Coronavirus of Georgian politics

The government of the Georgian Dream has been fairly successful with its gradual approach to tackling the pandemic. At the same time it found itself pitted against one of the most trusted institutions in the country, the Georgian Orthodox Church.

In a move that was unexpected by both Georgia’s strategic partners and its own society, the Georgian Dream government has managed to successfully wage a war against COVID-19. The state’s gradualist tactics, involving timely and appropriate political reactions, has allowed for a controllable proliferation of the disease and limited deaths thus far. So far, Georgia has been deemed a “state to follow” in the global fight against the coronavirus.

Despite this pandemic and accompanying challenges, political processes are still very relevant within the country. Both the government and its political opponents are using all possible tools to gain more electoral votes in the upcoming October parliamentary elections. Initial statements by the United Opposition that announced a “moratorium on criticism” did not hold out long. These political groups have involved affiliated media outlets and platforms which, depending on their ideological attachment, present reality in absolutely diverse ways.

Most recently, the Georgian Dream government found itself pitted against one of the most trusted state institutions, the Georgian Orthodox Church, which refused to follow strict regulations regarding the Easter holiday.

Gradualism against COVID-19

Georgia is probably one of the best examples of a gradualist approach to the COVID-19 pandemic. In a move opposite to most European and non-Western states, where populations were suddenly locked up, the government of Georgian Dream quickly reacted to the threat and started slowly setting new regulations and restrictions after the first case was discovered on February 26th. This model gave both the state and local society enough time to get used the idea that a new reality was coming and everyone should adjust. Furthermore, citizens were reassured that the country has high-level professionals in the medical sector who, in collaboration with the ruling party, managed to lead the nation while becoming symbols of hope in the fight against the virus. The state is currently in total lockdown, but due to the appropriate crisis management approach, civilians remain relatively calm and secure.

On the other hand, the Georgian Dream government threatens its own political success with an unclear economic policy. This has becoming increasingly problematic since the state of emergency was extended until May 22. It is clear that representatives of the health service are devoted to saving lives and preventing the further spread of COVID-19, but the government must also keep in mind the political, economic and social dimensions of the crisis. However, they have not yet managed to persuade Georgian society that there is a clear policy to deal with the increased rates of unemployment and poverty. Consequently, there has already been an anti-lockdown rally in the city of Marneuli where locals are in need of serious financial and social assistance.

Coronavirus, politics and media

Elections are coming and the earlier expectations that the coronavirus pandemic would overshadow it failed. No real consolidation of the political powers has been achieved. The United Opposition has realised that while it is on the “political bench,” the Georgian Dream is scoring additional votes through its crisis policies. So far, despite the announced “moratorium on criticism,” the opposition has already started waging a full-scaled rhetorical war, trying to undermine achievements of the government. They have pushed forward a negative narrative of the crisis that focuses on unemployment, poverty, and sporadic cases of police abuse. Finally, the opposition refused to support an extension of the state of emergency, arguing that the Georgian Dream had not presented an action plan that validated the necessity of keeping the state under lockdown.

At the same time, the government of Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia is aware that the pandemic has given the ruling team a unique opportunity. On the one hand, they avoided strong political protests that were expected to begin in early April regarding the liberation of alleged political prisoners, free and fair elections. On the other hand, the existing quarantine has locked down both regular citizens and members of the political opposition, who are currently at home and not able to fully participate in political life. Finally, the pandemic itself has become a chance to pursue the best possible pre-election campaign without actually announcing this campaign. The way the ruling party manages this crisis will have a profound impact on the upcoming parliamentary elections. The ball is in the government’s court and the Georgian Dream has successfully controlled it thus far .

The war between political powers is even more apparent in the Georgian media where all involved parties try hard to discredit each other. Imedi, the pro-governmental news channel, pushes a narrative that the state is doing well, while turning a blind eye to the existing challenges. The oppositional channels, like Mtavari and TV Pirveli, often do not inform their audiences about successful crisis management, arguing that the state has returned to the “dark” 1990s with people starving and dying on the streets. This unfortunate polarity has once again raised concerns about the politicised nature of local media.

The calls: Church versus Gakharia

In accordance with a long-lasting tradition, the Georgian Orthodox Church has managed to prove that it is still the most influential institution in Georgia. The church has not only disobeyed restrictions set by the government, but they have actually avoided adhering to the majority of them, including the prohibition of mass gatherings, driving cars, curfew and even basic safety standards.

From the beginning a lion’s share of Georgian Orthodox priests resisted the restrictions, arguing that faith is above any law and spirituality will defend the flock from this misfortune. Moreover, they stated that an attempt to close churches is a direct path toward repeating a totalitarian, forceful policy preached by the communist regime. Thus, these religious leaders called on the followers to continue attending spiritual rituals despite the pandemic and existing strict regulations. The narrative was significantly softened after direct negotiations with the state officials and public negative outcry. And still, Georgian Orthodox Church managed to held Easter rituals with significant violations of the law while representatives of other religious denominations where diplomatically “asked” (actually, prohibited) not to do so; this is especially actual for the state’s Muslim community that is still unable to pray at mosques despite the Ramadan.

The government, which is unwilling to engage in a direct confrontation, especially in light of the upcoming parliamentary elections, has turned a blind eye to these transgressions. The political opposition and a significant part of local civil society members have criticised the government for its selective justice. They call it a grave breach of secularity principles, and thus, the constitution itself. At the same time, representatives of other religious denominations have raised reasonable concerns about double-standards, inequality and discrimination.

