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Weighing What We Do for Democracy in the South Caucasus

Charles Fairbanks

After twenty years of Western effort to help the South Caucasian countries in various ways, it is appropriate to take stock of what we are doing and whether we have done well. The particular issue I want to address first is whether Western efforts have adequately addressed the complexities of the local societies. Then I will talk about the adequacy of our efforts more broadly.

On the complexities, my short answer has to be “No.” I will try to illustrate this conclusion from a ugly episode of violence in downtown Tbilisi which preceded the Heinrich Boell Stiftung’s Twentieth Anniversary conference by a little more than two weeks. Because this essay may be read in other countries and in the future, it is necessary to supply some information about an event that engaged everyone at the time. A few sympathizers with the emphatically Western concept of Gay Rights decided to hold a demonstration downtown, on May 17, 2013, International Day against Homophobia. It attracted perhaps twenty or thirty people; it still requires much courage to appear for such a cause in public in Georgia. The Georgian Orthodox Church mobilized 5,000 to 10,000 protesters on the other side, led by priests in ecclesiastical dress, who brutally attacked the gay rights demonstrators, held two prisoner in a grocery, and smashed the windows of marshrutkas being used by the police to remove them from danger. Students involved in the demonstration described the Church-organized response as terrifying.

There had been controversy about the coming demonstration beforehand. Prime Minister Ivanishvili, attempting to deter any clash, had said at his May 14 Press Conference

I have saidmany times previously that sexual minorities are the same citizens as we are.the society will gradually get used to it.1

On May 16 the Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church, who enjoys by far the highest approval rating of any Georgian leader, replied with a statement that deserves close scrutiny.

Despite the traditions and way of thinking that is established in our country [sexual minorities] can live their private lives without restriction.The Church considers people with such inclinations to be in grave sin, which needs help and spiritual assistance instead of encouragement and especially imposing their condition on the population.Our citizens view [the planned demonstration] as a violation of the majority’s rights and as an insult to their traditions, religion and, in general, way of thinking.2

What moves the Patriarch in this statement? Revulsion against homosexuality, surely, but from what point of view? On the basis of “the traditions and way of thinking that is established in our country;” when religion and sin are mentioned later, they seem almost like an afterthought. When there are so many biblical texts and so much theology to use against homosexuality, the phrase “that is established in our country” seems oddly limp and helpless. The Patriarch’s statement suggests what a wider knowledge of contemporary Georgian orthodoxy confirms: the defense of Christianity in its Orthodox form is completely merged with the defense of Georgian “national values.” The “way of thinking that is established in our country” is, like every national worldview, a composite of many traditions and influences that have flowed together from many sources. In the Georgian case they include Islamic culture, Russian culture and the remnants of Soviet communist ways of thinking, some of which became so ingrained over seventy years that they are not easy to distinguish from the Georgian culture that was there before. The present Church confuses all these things with Christianity. 

The Patriarch’s statement is not only a warning against future social change, but a resentful outburst against social change that has already occurred. If you watch the Patriarchate’s TV Channel, what you will see is some church services and sermons, but more old Soviet movies, with the obligatory scenes of thieving or lecherous priests cut out, and very old peasants doing hard work in the mountains with their animals. Like the Orthodox church in Russia, religion has become partly the refuge of unhappy reactions against the loss of the Soviet past. The hard work in the mountains with animals has the character of much nostalgia: you can summon up the image of such a life with easy longing because it cannot really return. The Church has not yet found a vision of a future Georgia that is religious, but also prosperous and sophisticated, one that can flourish without dependence on Russia because it has some links with the West. Nor has it fashioned an appeal to those who enjoy a more diverse society.

Many foreign commentaries labeled the mob violence as “homophobia.“  But here is much tolerance of certain kinds in South Caucasian societies: politicians widely viewed as homosexuals, have been quite successful in Georgia. Whether such rumors are libelous or true, they show there is much quiet acceptance of deviant behavior in the society, as long as it is remains discreet. On snobbish Paliashvili St., on my way to the children’s playground, I pass a Chinese brothel. Politicians rumored to be drug addicts, too, have been fairly successful in politics, and some of them have been among the demonstrative defenders of “national values” and the Church. The acceptance of such figures comes from cynicism about politics, connected with overall low expectations of others and even of oneself. The resulting weary toleration extends to the Church itself. It benefits from the generosity of rumored criminals, and features on its television network Roin Metreveli, who resigned as Rector of Georgia’s foremost university to avoid prosecution for corruption, allegedly for selling admissions and grades to the amount of $800,000 a year.3 The Church is trying to install itself again in serene authority atop a seething chaos: a confused, disordered society in rapid change, full of mysteries, threats and false friends. Nietzsche already heard in nineteenth-century nationalism a histrionic quality, like someone shouting to convince himself. Is there no one in the West with ears delicate enough to detect it in contemporary Georgia?

