First visit ever by a Russian leader to Mount Athos

Russian President Vladimir Putin is to make a third attempt to carry out his long-awaited pilgrimage to Mount Athos. If all goes well, he will arrive in Karyes next Friday for a visit to the historic monastery of Panteleimon, where so many Russian monks have settled. Once in December 2001 and again in September of last year, Putin had planned visits that he was forced to cancel at the last minute. The first time he got as far as Thessaloniki but bad weather prevented him from continuing; the second, last year, coincided with the Beslan tragedy. Now the more superstitious in the Kremlin are saying a prayer and have cast a veil of secrecy over preparations for Putin’s arrival (expected on Thursday from Germany where he is to have talks with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder). He is due to meet with Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis Thursday night at the Porto Carras Hotel in Halkidiki and set out at dawn the next day for the Holy Mountain. The weather forecast is good, but the Russian president is expected to travel by car and boat rather than by helicopter. One wonders if that is because he wants to experience Halkidiki’s beauties up close or because his guards have advised against traveling by air following the crash a year ago of a military Chinook in the area, particularly as it is the same aircraft that Putin himself would have used. However, he plans to get there; the monks are preparing a grand welcome for him in Karyes and at the Russian hermitage of Aghios Andreas. The highlight of his visit, of course, will be his pilgrimage to the Panteleimon Monastery, a symbolic site for the Russian Orthodox Church. Putin is the first Russian leader to visit not just the monastery, but Mt Athos. Not a single tsar ever visited in the 800 years since its foundation. Although the visit is being described as private, it will receive television coverage, so devout Russians, from St Petersburg to the depths of Siberia, will see their leader praying amid the pealing of bells and the intonation of Byzantine hymns. Vladimir Putin is an extremely intelligent man; he is fully aware that his historic and symbolic visit to Mt Athens will give a much-needed boost to his popularity ratings, particularly among the lower income groups who have put their hopes of a better future in the hands of the Almighty. Behind the Byzantine pomp and majesty surrounding the visit, the Russian leader will have to contend with a less-than-pleasant atmosphere within the Panteleimon Monastery, where in recent years an undeclared war has been waged between the Russians and Ukrainians. The Russians are at risk of losing – if they havn’t already done so – the monastery that has been theirs for 800 years, for since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian monks now have a majority in the Synod, allowing the possibility of a loss of influence by the Russian Church, something that Moscow will not easily tolerate. It is said that last year Putin was to have brought with him, along with his gifts, a «desire» on the part of Patriarch Alexios of Moscow and All Russia to send Russian monks to redress the balance at the monastery and to reverse the status quo in Russia’s favor. He was also reported to have in his bags a Russian passport for Ukrainian-born Abbot Jeremiah, in an attempt to win him over to the Russian side. The passport was handed over by the Russian ambassador in Athens and Putin is likely to discuss the former request with the heads of Mt Athos who decide on these matters. Yushchenko The tug-of-war between Russians and Ukrainians over the monastery appears to have spread beyond the monastery walls to the higher echelons of power in Moscow and Kiev. A month ago, on August 8, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko was to have made a pilgrimage to the monastery, which was celebrating its feast day. In accordance with Yushchenko’s wishes, the visit was given no publicity and both his guards and Ukrainian diplomats in Athens had made the security preparations, but, on the eve of the visit, it was canceled due to the «sudden pressure of work.» Rumor had it that the long hand of Patriarch Alexios ensured that Yushchenko would not steal Putin’s thunder and, by extension, Russian influence at the monastery.