Georgia: Patriarch Warns that Local Self-Government Could Lead to Country’s “Disintegration”

Giorgi Lomsadze – December 2013

The powerful Georgian Orthodox Church again has revived a fierce debate over whether or not it should act, essentially, as Georgia’s fourth branch of government. This time around, Patriarch Ilia II, the Church’s highly revered, 80-year-old veteran leader, has weighed into the seemingly secular issue of regional self-governance with a warning that the government’s plans to grant greater autonomy to Georgia’s regions could lead to “the disintegration of Georgia.”

The bill on local self-governance aims to give regional towns and communities more decision-making power via the election of local mayors and municipal officials. Today, only the mayor of Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, is elected, while regional heads are appointed by the central government.

The proponents of the bill argue that the change will help regional governments, including in highland communities, address local needs more efficiently.

But, in December 4 remarks, the patriarch cautioned that a devolution of authority could encourage more separatism, a phenomenon that already haunts Georgia with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

“If this happens, it will lead us to disintegration of Georgia,” Ilia II said. “We will never tolerate this and will do our best to make sure this does not happen.”

“We should remember that when the [central] government was strong . . . Georgia was strong as well,” he continued, underlining that “the people should consider whether or not [the draft law] is acceptable and good for Georgia.”
The debate over decentralizing power, however, soon spun out into the realm of secularism vs. theocracy, another ongoing bugbear for Georgian society.

In this very religious and patriotic culture,  the Church ranks as the country’s most trusted institution, a symbol of national identity which has survived for centuries.  With no government official around who can hold a candle to Ilia II in terms of popularity, few Georgian politicians dare to confront the Church openly when it addresses voters on matters secular rather than spiritual.

As was the case at an anti-homophobia rally in Tbilisi earlier this year, senior Church officials have shown in the past that they can bring an angry crowd of supporters into the streets if the lay authorities cross certain red lines.  It has mainly fallen on Georgia’s intelligentsia and civil society activists to challenge this practice.

Politicians, by contrast, usually conform and curtsy.

Minister of Infrastructure and Regional Development Davit Narmania, whose ministry has championed the draft law, was quick to say that several chapters of self-governance bills have been revised and that he was happy to consider the Church’s thoughts.

But some Georgian politicians took a sharper tact. Most notably, Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili, who dismissed as “nonsense” the notion that local self-government poses a security threat. Another member of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, parliamentarian Tamar Kordzaia, invited a flurry of angry comments after she said that “the Patriarchy is interfering in the government’s work too much.”
The patriarch, for his part, repeatedly has called for the peaceful resolution of national debates. Yet, as Georgia seeks acceptance as a European country, it is facing a clash of values over the role of the Church, and it looks like a long, hard battle ahead.