch with society.

The divisions became overt during a visceral public debate over the arrest last month of three members of the anti-Putin punk group Pussy Riot after it stormed into Moscow’s main cathedral and sang a protest song.

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