dimanche 1 juin 2008

Could a Georgian monarchy be topical?

Article published in caucaz.com, 01/11/2007 Issue
By Nicolas Landru in Leipzig, translated by Lauren E. Smith

© Nicolas Landru, Throne of Irakli II, last but one Georgian King (in Telavi, Kakheti)

In the aftermath of an important political crisis in Georgia, the October 7th statement made by Ilia II, patriarch of the Orthodox Church, calling for a constitutional monarchy, is a new dramatic turn of events after a colourful two weeks. The majority of the opposition parties who are engaged in an arm wrestling match with the government, stepped into the breach calling for the regime's abolition and the instauration of a parliamentary system. President Saakashvili greeting the idea with irony, but the patriarch's highly-respected voice is by no means to be taken lightly, particularly as none of the “heavy weights” from the presidential majority rejected the idea of a discussion on the subject. During an October 14 visit by Ilia II to the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople Mikhail Saakashvili again praised the Orthodox Church. The church appears more than ever to be an indisputable actor in the Georgian political scene.

Phantoms of political disunity – the civil war and of course the revolution are still in the recent past–, ores of an increasingly arbitrary justice system, the beginnings of a presidential orientation in the regime: are these factors reasonable cause to call for the reestablishment of a monarchy that has been gone for two centuries, even if it is a symbol of the country’s more than a millennium of unity? Or does the idea represent the success of a national-religious revival which bas been in full swing in Georgia since the Rose Revolution?

Attempt to exit the crisis?

The patriarch’s statement comes at the height of a particularly acute internal political situation. Tensions between the National Movement government and the opposition took a new course at the end of September. Former Minister of the Interior Irakli Okruashvili, who was dismissed in November 2007, staged a comeback to politics with scandalous statements aimed at the president himself. After three days of televised appearances filled with denouncements, he was arrested and imprisoned on September 27 on accusations of corruption and abuse of power during his time in office. A coalition of opposition parties, for some of whom Okruashvili was the sworn enemy, immediately demonstrated against his summary arrest and application of the law.

Okruashvili’s arrest, which followed that of several of his former collaborators, may appear as a new round of “cleansing” carried out by the teams of the president and the “Liberty Institute” (including Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili and Giga Bokeria), who are thus once again neutralising one of their former allies. According to opposition accusations, the move is yet another step towards the regime's “presidentialisation”.

New developments became apparent several days later: Okruashvili retracted in a heavily-covered repentance, during the course of which he said he had wrongly slandered the president at the instigation of millionaire and media tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili. Okruashvili was released on 10 million Laris bail and on October 11, he said he will abandon politics, three weeks after founding his own party.

These events threw cast another shade of vagueness on the phenomena at hand in the Georgian regime. Patarkatsishvili's return from London, where he had fled the day after Okruashvili’s arrest, his declared entry into politics due to the gravity of the events, and the violent rhetorical media war in which he and the government engaged all promise a tense political climate until the presidential elections at the end of 2008. In a vehement speech on October 15, Saakashvili stated that Patarkatsishvili is the historical prototype of a “Georgian traitor”, thus declaring a war between the governmental team and the oligarchy. The opposition intends to organise a massive demonstration in Tbilisi on November 2.

Institutional uncertainty

In the backdrop remains the current Georgian political system's insecurity. Following independence in 1991, the difficulty of creating stable democratic institutions was great. It took a long time after the civil war for a consensus to be reached, and to this day it is still not completely at hand, due to the territorial disputes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The political regime Shevardnadze established to stabilise the civil war was hybrid and incomplete. Nevertheless, in the second half of the 1990s it allowed for the adoption of some legislation based on Western models. In the early 2000s, the path towards an increasingly independent parliament was open. This emancipation, however, was slowed by corruption and electoral fraud under the Shevardnadze regime, and was achieved only in 2003 through the “Rose Revolution”. The new regime has given impetus to the development of public institutions, but the 2004 amendments to the 1995 constitution appreciably diminished parliament's role and reinforced that of the president in the governmental system.

In short, the 1995 constitution, which is still in effect, takes on a provisory aspect. Certain elements of the system remain undetermined. Electoral legislation has been renegotiated on the eve of each election and remains a major question. “Discussions are in progress to know what type of Georgia we should have,” the patriarch stated in the preamble of his apology to the monarchy. The current system is defined as semi-presidential, but is considered by certain experts to be “super-presidential”. Saakashvili's supporters justify the expansion of presidential powers as a stage in transitioning towards a European system, and as a necessity due to the fragility of the Georgian State which requires quick reforms. Nino Burdjanadze, parliamentary president and major ally of Saakashvili, stated on October 11 that “A presidential system of government, and in particular a strong president, is very important for Georgia at this stage.”

