BACKGROUND: The May 17 events demonstrate the Georgian Orthodox Church’s emergence as a cogent political force capable of en mass mobilization. Moreover, divisions are visible in the alliance between Ivanishvili and Patriach Ilia II, borne from a desire to oust the UNM party from power, regarding Georgia’s political future.
The Church’s previous attempts to insert itself into the Georgian political milieu were curbed by Saakashvili, who sought to maintain a firm boundary between church and state interests. Many observers noted that Patriarch Ilia’s November 2011 open support for Ivanishvili’s right to Georgian citizenship indicated the church’s backing for the Georgian Dream Coalition and helped Ivanishvili garner crucial electoral support, particularly in the regions, prior to the elections.
However, this partnership is straining due to differences in opinion regarding Georgia’s political future: the government wants the country to become part of the West while the church would have Georgia align with Russia and adopt an anti-liberal value system.
Despite the church’s calls to cancel the May 17 rally, Prime Minister Ivanishvili pledged the May 17 activists would receive full police protection. In response, Patriarch Ilia issued a written statement stating that holding such a rally would be “…an insult…” to Georgian traditions while individual clergymen sought to influence churchgoers through daily and weekly sermons preaching the abominations of homosexuality.
The international community’s reactions to the violence were swift with both American and European diplomats registering “shock” at the violence and that “such acts of intolerance have no place in democratic societies.” Embarrassed by his failure to prevent the anti-gay violence, Ivanishvili issued a powerful condemnation of the attacks and their participants stating that, “being a member of the clergy cannot be an alibi for anyone." He added, "if any member of the clergy violated the law, he will be held responsible.”
On the same day, Patriarch Ilia II issued a statement expressing regret for the violence and acknowledging that some clergy behaved “impolitely” in confronting demonstrators. He added, however, that the ideas of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activists “are completely unacceptable in Georgia.”
Despite its rhetoric, the Georgian government remains more cautious in its actions. It took the Interior Ministry four days to arrest four members of the mob, just to release them again after they paid a US$62 fine. As an attempted show of potency, two clerics were also charged, but not arrested, with illegally impeding the right to assemble a week after the rally. However, the government has not charged or arrested additional clergymen, which questions Ivanishvili’s ability to curb the encroachment of the church into the political sphere.
IMPLICATIONS: Both the anti-gay rally and the government’s impotent reaction to the violence indicate Ivanishvili’s realization that the church is gradually replacing the UNM as the new political counterpoint to the Georgian Dream Coalition.
The church is a wealthy, well-organized rival capable of politically mobilizing the Georgian populace more effectively than any political party. Following the May 17 violence, Bishop Jakob, a senior cleric, stated “You know very well that the United National Movement required two and a half months to gather five thousand people [for its April 19 rally] …. Today people came into [streets] on their own initiative... Several millions would have come [into the streets] if needed”. Albeit a bit overconfident, Bishop Jakob’s sentiments were echoed by Minister of Defense Irakli Alasania when he stated that the Patriarch “is very popular and has united our society many times”. According to Alasania, “...around 96-97 percent, trusts the Church, and the Church can greatly influence the society.
Recent polls also demonstrate the church’s resurrected role as the key site of Georgian cultural and social creation. According to a recent Gorbi poll, 84 percent of Georgian people believe religion is either “important” or “very important” while a CRRC survey found that the church is the most trusted institution in Georgia.
The church’s immense social capital explains both Ivanishvili’s desire to align with the Patriarch prior to the October 2012 elections and his hesitancy to confront the church for its deep involvement in the anti-gay riot. At present, the government’s reaction to the May 17 events will be a litmus test for the international community and the Georgian electorate. Ivanishvili risks losing international support if he does not distance his government from the church’s anti-western position and address the clergy’s involvement in the May 17 violence.
On May 24, the Interior Ministry arrested former Prime Minister Vano Merabashvili and former Health Minister Zurab Tchiaberashvili for misappropriation of funds and embezzlement. While Tchiaberashvili was later released on bail, Merabashvili was sentenced to pre-trial detention. The juxtaposition of Merabashvili’s and Tchiaberashvili’s arrests with the recent violence is suspect and may be motivated by a desire to show potency in the face Ivanshivili’s inability to control the church. Their arrests establish a dangerous precedent for using politically motivated arrests to deflect international and domestic attention from critical social issues. In addition, the government’s prosecution of these senior opposition members does not compare well to its lack of legal action against the clergymen and laypeople responsible for the May 17 violence. Rather, Ivanishvili’s policies imply his inability to effectively navigate a sustainable alliance with the church and rein in its political ambitions.
The Georgian opposition condemned the arrests as political persecutions and criticized the government for trying to “destroy their political opponents” as opposed to focusing on pressing civic and economic issues. In his May 21 statement, President Saakashvili drew a parallel between Merabashvili and Ukrainian former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, warning that these actions may lead to Georgia’s “international isolation.”
Moreover, arrests and their timing are not lost on the international community. On May 22, both EU High Representative Catherine Ashton and Patrick Ventrell, acting deputy spokesperson of the Department of State, commented that their respective governments would be closely following the legal proceedings. In addition to several U.S. Senators expressing concern over the arrests, the co-rapporteurs from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) stated that any “perception of … political motivation” must be avoided. Given the circumstances, PACE President Jean-Claude Mignon will most likely utilize his May 28-29 visit to Georgia to discuss these concerns with relevant senior Georgian officials.
CONCLUSIONS: In conclusion, the anti-gay violence of May 17 and the Georgian government feeble response to these events indicate that the church is replacing UNM as a counterpoint to the Georgian Dream Coalition. The scale of the mob and the government’s weak response underscores a rift with the church. Moreover, the event questions Ivanishvili’s ability, and desire, to curb the encroachment of the church into the political sphere. The church’s increasingly vitriolic anti-western agenda and rhetoric also reflect poorly on Prime Minister Ivanishvili and his ostensible policies to join NATO and adopt western-oriented reforms. Given the Patriarch’s preeminent role in Georgian society, Prime Minister Ivanishvili lacks the ability to curb the church’s engagement in politics.
In addition, while the government was investigating both Merabashvili and Tchiaberashvili prior to the anti-gay rally, their prompt arrests indicate the government’s willingness to use politically motivated arrests to deflect attention from pressing civil issues. However, these politically motivated arrests have garnered a great deal of international attention and domestic critique, especially given the lack of legal action taken against the rally’s instigators. Prime Minister Ivanshivili must ensure the prosecution of both men is impartial and beyond reproach. Otherwise, he risks losing international credibility and re-galvanizing the UNM party.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Ariela Shapiro is an international development professional who has been living and working in the South Caucasus since 2010. She has worked and consulted for International Crisis Group, the International Republican Institute, Deloitte Overseas Consulting and UNDP.