The bill on local self-governance aims to give regional towns and communities more decision-making power via the election of local mayors and municipal officials. Today, only the mayor of Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, is elected, while regional heads are appointed by the central government.
The proponents of the bill argue that the change will help regional governments, including in highland communities, address local needs more efficiently.
But, in December 4 remarks, the patriarch cautioned that a devolution of authority could encourage more separatism, a phenomenon that already haunts Georgia with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
“If this happens, it will lead us to disintegration of Georgia,” Ilia II said. “We will never tolerate this and will do our best to make sure this does not happen.”
"We should remember that when the [central] government was strong . . .
Georgia was strong as well," he continued, underlining that "the people
should consider whether or not [the draft law] is acceptable and good for Georgia."
The debate over decentralizing power, however, soon spun out into the realm of secularism vs. theocracy, another ongoing bugbear for Georgian society.
In this very religious and patriotic culture, the Church ranks as the country's most trusted institution, a symbol of national identity which has survived for centuries. With no government official around who can hold a candle to Ilia II in terms of popularity, few Georgian politicians dare to confront the Church openly when it addresses voters on matters secular rather than spiritual.
As was the case at an anti-homophobia rally in Tbilisi earlier this year, senior Church officials have shown in the past that they can bring an angry crowd of supporters into the streets if the lay authorities cross certain red lines. It has mainly fallen on Georgia’s intelligentsia and civil society activists to challenge this practice.
But some Georgian politicians took a sharper tact. Most notably, Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili, who dismissed as "nonsense" the notion that local self-government poses a security threat. Another member of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, parliamentarian Tamar Kordzaia, invited a flurry of angry comments after she said that “the Patriarchy is interfering in the government’s work too much.”
The patriarch, for his part, repeatedly has called for the peaceful resolution of national debates. Yet, as Georgia seeks acceptance as a European country, it is facing a clash of values over the role of the Church, and it looks like a long, hard battle ahead.