Fugitive billionaire Badri Patarkatsishvili, who bankrolled the opposition groups’ regime-change campaign and helped incite it through his Imedi Television, is launching a new political project in Georgia from abroad. Patarkatsishvili plans to enter Georgia’s upcoming parliamentary elections campaign through this project.
In mid-January, some former beneficiaries of Patarkatsishvili’s philanthropic and political largesse announced their intention to create a United Democratic Georgia Party, with former world chess champion Nona Gaprindashvili as figurehead leader of this party. Picking the national chess hero Gaprindashvili for this role looks like a post-Soviet political technologist’s attempt to replicate Garry Kasparov’s actual role as leader of the Other Russia democratic movement. The planned United Democratic Georgia Party proposes to appeal to Georgian voters’ Orthodox religious identity.
On February 7, Imedi TV’s former political director, Giorgi Targamadze, with a group of former Imedi staffers announced their intention to launch a party explicitly based on the Orthodox religious identity. Patarkatsishvili and his electoral campaign chief, Valery Gelbakhiani, had briefly mentioned this Targamadze project in their video- and audio-recorded conversations in late December, where their main topic was how to arrange a coup d’etat after the January presidential election. The intention to launch this party was supposed to remain secret at that time in order to protect Targamadze’s image as manager of an ostensibly “independent” television channel. However, this intention, along with the coup planning, became public when the Georgian authorities broadcast the recordings.
At the inaugural news conference, Targamadze announced that the movement would campaign for “granting Orthodoxy official status” and initiate amendments to the Constitution to that end: “This is the cornerstone of our uncompromising struggle.” The movement’s founders accuse the Georgian government of “aiming to oust Orthodoxy from its [nearly] two-thousand year old historical homeland and to destroy all traditional institutions.” The nascent movement would help “protect the national identity, preserve the nation’s ethnic and cultural uniqueness.” It would “guarantee that, irrespective of who comes to power, no one would be able to touch our Mother Church.”
The movement, once registered, would focus its campaign on collecting signatures “throughout Georgia, in villages and towns” for granting the Orthodox Church the status of a state church; or Orthodoxy the status of official religion (these two terms are being used interchangeably in some of the statements). This goal goes hand in hand with the group’s argument that “the regime, by its very essence, contradicts the vital interests of the Georgian nation.”
At the same time the group disclaims any “nationalistic arrogance or religious intolerance” and would accept members who do not identify themselves with the Orthodox faith, yet share this group’s other views. On February 9, in Targamadze’s presence, the group launched a “Young Christian-Democrat Movement” to “protect Christianity” against a “government that opposed Christian morality.”
Neither those religious professions nor the assurances of openness need to be taken at face value. Patarkatsishvili (who happens to be Jewish) and his Imedi TV recently discovered the instrumental value of Christian Orthodoxy in Georgian politics and exploited it to the hilt. Portraying the Georgian government as adverse to religious values, and thus inherently opposed to national interests and identity, was one of Imedi’s leit-motifs during 2007. Launching the regime-change campaign in October, Patarkatsishvili and the nine-party opposition alliance called for replacing the presidential institution with a monarchy, entrusting to the Patriarch the choice of a young king [in the absence of candidates], and appointing the Patriarch as regent during the “king’s” minority.
That tactic sought to enlist support from the Church hierarchy or at least elements in the Church and to capitalize on popular religious devotion in Georgia. Launching new political groups that advertise a religious profile is a continuation of the tactics initiated last autumn, now adjusted to the needs of the parliamentary election campaign. In the process, these groups are blurring distinctions between Church and State.
Apart from political instrumentalization, however, the appeal to religion in this form does reflect a genuine resistance to modernization and Europeanization as personified since 2003 by Georgia’s governing authorities. It can also serve as a device for emphasizing cultural and implicitly political commonalities with Russia, as distinct from the West. Movement leader Targamadze’s background and modus operandi, like Patarkatsishvili’s, are linked to Russia and its orbit.
Targamadze headed the parliamentary group of Aslan Abashidze’s party, Revival, in the Georgian parliament until 2003. He also worked for Abashidze’s television channel. Abashidze, the pro-Moscow local leader in Ajaria, fled to Russia in 2004. Shortly before that, Targamadze moved to the post of political director for Patarkatsishvili’s Imedi TV, serving there until December 2007. Gelbakhiani was also a leading member of Abashidze’s parliamentary faction before switching to Patarkatsishvili’s faction of ten deputies in the Georgian parliament.
The newly launched movement has yet to decide whether it would run in the parliamentary elections on its own or in alliance with other opposition parties. Thus far, the other opposition parties are keeping their distance from Patarkatsishvili and his political projects.
(Civil Georgia, Messenger, Kavkas-Press, Rustavi-2 Television, February 7-10)