Spiritual geopolitics of Georgia’s territorial integrity

Russia, the occupation, and the problem of territorial integrity have come to define the discourse of Georgian nationalism in the past decade. A hegemonic geopolitical discourse advocated by the political and public intellectual elites frames Russia’s military, economic and political protection of the two de facto republics and heavy presence in these territories as “occupation of 20% of Georgian territories”. In contrast, the everyday geopolitical rhetoric of the Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC) has been mild towards Russia. Its leader Patriarch Ilia II (Shiolashvili), and other influential clerics generally refrain from denouncing Russia as an occupying power of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Considering the GOC’s enormous political and symbolic capital in Georgia and the Church leaders’ general practice to weigh in on the country’s most important political developments, the institution’s virtual silence on such a central geopolitical issue is puzzling.

Overview of the literature on spiritual geopolitics – by which we mean the geopolitical and territorial discourses and practices by religious organizations – gave us a necessary theoretical framework to study the case. The literature provides two contradictory theoretical claims regarding the relationship between spiritual and secular geopolitical discourses. First, religious institutions offer a symbolic yet powerful contribution to hegemonic ideas about the national territory. Generally, religious groups and institutions align more ‘naturally’ with the nationalist right and amplify their vision and political claims of the national territory by adding sacred meaning to the land in question: sovereign territory as a homeland and a holy land that cannot be given away. Second, religious institutions operate with a vastly different understanding of space and its political organization. Their ideas about what constitutes a territory might contradict a typical nationalist vision. These territorial ideas often transcend ‘earthly,’ human-made political borders, or even the ideal of a nation-state, and redefine and divide the space in terms of religious territories and their ‘vertical’ link to heaven. In other words, people and their land are not categorized by nationality/citizenship but by religion. 

To get a more precise understanding of the GOC’s geopolitical position, and following these conceptual lines in the lietrature, we asked: Does the GOC’s geopolitical discourse complement or challenge Georgia’s territorial nationalism (i.e. the hegemonic understanding of national territory in Georgia)?

We answered this question by studying Patriarch Ilia II’s annual pastoral letters since 1978. In the text, we identified recurrent geopolitical themes and arguments in the text and implicitly, how distinct or similar are these in comparison to ‘common-sense’ geopolitical views regarding Georgia’s nationhood, territory, and place in the world as articulated by political elites and reproduced within society. We found that his general spatial conception of Georgian nationhood has two dimensions: political-administrative and mythical-spiritual. The political-administrative perspective is closer to the concept of territorial statehood of Georgia as a territorial container of a sovereign nation separated by other territorial sovereignties. The mythical-spiritual interpretation defines Georgia primarily as a homeland, “a soil soaked in the blood of your ancestors”, that is not defined by political territorial boundaries. Particular places – such as important battle sites or other more explicitly religious holy sites, which might or might not be within Georgia’s internationally recognized borders – and not clear boundaries, represent homeland. A sense of primordial, organic unity of people, places, and land is at the center of this territorial vision. Ilia II also invokes the connection between the material territory and the immaterial heavenly world of mythical figures, Christian saints, glorious kings, queens and martyrs, and God, and their exceptional protection of the earthly territory and its people. 

This dual – legal-political and mythical-spiritual – spatialization of Georgian nationhood gives meaning to GOC’s canonical territory. The canonical territory is an area under GOC’s religious jurisdiction. The canonical territory generally replicates the borders of Georgia’s sovereign territory, but at particular sections, it extend beyond the sovereign borders and includes what GOC refers to as “historically Georgian lands” inside Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Access to and control of the church buildings and the ability to exercise pastoral rights over the territory’s population makes the geographic area a functioning canonical territory regardless of which country’s military base operates in the area. Pastoral authority over people, not land, makes a canonical territory. Therefore, GOC’s canonical territory at times relies on and reifies the state territory, but sometimes it disregards the legal-political meaning.

More specifically, we also analyzed Ilia’s discourse regarding two geopolitical episodes: the Georgian-Abkhazian and Georgian-South Ossetian territorial conflicts between 1991 and 1993, and the 2008 Georgian-Russian War and its immediate aftermath. We illustrate how Ilia II articulated the geopolitical storylines to explain these important events to his audience. We found a complicated relationship between spiritual and secular geopolitical discourses on Georgia’s territorial integrity. Ilia’s spiritual geopolitics is neither dissident nor entirely complementary. The Patriarch’s definition of Georgia’s territorial integrity eschews the broadly accepted formulation of “Russian occupation” within Georgia and in its place, insufficient faith and religiosity within the Georgian society take a more prominent place in the explanation of the problem’s origins. Ilia II defines the religion and the GOC as the unifying factor, spiritually, territorially, and politically, of the rival parties and alienated peoples and territories. The church’s canonical territoriality, rather than the state’s sovereign territoriality, plays the key object of concern in the Patriarch’s geopolitical discourse. However, Ilia II frames this narrow institutional interest of the church as the basis for the nation’s territorial unification. By advocating more narrowly for the GOC’s canonical jurisdiction across the entire disputed territories, rather than actively embracing secular anti-Russian geopolitical narratives, the church simultaneously stands outside of the territorial conflict, taking a seemingly neutral position, and reinforces the territorial claim of the Georgian state. By distinguishing and problematizing the role of GOC’s canonical territoriality in the question of Georgia’s sovereign territoriality, the paper concludes that the GOC is a territorial power in its own right, not merely a spiritual wing of the state of Georgia.

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