Amid ongoing controversy about the Georgian government democratization methods, the leader of the Georgian Orthodox Church has proposed the idea of establishing a constitutional monarchy as a guarantee of stability.
In a televised October 7 sermon, Patriarch Ilia II argued that a monarch would best protect the interests of citizens of Georgia. Citing Spain as an example, the patriarch said that the constitutional monarchies of the West act as safeguards of stability and national unity. "The king will reign, not rule," he said.
The patriarch's proposal was quickly embraced by many of Georgia's main opposition parties, as well as by media magnate Badri Patarkatsishvili, who has announced potential political plans of his own. The proposal neatly dovetailed with the opposition's new slogan "Georgia without a President," a takeoff on President Mikheil Saakashvili's Rose Revolution motto "Georgia without Shevardnadze." The slogan is intended as a call for a parliamentary system of government.
"Speaking for most opposition parties, I believe … a constitutional monarchy is the perfect form of government," Zviad Dzidziguri, one of the leaders of the Conservative Party, told reporters the day of Ilia II’s statement.
A parliamentary debate on the topic, proposed by the opposition New Rights Party, has been scheduled for October 25. The New Rights Party has not joined an opposition coalition formed around former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, who recently announced the formation of his own opposition party, Movement for a United Georgia, to Saakashvili.
Since being released on bail from prison on October 9, however, Okruashvili has stayed out of public view. At an October 11 press briefing, United Georgia member Koka Guntsadze told reporters that Okruashvili would be leaving politics. "I would like to tell you that his moral condition is rather grave. The state of his health is also unfavorable. He finds it hard to speak about details," Guntsadze said, after a two-hour conversation with Okruashvili.
"Considering the current state of affairs and all the nuances, Irakli Okruashvili will leave politics for the time being, Guntsadze continued. "We, his friends and partners, would like to state that we understand his moral condition …. and have no complaints whatsoever against him."
Meanwhile, the idea of a constitutional monarchy has become the latest political buzz topic. In a memorandum, the New Rights Party argues that a monarch would be "above political and economic ideologies and debates" and act as a "neutral arbiter and the defender of the country[‘s] unity and independence." By holding the right to dismiss a prime minister with authoritarian tendencies -- a trait the opposition claims increasingly characterizes President Saakashvili -- a monarch would help preserve democracy, the memo holds.
One local political analyst, however, argues that the sudden support for a constitutional monarchy has less to do with actual political beliefs and more to do with the fight for political clout that has followed Okruashvili’s accusations, arrest and subsequent recantation.
"Had the idea come from a political party, it wouldn’t have become so popular. But the Church has a lot of authority, and politicians are trying to make a point that their values are akin to those of the church," said Ramaz Sakvarelidze, an independent political analyst.
Meanwhile, the governing Nationalist Movement Party has tried to soft-pedal Ilia II’s statement. "The patriarch didn’t suggest establishing monarchy today. He meant this may happen after Georgia resolves its fundamental problems," pro-administration MP Giga Bokeria told reporters on October 8.
Ilia II has avoided further comment on the topic.
Parliamentary Speaker Nino Burjanadze has expressed skepticism about the idea, pointing out in an October 11 interview with the pro-opposition daily Rezonansi that a constitutional monarchy would "perhaps create even more problems" for Georgia.
Reviving Georgia’s monarchy was first broached during the last years of the Soviet Union. The proposal was shelved after nationalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia was elected president in 1991.
Who would even assume the role of monarch, though, is a matter for additional debate. In his sermon, the patriarch called for restoring the ancient Bagrationi dynasty to the throne, although some Georgians have interpreted the statement as simply an appeal to restrict the president’s powers.
While ordinary Georgians have a soft spot in their hearts for the Bagrationi family, which produced many prominent scientists and military commanders, picking a candidate monarch would not be an easy task. The ascendancy of the dynasty dates to the 10th century and is roughly divided between descendants of the eastern realm of Kartli-Kakheti ruled by Giorgi XII until 1801 when the Russian Empire annexed Georgia and abolished its monarchy, and a western realm (Imereti) ruled by Solomon II until 1810.
Historian Raul Chagunava, a longtime researcher of the Bagrationi family, believes that the crown by right belongs to Nugzar Bagrationi-Gruzinski, the director of Tbilisi’s Tumanshivili Theater and a patrilineal descendant of Giorgi XII. Nino Bagrationi, the 90-year-old direct descendant of Solomon II told EurasiaNet that she recognizes the claim of Nugzar Bagrationi-Gruzinski. Meanwhile, Georgia’s monarchist party, Royal Crown, favors another ancillary branch.
But feelings among those Bagrationis still in Georgia are decidedly mixed about the patriarch’s proposal.
Setting up a constitutional monarchy would not solve Georgia’s political woes, noted Giorgi Bagrationi-Jafaridze, a laboratory head, and the son of Nino Bagrationi. The sovereign, he argued, could become a mere puppet in the hands of politicians. "While absolute monarchy is out of the question, the king has to hold control over strategic matters," he commented.
When asked about the restoration of Georgia’s monarchy. Nino Bagrationi, a professor of engineering whose features are reminiscent of those of her royal ancestors, smiles calmly and shakes her head
"The time is not ripe for this," Bagrationi said. "The country has to grow and develop. Later… perhaps."
Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.