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The Geopolitics Of Religious Extremism

The invasion of TV Kavkazia's studio during a discussion program by the People's Orthodox Union seems to have turned against them.
The invasion of TV Kavkazia's studio during a discussion program by the People's Orthodox Union seems to have turned against them.
With less than two weeks to go before the municipal elections on May 30, religious extremism has become the main topic of discussion in Georgia.

There is a certain logic to this. No one bothers to ask who will win the elections, as it is clear that President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement has no serious challengers and its victory will reflect the true mood of society. The interesting question is whether there will any election-related disturbances, either serious or on a minor scale.

After all, some radical political figures (mostly from the camp that travels to Moscow with increasing regularity, and who have aligned in the so-called National Council) have pledged to "perpetrate a [new] Bishkek," meaning a repeat of the mass protests that culminated in the ouster last month of Kyrgyzstan's President Kurmanbek Bakiev.

How will they set about doing so? Trying to convince a critical mass of the electorate that the vote will be rigged is too difficult. Goading the authorities into doing something stupid is theoretically possible, but the authorities too have learned from their past mistakes. It was small-scale stupid, for example, to declare May 6, the feast of St. George, who is venerated in Georgia, the Day of the Police, and hold a grandiose parade.

The radicals tried to mobilize their supporters in protest, but although they managed to provoke minor clashes and stone throwing, people didn't come out on to the street en masse. One of the radical leaders, Goga Khaindrava, pronounced loudly that "the residents of Tbilisi have crapped in their pants," and he called on the protesters to disperse.

Turning To The Church

The chances of mobilizing peoples' emotions are greater when politics overlaps with religion. In many countries the fast pace of modernization, combined with the inroads made by Western culture, has triggered a backlash in the form of the desire to preserve traditions, especially religious ones. Politicians everywhere seek to tap into this desire, there is nothing specifically Georgian about it. The Saakashvili regime feels vulnerable in this respect and is making every effort to demonstrate its loyalty to the church, which it subsidizes generously.

In addition, the authorities turn a blind eye to the extremist actions of groups with ties to the church, such as the Union of Orthodox Parents, which has twice gotten away with brutal reprisals against young people who wanted to celebrate Halloween, which the group considers a satanic ritual.

As a result, religious extremism has steadily grown in strength over the past two years. The liberals criticize the government for allowing this to happen, but the government has calculated coolly that the liberals have no place to go, while it's dangerous to mess with the church.

The journalist and political entrepreneur Malkhaz Gulashvili -- the same person who met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev shortly after the August 2008 war -- decided to capitalize on this trend. Two months ago he founded the People's Orthodox Union, whose members include several cultural figures (a milieu that is particularly hostile to Saakashvili). But the majority of its members, and the main driving force, are young people.

The pretext for the union's first major action was the scandalous book by a previously unknown young writer, Erekle Deisadze, titled "The Last Sucker" (Saidumlo siroba) a clear play on the Georgian "Saidumlo seroba" (The Last Supper).

The book launch took place at Tbilisi's Ilia University, which has the reputation of a hotbed of pro-Western, pro-government liberals. First, Gulashvili's union staged a protest outside the main university building to call for the rector's resignation. They also demanded that an Orthodox church be built on the campus.

Tactical Error

That protest went virtually unnoticed -- after all, people stage protests all the time. But events turned dramatic the following day, May 6, when a small group of students and faculty members turned out with banners defending free speech. Gulashvili's militants showed up and attacked the "liberasts" (Gulashvili's term for his opponents), while police simply looked on, but did not intervene.

On May 7, the TV station Kavkasia invited the two sides to participate in a live televised discussion. The Gulashvili camp committed a major tactical error, forcing their way into the studio and beating up journalists, including Kavkasia's main anchor, David Akubardia. Convinced of their impunity, they confronted not just the authorities but also the opposition, of which Kavkasia, and Akubardia's program in particular, are the mouthpiece.

Eight militants were arrested, one of whom was subsequently released. The other seven are awaiting trial. Not a single more or less serious politician has interceded for them. As for Gulashvili, first he released a statement saying his son had been threatened with rape, then he fled to Tskhinvali, even though he had not been threatened with arrest.

In this particular instance, right-wing extremism suffered a defeat. But the problem has not gone away.

Another East-West Face-Off?

What is the balance of forces in Georgian society between the liberal modernizers and the anti-Western conservatives who seek to defend Orthodox values? Do the religious extremists stand any real chance of provoking serious unrest? How far will the authorities go in their concessions to the church and the religious lobby? How, for example, will they react to the Patriarchate's demand for legislative amendments that would protect believers from anything that offends their beliefs? Such amendments would preclude the publication of any more books like Deisadze's.

All established democracies have had to contend with such problems, and the process has never been easy. But in Georgia's case the problem has an additional, geopolitical dimension. Anti-Western sentiment in Georgia is virtually synonymous with pro-Russian sympathy, and many people in Georgia see the radicalization of Orthodox groups as part of a broader drive to create a pro-Russian political movement.

The Russian commentator Maksim Shevchenko, who is notorious for his imperialist mind-set, demonstratively sided with Gulashvili. He argued that "this is not just Georgia's affair," and called on Orthodox Christians in Russia and Ukraine, and even Muslims "for whom the Virgin Mary and Jesus have a meaning, to study this issue carefully and express their opinion."

We already know how Gulashvili's cohorts "express their opinion." This smacks of an Orthodox-Muslim jihad directed at anyone who supports the West and its "puppet," Saakashvili.

Ghia Nodia is professor of politics at Ilia State University. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL