The recent exchange of words that took place between former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and the Georgian Orthodox Church contributed to a review of several deep-rooted perceptions of Georgian society, and, at the same time, helped strengthen such perceptions. On 4 February, during a news conference that Bidzina Ivanishvili called to inaugurate his non-governmental organization, “Citizen,” the former prime minister talked about the need for public criticism of the Church. “Society should overcome that barrier that the issue of the Church is taboo and that anything said either by the Patriarch or any other cleric is faultless and unarguable; such an approach, I think, is excessive fetishism and things should not be like this,” he said. “It [the Church] can also be criticized; they can also make mistakes; bad things may also happen there; violations and misunderstandings might be taking place there too – I know it very well and you know it too. Do not be afraid to speak about it. If you want it [the Church] to be better, we should speak about it; they also need criticism,” Ivanishvili added. The response of the Church, which has since circulated among society, indicates that it is trying to restore its previous condition of zero criticism, and, I think, it is even succeeding in that aim.
Judging by the reaction of the Church, Ivanishvili’s articulation of such liberal ideas obviously came as a surprise. For a short while after his remarks, no response was heard. Although the topic was widely discussed, none of the clergy commented on it. Then, after a couple of days, the first reaction that came, which was perceived as the official position of the Church, was concise and dispelled all signs of confusion: “building a church does not mean being a son of the Church.” This was made in clear reference to Ivanishvili’s financing the construction of the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Tbilisi. This critical response appeared to be so accurate that it left the impression of a formula devised long ago that the Church had been saving, just waiting for the right moment to attack its victim.
In this case, however, the victim is not simple. This is Bidzina Ivanishvili, a man who has derived benefit and profit from every step he has taken, like a fairytale hero who squeezed water out of stone. Ivanishvili is a sort of social “mutant” who does not belong to any specific species or type, but instead possesses some qualities of all of them: he is alleged to have been involved in financial scams and crime, and yet, at the same time, is a caring father and husband – in short, a family man; he is a businessman-oligarch who has amassed huge capital, and yet, at the same time, is a politician concerned about poverty and human right abuses; he speaks about the need to develop civil society, and yet, at the same time, hails the xenophobic Georgian tabloid Asaval-Dasavali; he claims to be a perfect manager, and yet, at the time, views nepotism as an inseparable Georgian tradition.
On top of all that, Bidzina Ivanishvili has previously given a precious gift to the Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia and speaks with him in a free-and-easy tone, and yet, at the same time, declares in a press conference that there are problems in the Church and that it needs to be criticized. The politician’s courtship of the Church was something that was heavily commented on ever since the pre-election period of October 2012, when to a journalist’s question as to whether Ivanishvili carried a cross, he publicly displayed the one he was wearing around his neck. The interpretation of such actions, which no one would argue with, is that such demonstrations of allegiance to religion by politicians is indicative not of their spiritual qualities, but rather of their political needs. Ivanishvili the politician and the Georgian Dream coalition excessively used religious symbols to increase their ratings. But what should we think when we see Ivanishvili criticizing the Church instead of hailing it? What needs of his are we dealing with this time around?
You may criticize me for applying this logic to Ivanishvili by saying that he is no longer in politics. However, given the social and political peculiarities of Georgia, it becomes virtually impossible for Ivanishvili not to be in politics – and not just staying in politics, but being a representative of the government – so long as the team that Ivanishvili set up and assumed responsibility for remains in power. His success decisively determines the success of the Georgian Dream. At the press conference dedicated to the creation of his “Citizen” NGO, Ivanishvili could be observed criticizing journalists (telling some of them that they were lying, despite being professionals), criticizing society (because of its “excessive emotionalism” and “impatience”), criticizing the political opposition (because of their lack of professionalism), and criticizing the Church. The only institution he did not utter even a word of criticism against was the government.
