Pro-Russian Forces and a Religious ‘Militia’ in Georgia

By Giorgi Kvelashvili

Last week a series of turbulent events took place in Tbilisi. A violent rally was held against the establishment of the Day of Georgian Police on May 6. Clamorous crowds gathered several times to protest against what they called “anti-Orthodox policy” of Ilia State University, a liberal school in downtown Tbilisi. And as a culmination, a radical group got embroiled in a fistfight during debates at the Kavkasia television station. Although the rally on the Police Day was organized by pro-Russian political groupings led by ex-prime minister Zurab Noghaideli, the stone-throwing incident against the police involved many of those who participated in both the violent demonstrations against the liberal university and in the brawl at the independent TV station.

The radical organization behind said incidents is the newly established People’s Orthodox Movement. Chaired by Malhaz Gulashvili, a Georgian media tycoon and businessman with close Moscow connections, the organization is associated with the Union of Orthodox Parents, itself in existence for several years. The declared goals of the People’s Orthodox Movement are “to cherish Georgia’s Orthodox Christian legacy” and turn the country into a constitutional monarchy. Gulashvili claims that his organization is “apolitical” and has no special relationship with the Georgian Church and Patriarch Ilia II, but nonetheless emphasizes the importance of developing close ties with Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church. Gulashvili is a frequent guest in Moscow and has even presented his book to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev during one of his latest visits to Russia.

The major targets of the radical organization’s violent rhetoric and actions are President Saakashvili’s government and all liberal political parties, academic and social institutions that have a pro-Western stance and advocate for Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration. High on Gulashvili’s agenda is the Liberty Institute, a leading pro-Western Georgian NGO chaired by Levan Ramishvili, that was one of the driving forces behind the Rose Revolution in November 2003 and whose former members are now top officials in the Saakashvili government.

On May 7, Gulashvili, addressing a gathering of his supporters in Tbilisi, demanded that the Liberty Institute be banned altogether and the rector of Ilia State University, Gigi Tevzadze, a liberal scholar, be removed from his post. “The Liberty Institute is a major threat to Georgia’s statehood and to the very future of our nation,” Gulashvili said, “Its activities are directed against the Georgian Orthodox Church.”

On May 6, Georgians traditionally celebrate a major Christian holiday, Saint George’s Day (Giorgoba) and Gulashvili’s followers joined other pro-Russian groupings, including Noghaidli and the ex-speaker of the Georgian Parliament, Nino Burjanadze, to protest the celebration of the Police Day that they claimed was a “blasphemy” against the Georgian Church.

While Georgia’s Minister of Internal Affairs Vano Merabishvili had earlier said that celebrating the Police Day with a parade on the same day as Saint George’s Day “had nothing to do with politics”, and was instead a move to further strengthen the morale and the already high approval rates of the Georgian police, pro-Russian opposition leaders first demanded that the parade be canceled and then mobilized several hundreds of their activists in protest. The rally turned violent after demonstrators started to throw stones at the security forces.

Dozens of activists of the People’s Orthodox Movement repeatedly attacked a group of liberal students and their supporters who were defending the right to free speech after the publication of an “unorthodox” book by a young author, Erekle Deisadze, had enraged the extremist religious groups. As Georgia’s libertarian weekly magazine Tabula said in its editorial, “Although Deisadze would not even come close to Salman Rushdie, and Malkhaz Gulashvili is no Ayatollah Khomeini… nevertheless there is some similarity…It is all about freedom of expression and [the religious fundamentalists’] determination to kill it” (Tabula magazine, May 10).

On May 8, religious vigilantes organized a fistfight during the political talk-show at the Kavkasia TV station when the host of the program was trying to engage the radical and liberal youth activists in a discussion. Police interfered and arrested several religious extremists.

The Georgian Church has yet to comment on the latest actions of the violent religious groups and although President Saakashvili’s press secretary condemned the extremists’ “attacks on the Kavkasia journalists,” many in Georgia think that police and other law enforcement agencies should more vigorously act in defense of the civil liberties that the religious fundamentalists are now trying to undermine.

Human rights activists have already called the People’s Orthodox Movement and its fraternal organizations “fascist” groups and Georgian media have started talking about a dangerous linkage between the pro-Russian forces and their religious “militia” that threaten both Georgia’s sovereignty and democracy.