For Georgia’s presidential candidates, pleasing the patriarch seems to be synonymous with pleasing the public.by Maia Edilashvili 25 October 2013
On a bright autumn day in Poti, a city in western Georgia, Nino Burjanadze, a contender in the 27 October presidential election, addressed an open-air gathering.
“My values are the same as yours − family, respect for the elderly,” she told the crowd assembled beside an Orthodox cathedral. The candidate extolled a Georgia “where a woman looks like a woman and a man like a man … and a child has a mother and a father, rather than two fathers!” A video of the rally posted by Georgian news website TSpress.ge show the audience responding with laughter and applause.
This is what presidential campaigning looks and sounds like in Georgia. Such a meeting could have been organized in another place, too, but the religiously charged atmosphere is a constant in the populist jostling to become the country’s fourth president.
“Having a cathedral in the background makes one’s speech on protecting traditions sound more convincing,” said Eliso Janashia, the editor of TSpress.
Dating to the fourth century, the Georgian church’s deep roots helped it survive centuries of Ottoman and Persian invasions and suppression under Tsarist and Soviet rule. With independence in the early 1990s, the church emerged as by far the most authoritative institution in the country. According to poll results issued in September by the National Democratic Institute, 80-year-old Patriarch Ilia II is trusted by 94 percent of Georgians. Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili is a distant second at 69 percent.
Georgia’s constitution recognizes the Orthodox Church’s special role in society but enshrines the independence of church from state.
“The church is not involved in politics, and it should not be,” said Giorgi Zviadadze, a high-ranking member of the clergy and rector of the Tbilisi Theological Academy and Seminary. “The church’s mission − to [help] any individual, people, or nation to be in God’s blessing − stands above politics.”
Still, as Georgians often invite clergymen along to bless a new car, apartment, or place of business, politicians seek benediction. Attendance at religious services in the company of journalists is a firm tradition for candidates, who make sure to be caught on camera standing beside senior clergy, holding candles and crossing themselves.
“All political parties do their best to win the hearts of the patriarchate, because the result in the election largely relies on whom the church sides with,” Janashia said.
A record number of candidates, 23, are seeking the presidency in an election that will almost certainly end the uncomfortable year-long cohabitation between the Ivanishvili-led Georgian Dream coalition and outgoing President Mikheil Saakashvili, whose United National Movement (UNM) is considered unlikely to retain the post. Most of the hopefuls bear platforms that pay respects and make commitments to the patriarchate.
But not all: UNM candidate Davit Bakradze, a member of parliament, makes no mention of religion, the church, or orthodoxy in his presidential program. Nor do prominent contenders Koba Davitashvili, a lawmaker formerly aligned with Georgian Dream; Zurab Kharatishvili, former chairman of the Central Election Commission; and Akaki Asatiani, leader of the Traditionalists party.
But among other major candidates, the race to be most Orthodox is on. Georgian Dream’s Giorgi Margvelashvili stresses in his program that as a president he will “protect” the constitutional agreement by which the state recognizes the Orthodox Church’s historical role and gives it preferential treatment among faith groups, including state subsidies and exemption from taxes. So does Labor Party leader Shalva Natelashvili, who pledges that there will be “no single settlement and village without a functional church, the key foundation of our spiritual strength” (although his platform also affirms tolerance for religious minorities).
Giorgi Targamadze, leader of the Christian-Democratic Movement, goes further, proposing in his platform that a new subject, “Orthodox Christian culture,” be introduced in schools.
Most forceful is Burjanadze, the former speaker of parliament and leader of the Democratic Movement-United Georgia party. In a near-echo of sermons by Ilia II that cast Western culture − in particular the protection of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people’s rights − as a threat to Georgian identity, her platform underlines the importance of “our eternal values” and the challenge they face from outside influence, which she implicitly lays at the door of the prior UNM government.
“The calls by our patriarch, who has been recognized as spiritual father of the Caucasus by other denominations, aim to preserve these values, while the regime that came on behalf of the Western orientation has stamped on national values and traditions,” Burjanadze’s program reads. (All the candidates’ platforms are posted online at ivote.ge, a project of the International Center for Civil Culture in Tbilisi, in Georgian and abridged English versions.)
It isn’t just during election season that faith comes to the political fore, said theologian and ex-priest Basil Kobakhidze, a former lecturer at the Tbilisi Theological Academy and Seminary.
“The whole country is under the influence of clericalism. Orthodoxy has been shaped as the ideology of the country − Orthodox ethnic-nationalistic populism,” Kobakhidze said in a Skype interview. “It’s like what used to be the almighty Central Committee of the Communist Party.”
POLITICS IN THE PULPIT?
Alongside the near-universal public faith in the patriarch, last month’s National Democratic Institute survey gave politicians other reasons to toe the church line. Forty-one percent of respondents said they attend religious services regularly; fully 87 percent described their religious beliefs as “important” or “very important” in making decisions in their daily lives.