This consistently reaffirmed transitional aspect allows the opposition to accuse the president's strong powers as “out of context” and “unjustified”. Furthermore, it renders all systematic plans for the country conceivable. To be specific, facing the deadlock of the confrontation between the National Movement and the eclectic opposition coalition, between vague presidential impulses and parliamentary demands, Ilia II’s call for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy, British in nature, may be read as a will to avoid both the stumbling block of an excessive concentration of power in the hands of the president, and a weakening of the state which could create a parliamentary system. First and foremost, it is a call for unity and national cohesion.

National and religious revival

The Rose Revolution was the springboard for the rise of the Georgian Orthodox Church. Having obtained a concordat (a privileged status, since the country's other religious organisations did not obtain one) with the state in 2002, the Orthodox Church has appeared to be on the authorities' side since the revolution, and the government has flaunted the support. Ilia II is seated next to the officials during the most important ceremonies, although Orthodoxy does not have the status of state religion. Unlike its predecessor, the new flag introduced in 2004 includes a cross.

But the government is not the sole party to claim the church's support: the opposition continues to accuse the government of not respecting religion and Okruashvili has accused Saakashvili of “innermost hate” towards it. Since 2003, the religious institution's standing in public opinion is such that no politician would know how to position himself against it.

External signs of Orthodoxy's flowering are underway, including gigantic ecclesiastic projects such as the planned construction of a monumental church of the Trinity (Sameba) in Tbilisi, or the ongoing construction of an immense monastery in Darial, several kilometres from the Russian border. This is the statue of Saint-Georges who sits enthroned at the top of Liberty Square in Tbilisi, a national and religious symbol of victory. During an ecumenical visit on October 14, Saakashvili said “The Orthodox Church is a flagship for Georgia and a driving force upstream of its forthcoming revival and reunification.”

The advent of the new regime is also linked to that of a newfound national identity. The president does not hesitate to liken himself to the medieval king David the Reconstructor. A sign of the assimilation of the nation and religion as a source of legitimacy, part of Saakashvili's inauguration ceremony took place at the Gelati monastery, on the tomb of King David. The government unceasingly brandished selected historical events, such as the victorious battle of Didgori, and national folklore is brought out at all political demonstrations, from George Bush’s visit to celebrations of the Revolution. In this display of power, which results from a “re-conquest” of Georgian identity and the political legitimacy it embodies, pleases the historical right, which pledges close allegiance to the Orthodox religion.

The National Movement eating its own words?

To some extent, Ilia II’s statements follow this logic. If the revolution, according to the government's claims, is synonymous with the re-conquest of territory, religion and identity, the restoration of the Kingdom of Georgia as the result of the process is not unthinkable. “That has been the goal of the Georgian people since the end of the Bagrationi's reign which was provoked by the 1801 Russian annexation – to see its royal dynasty restored,” said the patriarch. His proposition follows not only the cultural movement that has been rapidly developing since the revolution, but also the position of the National Movement, whose second strong element, apart from national pride, is democracy. The instauration of a monarchy based on the British model does not contradict the principles of the “post-revolutionary” government.

The opposition seized the idea of a monarchy immediately and held a parliamentary debate on October 25. “We, the majority of the opposition parties, believe that we should have a parliamentary form of government, and its perfect form is a constitutional monarchy,” stated Conservative Party deputy Zviad Dzidziguri on October 8. Other opposition figures such as Salomé Zourabichvili and Konstantine Gamsakhurdia appeared highly enthusiastic.

The fact remains that Saakashvili took six days to react to the patriarch’s statement. “My grandmother was also Bagrationi,” he said sarcastically. “This would be even better, it would avoid the need to prepare elections, and everything could be decided on the basis of family traditions.” The governmental majority stated that a constitutional monarchy is inappropriate for Georgia at this stage, but several deputies said it would be “imaginable” following the restoration of the country's territorial integrity. According to this logic, the regime must be temporarily presidential in order to steadily steer the country to the re-conquest of its “missing” territories, after which the country's definitive structure can be decided.

Is this all a diversion by the Orthodox Church to prevent direct confrontation between the government and the opposition? Or is it a real national plan, “that could, however, take years,” according to Ilia II? In any case, the mention of a possible restoration of Georgian royalty marks a new step both in the balance of internal political quarrels and in ideological development in post-revolutionary Georgia. For many Georgians, the idea could very well represent the sole guarantor against the spectres of internal discord. It will undoubtedly provide the means to surprise the direct descendants of the last king of Georgia, Georges XII Bagrationi: if the plan is to be carried out, the time will come for debates concerning claims to the throne. The latter could be claimed by various members of the former royal family who live today in Spain, Italy and Georgia.

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