These attitudes were strengthened by Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia’s pre-Easter speech, when he called on citizens to avoid attending religious rituals, arguing that the violation of the curfew would not only hit the church as an institution but also push the state towards a larger coronavirus outbreak. Some critics, highlight signs of unwillingness by the government to lead the state and defend the law, while “rebellious” priests saw it as an attempt to blame possible negative outcomes on the church. But these critics have overlooked the similarities between Gakharia’s speech and what John F. Kennedy once said: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” The church is superior to the government, not because the Georgian Dream decided so, but, foremostly, because Georgian society gave it more legitimacy. It is up to the Georgian citizens to respect the role of the government and finally recognise it as a supreme institution.

The article was originally published by New Eastern Europe.

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Coronavirus in Georgia: Dilemma with the Orthodox Church

Georgia has joined the group of many other states with its first recorded death on April 4. The local government in collaboration with leading virologists tried hard to avoid the precedent and continue comparatively successful fight against coronavirus pandemic. Praised internationally for effective and efficient policy, the leadership of Georgian Dream, headed by PM Giorgi Gakharia introduced nationwide quarantine on March 31, including curfew to stop proliferation of the virus in the state by enforcing the so-called “social distancing” concept.

And while the absolute majority of Georgians support the government’s approach, Georgian Dream found itself in rivalry with the state’s one of the most trusted and strongest institutions – Georgian Orthodox Church. Particularly, the lion’s share of Georgian priests initially refused to follow the new regulations arguing that the flock must attend religious meetings; furthermore, they even refused to change some aspects of the rituals to avoid spread of the virus. Finally, officials are now trying to persuade the church to postpone celebration of one of the most respected and holy religious holidays – Easter. 

Hesitations and inconsistency of the ruling party with regard to Orthodox Georgian Church’s behavior split local society on the so-called liberals, conservatists and neutrals: the first group arguing that this is a grave violation of superiority of the law (secular state), others considering the happening as an assault on Orthodox Christianity (the GOD) and the neutrals being simply too occupied by everyday routine.

Above the Law

Spirituality is an inherent part of Georgian society. Georgia, a historically strongly Orthodox Christian entity, tries to carefully nurture its heritage and is especially sensitive to the issue of religious freedom due to its Soviet past when all denominations were oppressed by communists. The religion played even more important role during and after the collapse of USSR when the Georgian Orthodox Church actually became the only coherent and trustworthy institution in the country. Governments used to come and fall but the church was always there as a “painkiller” for a physically and emotionally exhausted population. This objective reality made it a nation-wide “influencer”, an important political and social actor, a decision-maker. Thus, the state, on the one hand, and the entity, on the other hand, signed in 2002 the so-called – concordat – constitutional agreement recognizing the historic role of the Apostolic Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Georgia in building, strengthening and maintaining statehood and the Georgian nationhood in general. Furthermore, it granted the church and its representatives additional rights and protections that raised the institution above any other religious denomination.

Representatives of the so-called liberals, mainly civil society organizations and some other actors, have been troubled by the concordat arguing that both, the state and the church, are violating the principles of equality and secular state for years. These arguments have been re-iterated and strengthened during the first days of the COVID-19 pandemic when Orthodox priests refused to follow strict regulations set by the Georgian Dream, even threatening to retaliate if the ruling party dares to restrict spiritual rituals. This comes alongside comparatively minor religious denominations immediately showing social responsibility by temporarily halting activities and calling on their flocks to obey the law. The government, being caught between the hammer and the anvil, hesitated whether to react on the disobedience raising additional concerns that the Georgian Orthodox Church is truly above the law. 

The ruling party is still at the crossroad: it should maintain the law while try to avoid rivalry with one of the most trusted institutions right before the elections.

Politics of Faith

It is not a secret that Georgian politicians actively use various religious groups for political purposes. This is especially true during election campaigns when not only Georgian Orthodox Church but also Muslim community and other groups are being dragged into political processes. Political actors are extremely keen to use it to gain additional electoral support by giving a wide range of promises that are usually not implemented later on.

Nevertheless, due to the Georgian Orthodox Church’s vast societal support manages to bargain more benefits from local government. Moreover, its representatives are aware of the existing reality and frequently use this as a quite effective trigger against ruling political elites. On the other hand, Georgian governments were always trying to “conclude” political alliance with the institution to strengthen legitimacy and attract more followers; creating an illusion of people’s power.

Thus, both, the ruling Georgian Dream and the political opposition, behave according to the established tradition. In the wake of the extremely important upcoming parliamentary elections set for October this year, the government is unwilling to fall into confrontation with the church while adversaries are trying to gain the hearts and minds of less privileged religious groups by voicing the concept of equality. Conventionally, even during the coronavirus pandemic faith is being deployed by all interested parties for political and other benefits.

By and large, the Georgian Dream is still struggling to handle the dilemma with the Georgian Orthodox Church in a sophisticated way to avoid allegations of breaking principles of secular state, on the one hand, and, to keep political support of the institution, on the other hand. The Easter holidays are coming and state officials have already expressed their willingness to observe it in accordance with the “social distancing” approach (being at home). This is an additional strong message to the priests that the law must be followed. Thus, the upcoming holidays will be yet another test for the Georgian Dream government and will, probably, finalize the struggle. At the same time, political opponents shall try hard to use this confrontation to unveil political incompetence of the establishment. All in all, parliamentary elections are coming and even the COVID-19 pandemic cannot stop it.

The article was originally published by Caucasus Watch.

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