In this atmosphere, political leaders are quick to present religious bona fides even as they assert the primacy of secular government. In April 2012, as Ivanishvili was leading Georgian Dream’s challenge to UNM in upcoming parliamentary elections, he was asked by a reporter if he was wearing a cross. In an exchange that was posted to YouTube, Ivanishvili pulled a crucifix on a chain from beneath his shirt but admonished the journalist, saying that both the question and his consent to show the cross were inappropriate.
Public displays of political fealty to the church started under President Eduard Shevardnadze, who served from 1995 to 2003, “and ever since every political party is juggling with this ball,” Kobakhidze said. Saakashvili celebrated both of his elections by taking highly public spiritual oaths at two of the country’s holiest sites: in 2004 at Gelati Monastery, where he honored the grave of David IV, the iconic 12th-century Georgian king known as “the Builder”; and in 2008 at the Bagrati Cathedral, named for Bagrat III, who in the 11th century unified Georgia and Abkhazia into a single kingdom. In both cases Saakashvili received blessings from Ilia II.
To Kobakhidze, cultivating such close links between religion and political rule hamper democratization and marginalizes critics of the church as “enemies of Georgia.”
Whatever its larger repercussions, Saakashvili’s embrace of the church did not pay political dividends, according to some observers. Religious support is widely viewed as having contributed to Georgian Dream’s convincing victory in the October 2012 legislative election, in which it won 55 percent of the vote to UNM’s 40 percent.
In an interview two weeks after the balloting in national newspaper 24 Saati (24 Hours), Gigi Tevzadze, rector of Ilia State University in Tbilisi, asserted that support from the pulpit was key to the success of Ivanishvili’s coalition. In sermons on the Sunday before the election, he said, priests and archpriests called on their parishioners to vote for Georgian Dream.
“Given that the number of churchgoers for whom the priests’ opinion matters is around 12 percent, we can see what caused the 15 percent disparity in the election results,” Tevzadze told the newspaper. The coalition might still have won without church backing, he said, but not by such a wide margin, which exceeded that of pre-election polling.
Any clergy who did indeed endorse from the pulpit did so without the patriarchate’s blessing, said Zviadadze, the clergyman and seminary rector.
“A cleric has the right to like or dislike politicians and presidential candidates, but he is not allowed to speak about this in his sermons, because the sermon should focus on the Gospel, the holy church’s religion and unchanged teachings,” Zviadadze said. “If any particular cleric makes a mistake and deviates from his mission, it’s a personal mistake and sin, not that of the church.” Clergymen who do so could face sanctions from church authorities, he said.
In his own sermon on 20 October, Patriarch Ilia urged Georgians simply to “vote for whichever candidate he or she thinks is worthy,” Zviadadze said. “The church is not involved to the extent of saying ‘vote for this or that party.’ That would be unacceptable involvement. … Citizens should take responsibility for whom they vote for.”
The Orthodox Church does appear to have benefited, at least materially, from last year’s results. Upon coming to power, Georgian Dream increased the state allocation for the church by nearly 10 percent, from 22.8 million laris ($13.7 million) in 2012 to 25 million lari ($15 million) this year.
The budget boost “was clearly a thank-you gesture,” said Janashia, the TSpress.ge editor. “When I asked the finance minister [Nodar Khaduri] why they increased the funds, he did not reply.” She added, “No one protests about it, because if you ask questions about the patriarchate, it would mean you are insulting God.”
The church also received favor when UNM controlled the government, and it enjoys the loyalty and respect of virtually all political groups, raising the question of why it would play favorites, if indeed it does. In an election-week interview with TOL, Tevzadze, the Ilia State rector, said there were multiple, political reasons the clergy might have favored Georgian Dream last year.
While the church received then-unprecedented support from UNM, “it seems the benefits would come in exchange for certain requests” for support of government policies, Tevzadze said. “Those requests might have become too much, leading the church to decide it was time for the government to step away.”
In addition, Georgian Dream was widely considered more pro-Russian than UNM, and the Georgian church has historically had close ties to its Russian counterpart. Since the August 2008 Russia-Georgia war, Ilia II has traveled to Moscow and met with President Vladimir Putin and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, as has current candidate Burjanadze.
“So on one hand, the church anticipated certain limitations under the previous government, and on the other hand, Georgian Dream was more ‘Russian,’ thus closer to their position,” Tevzadze said. “That caused the change: instead of the expected 5 percent gap in the  election result, we got a 15 percent gap.”
But for the presidential vote, he sees the church staying more on the sidelines, even as the candidates seek to cultivate the faithful.
“I do not expect the church would side with Burjanadze because it would be too clear an expression of its pro-Russian aspirations and, at some level, an anti-Georgian stance, against Georgia’s sovereignty and independence. Nor do I see the church supporting Georgian Dream’s candidate, Margvelashvili, because the church hasn’t received as much from this government as it expected,” on either the economic or policy front, Tevzadze said.
“The partriarch has simply called [for people] to come out and vote, and I guess it’s all what we may expect from the church.”