But we in the West are not helping at all. Western human rights and democracy promotion organizations almost never give support to Church NGOs, invite the Church’s representatives to speak on their panels, or invite religious people from their own societies to come to Georgia. We behave similarly toward the Armenian Gregorian Church, and toward Islam in Azerbaijan and Central Asia. We emphatically reject the Patriarch’s statement that gay people are living in “grave sin,” although his statement emerges from a tradition at least 2700 years old that has produced an outstanding body of moral reflection. The question of society’s proper attitude toward homosexuality is one fiercely debated in the West itself, as recent struggles in the United States and France show. But in the former Soviet republics the face we show is not the West as it now is, but a future West that will be wholly what the secular, leftist West is now. A reaction against the West in the former Soviet space is inevitable, because history is dialectical. To shape it in any way we need to show to people the real diversity of the West and the range of alternatives it contains.


The Church and the new government      

The Patriarch’s statement on the gay rights demonstration ended, “The authorities should revoke the permission to homosexuals for holding the rally.”4 In fact, no permission is legally required. So the Patriarch’s statement made the government (national or city) responsible for the demonstration, deceitfully. He thus defined the counter-demonstration as one not only against (alleged) homosexuals, but against the government’s Westernizing policy of toleration. In addition to the impressive recruitment effort done by the Church for the counter-demonstration, the patriarch’s characterizing the gay rights demonstration as an “insult” was bound to be inflammatory.

The Patriarch’s statement was a challenge, perhaps deliberate, by the Church to the new government, intended to show that it is more powerful on cultural issues. The sequence of events suggests this interpretation. Ivanishvili gave a clear, adequately strong statement of his attitudes before the Patriarch made a statement. Whether the patriarch was fully aware of all issues involved in what he is endorsing or writing is another issue. As one can tell from television, he is a very sick man participating in church activities to the limit of his physical powers. It is certain that an intense struggle is underway for the succession to him, which everyone assumes will come soon. One of the leading contenders is Eparch Iobi, who is not only Ilia’s fellow-villager and pupil in the Church. Iobi is the most prominent bishop among the group within the Church that advocates a politically partisan course for the Church, fears the West as a threat to faith, and propagates amazingly superstitious teachings like the hellish origin and apocalyptic portent of government-issued ID cards. If this group shows that it can win triumphs by politicizing the Church, it might influence the succession struggle. On May 17, it triumphed.

What can be said about the appropriateness of the West’s reaction? It condemned the violence, without directly criticizing the Church, and then criticized the government for allowing such things to go on under its rule. The Dutch Foreign Minister, Frans Timmermans, summoned the Georgia Ambassador and announced:

“It is unacceptable.The Netherlands, together with the other EU countries, will continue to remind the Georgian authorities that the Georgian police are obliged to respect the rights of these individuals.”

This reaction is odd. The Georgian government is reproached for an action done by someone else: I argued above, against that very government. And the Church is not reproached. There is indeed a question about the behavior of the police and of the Interior Ministry leadership. As leading Western-supported human rights NGOs have said, it was ineffective and weak. Once trouble began, their whole effort was to hustle the gay rights demonstrators away, not to protect the right of peaceful assembly. The police never used truncheons or tear gas. They did make, as the videos show, an effort to contain the thugs with their bodies and with portable metal fences. They were overwhelmed. How can a portable section of fence contain a moving crowd of 5,000 toughs?

But what is most striking about the Western reaction to the Georgian government’s actions is the general absence of any mention of Ivanishvili’s tolerant statement before the demonstration, which clearly was intended to deter counter-demonstrations or limit their aggressiveness. Since the election in October the West has been in the mode of chiding the new, democratically elected Georgian government. That mode was unreflectively triggered again. Ivanishvili got no credit for bravely doing what we want against the overwhelming current of Georgian public opinion. Part of the problem is that he has not organized the Georgian government to make its own case abroad. But part of the problem lies with us, the West.

