A Vatican representative arrived in Tbilisi on September 18 to sign a treaty that would have formally established a framework for the Roman Catholic Church's activities in Georgia. In the face of student-led protests in Tbilisi, the government abruptly announced that it would not go through with the agreement. Georgian State Minister Avtandil Jorbenadze cited the "extreme sensitivity of the matter," as the basis for the government's sudden reversal.
"Public opinion should be considered before any action is taken," Jorbenadze said in comments broadcast by Imedi TV on September 19. "Unfortunately, it seems that the people who were working on these issues failed to take public opinion into account and they made a mistake."
The strongest opposition to the proposed Georgian-Vatican pact came from the Georgian Orthodox Church, whose leaders complained that negotiations had been conducted largely in secret. "It is a regrettable fact that no consultations were held with the Georgian [Orthodox] Church and this is what causes concern ... in society," Ilia II, the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, told state television on September 18. Ilia II went on to warn that the pact would aggravate relations between the Roman Catholic and Georgian Orthodox churches.
At least 75 percent of Georgia's 4.9 million population are, at least nominally Orthodox -- most of them belonging to the Georgian church. Catholics are a tiny religious minority, estimated to number in the tens of thousands.
A statement issued by the Vatican expressed regret over the Georgian government's decision. "The failure of Georgian authorities to carry out the agreement ... will damage the Catholic community in Georgia and leave it without legal guarantees," the statement said.
The Georgian Orthodox Church is widely viewed in Georgia as a key pillar of national identity and of statehood, and it continues to exert a considerable amount of influence over public life. Given the lack of debate, many Georgians, especially those with rightist political sympathies, were worried that the pact would effectively erode the Orthodox church's standing in Georgian society.
Georgia's Foreign Ministry downplayed the potential impact of the treaty. "The agreement implies the cooperation between two states and has nothing to do with the church," Deputy Foreign Minister Kakha Sikharulidze said
Giga Bokeria, a civil society activist at Tbilisi's Liberty Institute, said opponents of the Vatican treaty could not specify how the Catholic Church could threaten the Georgian Orthodox church's position. "They simply viewed Catholicism as threat per se," Bokeria said.
Bokeria pointed out that many of those who led opposition to the pact were well-known figures in youth branches of pro-government political parties, along with those aligned with the administration of state-run universities. Bokeria has long criticized the government for helping to foster an atmosphere of religious intolerance in Georgia. [For additional information click here].
Presently, allies of President Eduard Shevardnadze control the parliament, but recent public opinion polls show that the pro-presidential For a New Georgia bloc will be hard-pressed to retain control of the legislature after the November election. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The pro-presidential bloc has become increasingly reliant on nationalist-leaning forces to bolster its election prospects, some observers say. For instance, right-wing political figures, including Guram Sharadze, are part of the For a New Georgia election slate. Sharadze gained notoriety for his outspoken attacks against religious minorities in Georgia.
Some observers indicate electoral politics played a significant role in the government's decision not to sign the Vatican pact. Without right-wing support, pro-presidential forces would seem to stand no chance of retaining control of parliament. At the same time, some analysts, including Bokeria, point out that some opposition politicians also expressed concern about the Vatican treaty. Indeed, parties from across the political spectrum appear wary of angering the Georgian Orthodox Church out of fear it could cost them votes.
Giorgi Kandelaki is a senior at the
Department of Political Science at Tbilisi State University.
He is a member of the Youth Atlantic Council of Georgia.