Georgia: No Explanation for Alleged Plot to Poison the Patriarch

Author: Giorgi Lomsadze
Date Published: 02/28/2017
Publication: EurasiaNet

More than two weeks on, an investigation into a potential scheme to poison the iconic leader of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia II, is nowhere near its denouement, leaving Georgians entrapped, spellbound, in a tangle of conspiracies straight out of an Umberto Eco novel.

If there is one thing that has become clear throughout the whole debacle is that there is a fierce, ongoing battle to become the 84-year-old patriarch’s heir apparent. The outcome of the battle has far-reaching impact in Georgia, one of the world’s oldest Christian countries, where sectarian and secular matters are deeply intertwined.

But what role the 32-year-old deacon, Giorgi Mamaladze, charged with the attempted murder of a “senior cleric,” has to play in this battle remains unknown.

Prosecutors spent an improbable eight hours on February 27 interrogating Mamaladze, yet, even as Georgians waited for a televised tell-all, emerged to say only that they have more questions than answers.

Mamaladze was caught with cyanide in the Tbilisi airport on February 10 en route “to Germany,” where the 84-year-old patriarch was undergoing gallbladder surgery in Berlin. The government cites an anonymous tipster to explain the charges of attempted murder brought against the deacon.

Within the Church hierarchy, clerics have engaged in unusually public speculation and bickering to come up with their own explanations.

Metropolitan Petre of Chkondidi claimed on February 26 that an unnamed “certain influential person in the patriarchy” had framed Mamaladze, supervisor of the patriarchate’s business-management department, who earlier had alerted the patriarch about corruption and mismanagement in the Church.

Metropolitan Petre, whom prosecutors are questioning today, alleged that, to set up Mamaladze, the “influential” individual had asked the deacon to purchase cyanide “for a goldsmith, a relative living in Ukraine” to use for work with gold.

Ilia II’s longtime bodyguard, Soso Okhanashvili, who recently resigned from his post, also said that the detained priest fell prey to the schemes of rivals. Mamaladze’s job inspecting Church finances and property meant that he was privy to potential funny business by clerics and officials, Okhanashvili commented this week to Rustavi2, an outlet critical of the government.

Strangely, the government now is trying to play down what officials made abundantly clear earlier on — that the cyanide found on Mamaladze was meant for His Holiness, the single most revered man in the country.

Mamaladze’s lawyers claim that the government now accuses their client of attempting to kill the patriarch’s secretary, Shorena Tetruashvili, a middle-aged lay woman reputed to hold sway over what is largely a world of bearded, robed men. Prosecutors have not revealed the identity of the “senior cleric” targeted, but, obviously, explanations will be needed if it proves to be a female secretary.

Speculation about Tetruashvili by priests and press alike has been flowing freely of late, with Metropolitan Petre of Chkondidi describing her as a “grey eminence,” who has “goldfish” — that is, informants and supporters – throughout the Church.

Like many other Georgian observers, theologian Mirian Gamrekelashvili believes that Tetruashvili heads one of two factions battling over the patriarchy. The opposing faction, he said, is led by the 56-year-old Metropolitan Dimitri Shiolashvili of Batumi, who happens to be the patriarch’s nephew.

He did not elaborate about what differences in outlooks or theology exist between the two supposed camps.

Both groups, he told RFE/RL, worked to bring loyal cadres — or “goldfish,” to borrow from Metropolitan Petre — into the Holy Synod, an executive council that acts as the Orthodox version of the papal conclave, to have support when Ilia II dies and a new patriarch must be selected.

“The Synod looks like a chessboard, in the sense of how appointments are made; each group bringing its loyalists in,” he said.

Both Mamaladze and the patriarch’s former security guard were in the anti-Tetruashvili faction, Gamrekelashvili alleged.

And so it goes. Government officials carry themselves with an air of being privy to some nefarious plot that they will share in due time; church leaders speak in riddles, while the media reels off reports of weapon caches supposedly found on the patriarchate’s grounds. (The Church and police deny the latter.)

Meanwhile, Mamaladze, who unsuccessfully sought a meeting with Ilia II or the Synod, has requested security guarantees for himself in prison and for his family.

As for the patriarch, now back in Tbilisi, he has kept his distance from the drama playing out around him, noting only in last Sunday’s sermon that each person must choose sides in the “great battle” between good and evil.

His office has declined all comment so long as the cyanide investigation is ongoing.