map of Georgia
A new political party that advocates a stronger role for the Georgian Orthodox Church is making waves on Georgia’s political landscape on the eve of the country’s May 21 parliamentary vote.
Founded by former Imedi TV news chief Giorgi Targamadze and a handful of fellow ex-Imedi journalists, the Christian Democratic Movement emerged in February amidst high tensions between the opposition and President Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration over the outcome of the January presidential elections. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive].
While other opposition parties headed to the street to protest the election results and subsequent failed negotiations with the government, Targamadze and his supporters took up a different theme: the need to declare the Georgian Orthodox Church as Georgia’s official religion.
Targamadze contends that since the Church traditionally has played an important role defending Georgia’s national interests, it is "very important" that now, amidst the country’s various crises, the constitution should "strengthen" the Church’s role.
"People feel themselves more defended when the Georgian state was strong and the Orthodox Church had a strong position. This is a Georgian tradition," he said in an interview with EurasiaNet.
Expanding the Church’s educational and social welfare activities is an "important" step in that direction, he said.
"We want to raise ... the status of the Orthodox Church to strengthen the church’s role in the development of social [programs] and the development of education programs," Targamadze said. "[W]e think that to keep our national identity, the strength of the Georgian Orthodox Church is very important for the country."
To do that, the party is proposing a constitutional amendment that would "declare complete freedom of belief and religion in Georgia." The second clause of the amendment, according to an English-language translation of the document, clarifies that "Georgia’s official religion is Orthodox Christianity as a traditionally recognized religion of [the] Georgian people." The draft also calls for the state to "protect the Apostle Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Georgia and [provide] support to strengthen its role in society."
While Targamadze stresses that the Christian Democratic Movement is not a religious movement, its support for the Georgian Orthodox Church has become a political lightening rod.
The Georgian Orthodox Church enjoys wide support in Georgia, and is seen as part of Georgians’ national identity, noted Tbilisi State University sociologist Iago Kachachkishvili. Yet while many Georgians do not actively practice their faith, polls indicate that being a member of the Church is almost viewed as an "obligation" for Georgians, he added.
"People want to be attached to it," Kachachkishvili elaborated. "Not only religious values but [for] national values [as well]."
With that trend, references to the Church and Patriarch Ilia II’s opinion on current affairs have become part and parcel of political discourse, a de facto proof of patriotism.
Some observers believe that by tapping into this development, the Christian Democratic Movement – staffed with some of Georgian television’s best-known personalities – has secured support usually beyond the reach of a debutant political party.
An April 14-20 opinion poll conducted by US pollsters Greenberg Quinlan Rosner found that the Christian-Democratic Movement has the support of an estimated 11 percent of registered voters – a finding that would put them well over the five percent requirement to hold seats in parliament. The poll, commissioned by the ruling United National Movement for a Victorious Georgia, surveyed 1,200 respondents nationwide and has a margin of error of +/- 2.8 percent.
If the numbers are correct – and party leader Targamadze believes they are – the group could outperform well-known opposition parties like the Labor Party (7 percent) and the Republican Party (4 percent). Other opposition parties have disputed the findings, however.
But much as it attracts many, the Christian Democratic Movement’s zealous push on behalf of the Church has also alarmed some Georgians, who allege that the party espouses nationalistic or even neo-Nazi beliefs.
Last week, parliamentarian Levan Berdzenishvili, a member of the Republican Party, a moderate opposition party, lambasted Targamadze’s Christian Democratic Movement for allegedly not supporting Georgia’s entry into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In an interview published by the weekly Kviris Palitra, Berdzenishvili claimed that the party’s cross-emblazoned banner was a modification of "Hitler’s flag."
In an interview with EurasiaNet, though, Targamadze refuted both allegations. The party, he said, has stated "several times" that Georgia does not have "another alternative" to NATO membership.
He also shrugged off comparisons with the Nazi party as "amusing."
"The Christian Democratic political philosophy is absolutely a Western style of political philosophy and where Christian Democrats are the ruling political parties, the rights of religious minorities are very well defended," Targamadze said. The Christian Democratic Movement, he added, includes supporters from minority ethnic groups including the traditionally Muslim communities in Kvemo Kartli, a Georgian region with strong ties to Azerbaijan.
Some critics, though, have questioned the reasoning behind the party’s quest for an official religion. The Georgian Orthodox Church was already granted a "special status" in the Georgian Constitution, based on a concordat signed by the government and the Church in 2002.
"I don’t know exactly what they mean under the title of official religion," commented sociologist Kachachkishvili. "It [Georgian Orthodox Church] is defended in the constitution with a special status."
As have other observers, Kachachkishvili contends that Georgian political parties have turned to religion to capitalize on the popularity of the Church, which ranks in opinion polls as among the most trusted Georgian institutions.
"This is not only the disease of this political party, but a sickness of all political parties in Georgia," he said, referring to political parties’ championship of the Church. "They try to use the name and reputation of the Georgian Orthodox Church on behalf of their political image. All political parties just want to show that they are close to the Georgian Church."
Representatives of the Georgian Orthodox Church could not be reached for comment.
Political scientist Malkhaz Matsaberidze, however, contends that the party’s desire to have the Georgian Orthodox faith declared an official religion will likely fade once the election is over. Without holding a majority in parliament, the party will face difficulties pushing through their proposed constitutional amendment, he argued.
"They [the Christian Democratic Movement] were searching for a bright slogan for people to remember them," he said.
Skeptics have pointed to other aspects of the Christian Democratic Movement’s make-up as memorable. Until March 2003, Targamadze was a member of Achara regional strongman Aslan Abashidze’s Revival bloc in the Georgian parliament, and once served as Abashidze’s spokesperson.
Abashidze fled the autonomous republic of Achara in May 2004 when mass rallies led to his government’s collapse. He currently lives in exile in Russia. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"It seems like Georgian society has quite a short memory," Kachachkishvili said. "They forget his political background…He stayed with Aslan Abashidze for years…Abashidze was a typical dictator of a small region."
Targamadze, however, sees his time with the Revival bloc as proof of his opposition roots.
"It was the only one serious alternative for Shevardnadze’s regime," he argued. "I think this is a good impact for me because our political union was the most important cause why Shevardnadze was [overthrown]." [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive].
While Saakashvili supporters may contest that appraisal, for Targamadze, the focus should be on the future, not the past.
"We are doing a huge job to organize our political structure, to meet each family, person in Georgia," he said of the Christian Democratic Movement.