Like many doting parents, five-year-old Giorgi’s post cute pictures of him on Facebook: blowing out candles on a birthday cake, or wearing red plastic sunglasses behind the wheel of a car, pretending to drive.
But the comments below the pictures belie that humble appearance. “Long live the king!” many write. “Even his eyebrows look like Queen Tamar’s,” wrote one fan, referring to the queen who reigned in the 12th and 13th centuries and is, in fact, Giorgi’s distant ancestor.
Georgia aspires to be part of Europe, and for its government that means European Union-style democracy. But a minority of Georgians want their country to follow an older European tradition by restoring their country’s millennium-old monarchy. And their hopes are riding on the little shoulders of Giorgi – or, as his Facebook page identifies him, Heir to the Royal Throne of Georgia, His Royal Highness Crown Prince Giorgi Bagration Bagrationi Mukhranbatonishvili.
Prince Giorgi largely owes his standing to the leader of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia II, who in 2007 called for Georgia to adopt a constitutional monarchy. At that time, though, there was a stumbling block: there was no clear heir. “A candidate to the crown should be selected among representatives of the royal dynasty, and he should be suitably raised to be king from childhood,” Ilia said at the time.
The Bagrationi dynasty had ruled Georgia from the 10th century until the early 19th century, when Russia colonized Georgia and abolished the monarchy. The Bagrationis were duly absorbed into the Russian aristocracy. Most dispersed to Europe after the Russian Revolution and the establishment of the Soviet Union, but some began to trickle back after Georgia regained independence in 1991, and the restoration of the monarchy became imaginable, if not yet plausible.
Prince Nugzar Bagrationi Gruzinski is the son of one of the few Bagrationis to have remained in Georgia, a dissident poet, and is the direct descendent of the last king of Georgia. But Prince Nugzar’s daughter, Anna, was already married – to someone outside the Bagrationi line – and had two daughters. As it happened, though, she divorced in 2007, and Ilia set her up with a Spanish-born distant cousin, Davit Bagrationi-Mukhraneli.
The two did not know one another before the patriarch arranged the marriage, said Mamuka Bagrationi, a distant relative of Giorgi and the host of a television show about issues related to the royal family. “This is something very common with the royal dynasty, to sacrifice their private lives for the sake of the country,” Bagrationi said in an interview with EurasiaNet.org.
The couple married in 2009 at a ceremony in Tbilisi’s Holy Trinity Cathedral, attended by 3,000 guests, but the marriage was short-lived; the couple divorced in 2013.
By that time, however, they had given birth to Giorgi. He was born in 2011 and baptized by the patriarch himself at the Cathedral of Svetitskhoveli in Mtskheta, the traditional site for Georgian kings to be crowned. One of his godfathers is prominent businessman and anti-gay, anti-liberal activist Levan Vasadze.
“It was a huge event that after two hundred years there was a baby baptized as Prince of Georgia,” Ilia said.
Giorgi’s life is little documented outside of the Facebook page of the royal family. After the divorce, Giorgi lives with his mother in an apartment in Tbilisi. But his father remains active in his upbringing; one favorite father-and-son activity is watching auto races at the track in Rustavi, a city just east of Tbilisi, Bagrationi said.
Some of Giorgi’s Facebook photos do evoke his unique upbringing. He is frequently wearing a traditional Georgian chokha, and is often photographed with the patriarch.
The prince already speaks Georgian, Russian, and Spanish, and while details about his future education are still being discussed by family members, it will focus on subjects befitting a king like politics and military studies, Bagrationi said.
He will soon start studying khridoli, a traditional Georgian martial art that has been experiencing a revival in the country. “It develops various skills like concentration, balance, and patience,” Bagrationi said.
While the prospects for the restoration of the monarchy are dim, it remains publicly popular, at least in theory. In July 2015, the Tbilisi research center Doctrina conducted a poll: of the 560 Georgians surveyed, about 30 percent favored the restoration of the monarchy.
In practice, though, the concept of a restoration has failed to get much traction. The political party that advocates for the return of the monarchy, Royal Crown, failed to make the ballot in last year’s parliamentary elections. The party is older than the prince, but its leader, Vazha Abashidze, said he supports Giorgi’s claim to the throne.
“He is a child, but I can see that he is an amazing child who is fearless and open-minded, and people will love him,” Abashidze told EurasiaNet. “Our guardian now is the patriarch of Georgia, but naturally he takes care more about Orthodox Christians. The king will love everyone regardless of their religion.”
Abashidze noted that no one predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union, so another dramatic twist in the country’s fate could happen faster than Georgians expect. “This is the will of the God and we don’t know when will it happen, but it will definitely happen,” he said. “We need to be ready for the right moment, and that’s why we need to have a well-prepared heir to the throne.”
Tamar Kikacheishvili is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.