Restoring the monarchy in Georgia has become a declared goal of the United Opposition, an umbrella of numerous small parties. Their leaders have quickly moved from the slogan “Georgia Without a President”—meaning without President Mikheil Saakashvili—to the idea of monarchical restoration.
This idea would remain confined to the academic realm, were it not for the opposition’s rallies and demonstrations now pressing for constitutional change and regime change. The Georgian Orthodox Church’s hierarchy supports monarchism for reasons stemming both from the Middle Ages and mundane political interests. However, would-be Georgian monarchists face a problem reminiscent of inter-war Hungary, that “kingdom without a king, ruled by an admiral without a fleet.”
The Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II, head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, apparently sees a political opportunity in the rising monarchist current among anti-government parties. Although the church hierarchy is traditionally close to state authorities, Ilia is apparently making common cause with the political opposition on this issue.
In a Sunday sermon on October 7, since circulated in the country, Ilia encourages the “Georgian people’s worthy dream to restore the constitutional monarchy, with God’s help. . . . A candidate should be selected from among representatives of the royal dynasty and be raised to be king from childhood . . . in the spirit of the national ideology.” While suggesting in general terms the enthronization of one of the Bagrationi dynasties’ descendants, Ilia asserts that selecting the monarch is a prerogative of the Church, through the Patriarch and the Holy Synod.
The Patriarch’s formulations are characteristically shrewd; on two counts in this case. First, he claims the kingmaker’s role for the Church, thus upstaging the opposition parties at one stroke. And second, he would delay the hypothetical enthronization until the designated heir is suitably raised, thereby making it possible for the incumbent president Saakashvili to run for re-election in 2008 and serve out his second term if re-elected (as seems likely, given his high popularity rating).
In substance, however, Ilia’s position is past-oriented, with theocratic connotations that are ultimately incompatible with Georgia’s European aspirations. His reference to “national ideology” reflects the Church hierarchy’s hope to obtain a special role in the state, including in this case the selection and tutelage of a monarch, who would then be expected to privilege the Church in accordance with historical traditions.
Although the small opposition parties had initiated the monarchist current, the Patriarch’s position has energized that current to an extent that the parties could not by themselves have achieved. The United Opposition almost in its entirety—including even the left-populist Laborists—has hailed Ilia’s stance on restoring the monarchy. A more nuanced view is that of New Right, a party allied with the Industrialists in a small parliamentary group that is not technically part of the United Opposition, although it cooperates with it. New Right calls for a referendum on the form of state, to be held simultaneously with the presidential and parliamentary elections that are due in 2008. New Right is a modern conservative party that stands for orderly change through constitutional processes, as against spontaneous popular movements (it opposed the 2003 Rose Revolution for those reasons).
Some in the opposition profess the hope that restoring the monarchy could help resolve the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia on the basis of historic rights. Given that those two areas used to be parts of Georgian mediaeval kingdoms, some monarchists claim that reunification with Abkhazia and South Ossetia in a common Georgian state could happen under a monarchy. This is one of several instances of monarchist myth making.
A further myth is that of a princely heir to the throne, presumably from one of the Bagrationi branches. Georgian historians reckon that tens of thousands of persons currently living in Georgia can trace their descent from various Bagrationi princely lineages (including descendants through female lines carrying other surnames). Some direct descendants currently live in Russia, Spain, Italy, and elsewhere.
The Bagrationi ruled various parts of Georgia from at least the ninth century until the early 19th. Russia dethroned the last king of Kartli-Kakheti (eastern Georgia) in 1801, the last king of Imereti (western Georgia) in 1810, and the last Catholicos-Patriarch of the Georgian Church (also a Bagrationi) in 1811. In the modern age, Georgia regained its national independence and unity in 1918–21 as a parliamentary republic, which fell to Soviet conquest. Following the recovery of sovereignty in the 1990s, monarchical restoration was an issue on the fringes of politics and without actual candidates to a throne, let alone popular support for monarchy. As Gia Nodia points out, weak and fractious opposition groups raised that issue hoping to neutralize then-president Zviad Gamsakhurdia in the early 1990s and are using a similar tactic at present against Saakashvili, albeit in an entirely new context (Resonansi, October 20).
The quip, “My grandmother was a Bagrationi,” alludes to the multiplicity of descendants real or alleged. Saakashvili has used this quip to make light of the idea of dynastic restoration while asking the opposition “not to add new problems to the already existing ones” (Georgia Today, October 25).
The United Opposition has discovered the issue of monarchic restoration suddenly, instrumentalizing it for a number of reasons. It provides a link between these small opposition parties and the Church. It can help suspend at least temporarily the rivalries among some opposition leaders for primacy in that alliance. It proposes to minimize the relevance of the 2008 presidential and parliamentary elections by changing the form of state. Ultimately, it attempts to offer a past-oriented myth, instead of viable choice of responsible political candidates in a rapidly modernizing republic.
(Rustavi-2 TV, Imedi TV, Civil Georgia, The Messenger, October 8–26)