None of the Western response showed an awareness of the specific attitudes of the government toward police repression of demonstrations. The new government simply did not want to imitate the role of the police under President Saakashvili and Minister of Interior Merabishvili, who brutally dispersed and perhaps killed demonstrators on November 7, 2007 and May 26, 2011. This attitude of the government, explained on Channel 9 television by Eka Beselia and privately by other officials, responds to a widespread view in Georgian society that the police were too harsh under the National Movement. It was that feeling, arguably, that ousted the National Movement from power, so the new government is bound to take it seriously. Nowhere did the international reaction show any awareness of these shifting currents of public opinion in Georgia. It was too general. In fact, I will argue, it was a reflex reaction, like your leg’s reaction when the doctor hits it with his little rubber hammer.

Who were the winners and losers of the Church mob attacks on May 17, 2013? The Orthodox Church, or the “dark forces” within it, must feel they have won a huge victory. It is a stupid mistake. Among students, I have not met a single one, even the most pious, who was not outraged by what the Orthodox vigilantes did. On May 17 the Church did everything it could to lose the future elite of the country. As for the middle class that grew up in the Soviet Union, it does not like public display of homosexuality, but it dislikes disorder more. The Church is heading into a cul-de-sac like the Papacy worked itself into in the nineteenth century, when it tried to hold the line against liberalism, Parliamentary government, Italian nationalism, and, until 1835, the notion that the earth goes around the sun. It would not matter so much if the Church, confident in its inherited theological tradition, were supported by millions of reactionary and bigoted peasants still living in the Middle Ages. But in Georgia there actually are millions of new converts who hardly understand the Church’s teachings or submit to its ethical demands. The new clergy were hastily recruited at the expense of their screening and education. The traditional Georgian Church was deeply impaired by Communist persecution and penetration; it is trying to recover its own heritage from fragments while keeping at bay the flood of secular attitudes from the West. It is extremely vulnerable to Protestant evangelistic assaults like those that have caved in Catholicism in countries like Brazil, Puerto Rico, and much of Central America, to neo-Paganism as in North Ossetia and Lithuania, or most of all, to simple loss of faith like that in Poland and Ireland. By attempting to bloody a few gay sympathizers it increased its vulnerability. So the Orthodox Church is on a course dangerous for the country, but one that is also likely to be self-destructive. What is more in the interest of the West: to let it burn itself out, with great damage to Georgian democracy, or to try to work with the Church and help it adapt to the modern world?

I have used Western reactions to this particularly nasty resurgence of prejudice to explore the adequacy of Western approaches to the complexities of the South Caucasus. My conclusion is that even in one country, we are normally in touch only with a few sectors of society and favor certain groups without being aware how limited is our approach. We judge phenomena on the surface with reflecting on what their deeper meaning might be. Judging things in the Caucasus as though they were happening at home, we still fail to apply the knowledge of similar phenomena that we have from our own societies.


A striking example is the allergic Western reaction, following the October 2012 election, to the arrests of officials from the Saakashvili government by their newly elected successors. They were attacked as vengeful, and the whole list of cases brought does show a certain prominence of accusations for misconduct against the winners. Many high officials of the old government have been accused, very few from the new. But what happens among us at similar moments of high political tension? Look at the Spiegel-Affair in Germany (1962), Watergate in America (1972-74), or at the Dreyfus Affair in France (1898-1902). High officials have the power to act wrongly, and conceal it; their governments cover up questionable things they are doing. They come out only when a government is too weak to conceal them. Then, as in Georgia, they come out with a rush. During all those Western scandals there seemed to be a torrent of accusations and court cases against one side. We seem incapable of reflecting honestly on our own experience and applying that experience to the former Soviet republics.  

In particular, we need to apply our knowledge of Western history, which displays many of the same problems, the same mistakes and the same slow learning that we see in the South Caucasus. In that way, we lack reflective thinking. Nevertheless, the West has tried to be on the side of freedom and national independence. Sometimes our policy has been dishonest or cynical, but less so when it mattered most. In crises of succession or contested elections, when there was a real chance for fundamental transformation, we were more often worthy of our principles.    


Democracy vs. Liberalism

The more serious question raised by the West’s reaction to the May 17 violence is what we think of the trade-offs between democracy and other kinds of Westernizing reform. Last year, on the same day the Church made a smaller effort, probably because it was afraid of the government, then controlled by the UNM. Led by secular people, the UNM clearly detested the Church, or at least the “dark forces” within it, and the Church disliked the government in turn. But until the emergence of Ivanishvili, the Church’s resistance against political authority was very limited.

When the UNM controlled the government, it contained the hostility of the Church by subsidies, by under-the-counter gifts to favored clerics, and by the threatening release of compromising material in the government press, such as revelations about the homosexuality of priests and bishops.Now the atmosphere is freer and the Church can do what it wants. It wants to show the Ivanishvili government that it is backed by powerful social forces and is no longer afraid of government restrictions.