Open and harsh criticism was something that Ivanishvili frequently applied in his capacity as prime minister as a means of demonstrating his authority. On 26 September 2013, he held a public meeting with various experts, during which he read out comments they had published and demanded explanations from them. The parliamentary opposition evaluated that meeting as “score settling.” Two weeks later, he vented his wrath onto journalists during a similar public meeting held with the heads of the information services of national broadcasters and the presenters of political programs. Ivanishvili criticized each and every attendee's mode of activity, vernacular, the way they placed emphasis on certain issues, and their journalistic ethics in general. Having dealt with the experts and journalists, Ivanishvili is now trying to conquer the most respected institution in Georgia, the Orthodox Church.
The authority of Ivanishvili lies in his being a “mutant;” this offers him some sort of charisma. It often seems impossible to figure out which part of his multi-faceted experience he is drawing upon when taking a decision, but in his exchange of words with the Church, one can read his corporate interests.
It is obvious that Ivanishvili views the Church as his rival. Any type of authority in Georgia is inherently also a form of political authority. The best examples of this are the Georgian Dream and Bidzina Ivanishvili himself. Ivanishvili turned from being a successful businessman into a respected politician without any problem, just like Kakha Kaladze easily turned from being a successful footballer into the vice-premier and energy minister. As regards the Church, the flexibility of its authority was proven in the period of the former government’s rule.
Having gained strength thanks to the tax breaks and direct financing it obtained during the nine years of the United National Movement’s rule, the Orthodox Church eventually turned into a harbor of anti-government sentiment. As early as in the run up to the 2008 presidential elections, the united opposition of that time used an anti-Saakashvili political advertisement containing footage showing a special forces’ vehicle breaking down the door of a church. Before that, during the break up of the opposition rally of November 2007, the pro-opposition Imedi TV alleged that a “special forces regiment of the United National Movement” attacked demonstrators sheltering in Kashueti Church. The United National Movement was also blamed for preventing the prophecy around Anchiskhati Church from being fulfilled. In the period before the October 2012 parliamentary elections, the clergy was already openly engaged in the game, sporting banners of the Georgian Dream on their jeeps and demanding from people that they “condemn Misha.”
The initial period of the Georgian Dream’s accession to power was marked by peaceful coexistence with the Church. Then the events of 17 May happened. When throngs of people led by the clergy assaulted the defenders of LGBT rights it became clear that the most powerful organization in terms of mobilizing masses in protest is the Orthodox Church. Not taking heed of this fact may lead to a political defeat similar to that suffered by the United National Movement – something which can be best expressed by the saying that the “castle is undermined from within” (among the underminers, I mean not only the Church, but also Ivanishvili himself). Consequently, before the castle starts being pulled apart from within, any unreliable elements must be removed from it. Attempts to do just this can be seen in a draft law being initiated that envisages the financing of some other religious organizations from the state budget and in Ivanishvili encouraging criticism of the Church.
However, the Georgian Orthodox Church, which views itself as the axis of Georgian national identity, will not yield its central position in the castle so easily. Indeed, its first response, “building a church does not mean being a son of the Church,” turns Ivanishvili’s authority into a subject of dispute. The emphasis here is placed on Ivanishvili being a “mutant” whose charisma has degraded into sin. If we adopt the logic of this formula to his other actions, it will turn out that:
Winning elections does not mean being a politician.
Calling a press conference does not mean being able to speak eloquently.
Having lots of money does not mean being rich.
The Church, however, portrays itself not as an inhabitant of the castle, but as the castle itself. Even though the Patriarchate was quick to deny any connection to that initial response, the message had already been sent. It was soon followed by numerous interviews in which spiritual servants, in assessing Ivanishvili’s statements at the press conference as being, to put it mildly, over-the-top and unacceptable, were essentially defending the logic behind that first response.
Neither of the two tolerates any criticism – the Church because of its unchallenged moral authority and cultural merits, and Ivanishvili because of the traditions of Georgian political culture. The exchange of criticism between the two reminds me of the irresistible force paradox: “What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?”