President Mikheil Saakashvili and Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili vie in pleasing the patriarch.
Georgia’s two squabbling rulers, the prime minister and the president, both need love . . . the love of the country’s spiritual leader, the guardian of national unity, the primus inter pares, Georgian Orthodox Church Patriarch Ilia II.
“You love him more,” Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, apparently in a sudden grip of jealousy, told the patriarch at a January 14 gathering, pointing at President Mikheil Saakashvili, who stood towering over both men with a happy smile.
“Now, why would you say he loves me more?” responded the president, tapping his diminutive rival on the shoulder.
The aging prelate, caught in the middle of the awkward exchange, maintained a diplomatic silence.
The footage of the meeting cuts there, so we don’t know the outcome of this telling conversation, but the party at the patriarch’s showed rather clearly that Georgia’s political system is not a diarchy, but a triumvirate, and that secular leaders need to vie for the holy graces of the chief of the Georgian Orthodox Church.
Georgians’ infatuation with their political leaders is pretty much a one-night stand and they tend to lose interest the moment leaders take office. But the patriarch always tops the national love charts.
And, so, well aware of the patriarch’s star power, Saakashvili and Ivanishvili turned up at the celebrations that marked Orthodox New Year, plus Ilia II's 80th birthday and the anniversary of his 1977 enthronement ; “a celebration of love,” as the church leader himself put it.
Aside from other Georgian politicians, also on hand were visiting foreign clerics, including the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I, head of the Eastern Orthodox Church, who came over from Istanbul to wish His Holiness many happy returns of the day.
There, in a crowd of beards, cassocks and skufias, the president, the prime minister and Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usapashvili sat sharing a tight sofa and holding candles. “I wish that 2013 is the year of love in Georgia,” said Ivanishvili. Then, passing a microphone to the president, he said, without much love, “Here, hold this, Misha.”
“I’d like to join the toast,” the president began. The prime minister wasn't having it: “That would be enough, let’s go,” he interrupted.
And then, as the stately patriarch was walking his two key guests out, a little boyish competition again emerged -- whom would Ilia II bid goodbye first, and, hence, who is his favorite son?
The patriarch later spoke of the need for love. Georgia could indeed use some.