Some Western media located responsibility for the Church-sponsored violence in the new Georgian Dream government, which had released prisoners from jail, in a mass amnesty, who participated prominently in the violent mob.6  In contrast, as a result of the “[Saakashvili] government’s abuse of power, including a crackdown on the media and on public protests.by 2005 religious minorities in Georgia felt far safer.” The underlying assumption here is, as people like National Movement ideologist Tea Tutberidze have more openly said, that big parts of society will obey the law only out of fear, a fear that the new government is taking away. (The behavior of the Church on May 17 certainly encourages such views.) Some Westerners, like some Georgians, think that the great danger to a normal future is “ochlocracy,” the rule of the mob, that Georgian Dream is complicit with the mob, and that only some sort of authoritarian rule by a self-appointed elite can control it. The article I have been quoting from ends: “the government is running out of time to show that it can control the situation, and the country” The important thing is control, not freedom.

Freedom is, indeed, inherently messy. In a diverse society, it has to mean pluralism, the expression of many views that are held with passion and clash with one another in outright hostility. In a country like Georgia, freedom is bound to include ugly expressions of “hate speech,” and campaigns against unconventional people and minorities. Liberal democracy is not instantly accessible in Georgia. We in the West are thus forced to choose between democracy without a liberal society, and liberalism without democracy. The latter course was steered by Saakashvili’s government.

Since Georgia was opened again to democracy on October 1, 2013 the West has faced this painful dilemma once again. Many Americans and Western Europeans have shown all too clearly a lack of thorough attachment to freedom. We had made excuses for the increasingly repressive Saakashvili government for years.  We accepted a façade liberalism where Jehovah’s Witnesses and gays had real protection from society, but ordinary peasants or businessmen had no protection from government seizure of their property.7 When that government lost the election by a landslide, we learned how unpopular it had been. To its great credit, it gave up power. Instead of celebrating this new democratic opening and widening it, we have expended our energy on censuring the arrests of the very officials who designed an unaccountable and arbitrary system of rule by fear, such as Ministers of Interior Bacho Akhalaia and Vano Merabishvili.8 Ignoring the inevitable bitterness created by that system over nine years, we act as though “cohabitation” between the very imperfect new government and the old National Movement is a simple demand easy to fulfill. We demand adherence to rule of law as though it already existed, when there have been no independent courts for at least ninety-two years. Real anger is indeed behind the arrests of former of officials, but it is the anger of society let loose. Can we accept the messiness of freedom?

Liberalism will not in itself produce democracy. That is the lesson of the Saakashvili years in Georgia, and of many orderly authoritarian regimes of the left and the right. But democracy, if it continues, will eventually produce liberalism. Our foremost task in the West is to help people keep the freedom they won in October 2012, widen it, and extend it to the rest of the South Caucasus. Neither for them nor for us will it be easy.  



11 “Prime Minister Comments on Planned Gay Rights Rally,” Civil Georgia online magazine, civil.ge/eng/articles.php?id=26055. The translation has been modified.


2 “Georgian Church Calls for Gay Rights Rally Ban,” Civil Georgia online magazine, civil.ge/eng/articles.php?id=26062. Italics mine.


3 “Tbilisi University Rector Resigns,” Civil Georgia online magazine, October 1, 2004.


4 “Georgian Church Calls for Gay Rights Rally Ban,” Civil Georgia online magazine, civil.ge/eng/articles.php?id=26062.


5 “Dutch Foreign Minister ‘Shocked’ over Violence against LGBT Activists in Tbilisi,” Civil Georgia online magazine, civil.ge/eng/articles.php?id=26075.


6 Natalia Antelava, “What Was Behind Georgia’s Anti-Gay Rally,” newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2013/05/what-was-behind-georgias-anti-gay-rally.html, accessed 24 July 2013. Antelava is the BBC correspondent for Central Asia.


7 See especially Stripped Property Rights in Georgia, Third Report, Open Society Georgia Foundation, March 2012, and Paul Rimple, Who Owned Georgia 2003-2012, ([Tbilisi]:Transparency International Georgia, 2012)


8 For this system, see Charles H. Fairbanks, Jr., “Georgia’s Soviet Legacy,” Journal of Democracy, Winter 2010, and Mamuka Tsereteli, “A Historic Election in Georgia,” Center for Black Sea / Caspian Studies, American University, at www.american.edu/sis/blacksea-caspian.

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