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Coronavirus of Georgian politics

The government of the Georgian Dream has been fairly successful with its gradual approach to tackling the pandemic. At the same time it found itself pitted against one of the most trusted institutions in the country, the Georgian Orthodox Church.

May 12, 2020 - Archil Sikharulidze - Articles and Commentary

Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili greeting Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia during the inaugural ceremony of the Kutaisi International University. On the left is Archil Talakvadze, Speaker of the Parliament, and in the center is Ekaterine Khvedelidze, wife of Georgian Dream party Chairman Bidzina Ivanishvili. Photo: Giorgi Abdaladze, Official Photographer of the Administration of the President of Georgia - Communications Division of the Administration of the President of Georgia

In a move that was unexpected by both Georgia’s strategic partners and its own society, the Georgian Dream government has managed to successfully wage a war against COVID-19. The state’s gradualist tactics, involving timely and appropriate political reactions, has allowed for a controllable proliferation of the disease and limited deaths thus far. So far, Georgia has been deemed a “state to follow” in the global fight against the coronavirus.

Despite this pandemic and accompanying challenges, political processes are still very relevant within the country. Both the government and its political opponents are using all possible tools to gain more electoral votes in the upcoming October parliamentary elections. Initial statements by the United Opposition that announced a “moratorium on criticism” did not hold out long. These political groups have involved affiliated media outlets and platforms which, depending on their ideological attachment, present reality in absolutely diverse ways.

Most recently, the Georgian Dream government found itself pitted against one of the most trusted state institutions, the Georgian Orthodox Church, which refused to follow strict regulations regarding the Easter holiday.

Gradualism against COVID-19

Georgia is probably one of the best examples of a gradualist approach to the COVID-19 pandemic. In a move opposite to most European and non-Western states, where populations were suddenly locked up, the government of Georgian Dream quickly reacted to the threat and started slowly setting new regulations and restrictions after the first case was discovered on February 26th. This model gave both the state and local society enough time to get used the idea that a new reality was coming and everyone should adjust. Furthermore, citizens were reassured that the country has high-level professionals in the medical sector who, in collaboration with the ruling party, managed to lead the nation while becoming symbols of hope in the fight against the virus. The state is currently in total lockdown, but due to the appropriate crisis management approach, civilians remain relatively calm and secure.

On the other hand, the Georgian Dream government threatens its own political success with an unclear economic policy. This has becoming increasingly problematic since the state of emergency was extended until May 22. It is clear that representatives of the health service are devoted to saving lives and preventing the further spread of COVID-19, but the government must also keep in mind the political, economic and social dimensions of the crisis. However, they have not yet managed to persuade Georgian society that there is a clear policy to deal with the increased rates of unemployment and poverty. Consequently, there has already been an anti-lockdown rally in the city of Marneuli where locals are in need of serious financial and social assistance.

Coronavirus, politics and media

Elections are coming and the earlier expectations that the coronavirus pandemic would overshadow it failed. No real consolidation of the political powers has been achieved. The United Opposition has realised that while it is on the “political bench,” the Georgian Dream is scoring additional votes through its crisis policies. So far, despite the announced “moratorium on criticism,” the opposition has already started waging a full-scaled rhetorical war, trying to undermine achievements of the government. They have pushed forward a negative narrative of the crisis that focuses on unemployment, poverty, and sporadic cases of police abuse. Finally, the opposition refused to support an extension of the state of emergency, arguing that the Georgian Dream had not presented an action plan that validated the necessity of keeping the state under lockdown.

At the same time, the government of Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia is aware that the pandemic has given the ruling team a unique opportunity. On the one hand, they avoided strong political protests that were expected to begin in early April regarding the liberation of alleged political prisoners, free and fair elections. On the other hand, the existing quarantine has locked down both regular citizens and members of the political opposition, who are currently at home and not able to fully participate in political life. Finally, the pandemic itself has become a chance to pursue the best possible pre-election campaign without actually announcing this campaign. The way the ruling party manages this crisis will have a profound impact on the upcoming parliamentary elections. The ball is in the government’s court and the Georgian Dream has successfully controlled it thus far .

The war between political powers is even more apparent in the Georgian media where all involved parties try hard to discredit each other. Imedi, the pro-governmental news channel, pushes a narrative that the state is doing well, while turning a blind eye to the existing challenges. The oppositional channels, like Mtavari and TV Pirveli, often do not inform their audiences about successful crisis management, arguing that the state has returned to the “dark” 1990s with people starving and dying on the streets. This unfortunate polarity has once again raised concerns about the politicised nature of local media.

The calls: Church versus Gakharia

In accordance with a long-lasting tradition, the Georgian Orthodox Church has managed to prove that it is still the most influential institution in Georgia. The church has not only disobeyed restrictions set by the government, but they have actually avoided adhering to the majority of them, including the prohibition of mass gatherings, driving cars, curfew and even basic safety standards.

From the beginning a lion’s share of Georgian Orthodox priests resisted the restrictions, arguing that faith is above any law and spirituality will defend the flock from this misfortune. Moreover, they stated that an attempt to close churches is a direct path toward repeating a totalitarian, forceful policy preached by the communist regime. Thus, these religious leaders called on the followers to continue attending spiritual rituals despite the pandemic and existing strict regulations. The narrative was significantly softened after direct negotiations with the state officials and public negative outcry. And still, Georgian Orthodox Church managed to held Easter rituals with significant violations of the law while representatives of other religious denominations where diplomatically “asked” (actually, prohibited) not to do so; this is especially actual for the state’s Muslim community that is still unable to pray at mosques despite the Ramadan.

The government, which is unwilling to engage in a direct confrontation, especially in light of the upcoming parliamentary elections, has turned a blind eye to these transgressions. The political opposition and a significant part of local civil society members have criticised the government for its selective justice. They call it a grave breach of secularity principles, and thus, the constitution itself. At the same time, representatives of other religious denominations have raised reasonable concerns about double-standards, inequality and discrimination.

These attitudes were strengthened by Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia’s pre-Easter speech, when he called on citizens to avoid attending religious rituals, arguing that the violation of the curfew would not only hit the church as an institution but also push the state towards a larger coronavirus outbreak. Some critics, highlight signs of unwillingness by the government to lead the state and defend the law, while “rebellious” priests saw it as an attempt to blame possible negative outcomes on the church. But these critics have overlooked the similarities between Gakharia’s speech and what John F. Kennedy once said: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” The church is superior to the government, not because the Georgian Dream decided so, but, foremostly, because Georgian society gave it more legitimacy. It is up to the Georgian citizens to respect the role of the government and finally recognise it as a supreme institution.

Archil Sikharulidze is a PhD candidate in Social Sciences at the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs and the founder of SIKHA Foundation Initiative.


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