The State of Democracy and Orthodoxy in Georgia: Rights over Religion, or Tradition over Tolerance?


About the Author: Patrick Norén, Research Fellow at MCERC. Born and raised in Watford, UK, but of both British and Swedish descent, Patrick Norén is a master's student of Russian and Eurasian Studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands. Patrick has already completed “Georgian language course” in Leiden at the end of 2021 and is now engaged in solidarity journalism activities within the project “Media Voice” at MCERC. Patrick Noren’s research interests include the intersection of contemporary post-Soviet politics and culture, the manipulation of identity for political purposes, and information and disinformation. He is writing his MA thesis on music revivalism and restorative nostalgia in post-Euromaidan Ukrainian popular music, and, to varying degrees, can speak eight languages.


Rights over Religion, or Tradition over Tolerance?


On 3rd March 2022, the Prime Minister of Georgia Irakli Gharibashvili issued a statement announcing the country’s application for membership of the European Union (EU). In his statement, Gharibashvili wrote:


‘Georgia is a European state [...] Being European is nothing, but a unity of values and principles, which shape Europe [...] Democracy, rule of law, human rights and good governance have already turned into the essence of our daily existence. We are actively introducing European norms and standards in every field of our political, economic and social life [...] According to the definition of a French enlightener Paul Valéry on a country of European identity, whereby he listed three main criteria: influence of Greek-Roman culture, Christian beliefs and democratic tradition [...] Georgia is indeed a deserving member of the European space, European family [...] Georgian people [...] have always been oriented towards Europe and remained loyal to its values [...] God be our protector!’ (Government of Georgia, 2022).


What must be stressed from the very outset of this piece is a common fallacy that Europe - as a geographical entity - and the EU - as a political entity - are two definitionally interchangeable terms that ultimately refer to the same thing. This is simply not true. I myself have experienced this fallacy. Shortly after moving to the Netherlands to study, I was told at the town hall registration office that I might have to get my British birth certificate apostilled because we “had left Europe”.


Democracy in Georgia is Faltering


In his statement above, Gharibashvili is falling for the same fallacy, extrapolating and superimposing what he believes to be the foundational pillars of a geographic identity (Europe) onto the core values of a related but entirely separate political entity (the EU). There are indeed numerous contradictions in Gharibashvili’s statement which point to this confusion of what exactly constitutes Europe-worthiness on the one hand, and EU-worthiness on the other, for they are not the same thing. The EU’s founding values (European Union, 2022) make no mention whatsoever of Greek-Roman culture or Christianity. Furthermore, Gharibashvili’s assertion that democracy, rule of law, human rights and good governance are mainstays of Georgian socio-political reality are contestable at best, with Georgia’s “Freedom in the World” score calculated by Freedom House dropping from 64/100 in 2017, to 58/100 in 2022 (Freedom House, 2017; Freedom House, 2022).


Similarly, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s democracy index gave Georgia a score of 5.12/10 at the beginning of 2022, signalling a fourth consecutive year of democratic backsliding (Georgian Journal, 2022). Contrary to Gharibashvili’s statement on EU membership, Freedom House reported that oligarchic interests still prevail in politics and the media, politicisation is undermining the rule of law, and civil liberties are inconsistently protected (Freedom House, 2022).


“Support for democracy in Georgia does not appear to be related to tolerance towards ethnic or sexual minorities…”


In this academic blog, I will be focussing on an apparent contradiction within the Georgian mentality that could act as a roadblock to Georgia’s ambitions to join the EU. This deserves renewed focus now that Georgia, following in the footsteps of Ukraine, has formally applied for EU membership. While Georgians are convinced of their Europeanness, one must stress that this does not automatically translate into EU-ness, and it is becoming apparent that the more conservative wings of Georgian civil society, spearheaded by the Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC), are at odds with Georgia’s alleged ‘democratic tradition’.


Extremely high approval ratings of the GOC, a subsequent tendency to trample on LGBTQ+ rights, and a large number of Georgians believing that the EU poses a threat to “traditional Georgian values” is significantly mismatched with a strong desire to join the EU and thus reaffirm their Europeanness. A failure to acknowledge this inherent tension within Georgia’s pro-EU direction can be explained by a skewed perception of what exactly constitutes democracy and a broad unwillingness to accept or lack of awareness of its obligations, regardless of whether they agree with them or not. Indeed, in analysing data from the CRRC’s 2019 Caucasus Barometer, Khostaria and Shubladze wrote:


‘Support for democracy in Georgia does not appear to be related to tolerance towards ethnic or sexual minorities [...] This could suggest that people simply claim to be supporters of democracy without really knowing or being ready to accept the values that it has to offer. In turn, this would suggest that people are just going along with the idea of democracy without agreeing to its moral standards. However, these ideas remain unconfirmed to a certain extent.’ (Khostaria & Shubladze, 2020).


Georgian Orthodoxy in Numbers


According to the 2014 census, 83.4% of Georgians identified as Orthodox Christians, 10.7% as Muslims, and 2.9% belonging to the Armenian Apostolic Church (Geostat 2016). Patriarch Ilia II enjoys a similarly high rate of popularity among Georgians, as does the wider GOC, despite recent scandals. In 2021, 88% of Georgians had a favourable opinion of the Patriarch, 30% higher than any other public figure in Georgia (IRI, 2021: 53). Similarly, 80% of Georgians had a favourable view of the wider Patriarchate of Georgia (ibid: 55). The conclusion, therefore, is that not only do the overwhelming majority of the Georgian population identify as Orthodox Christians, but they have an overwhelmingly favourable view of the GOC as an organisation.


Orthodoxy is also considered by many Georgians to be a fundamental part of their national identity. In a 2016 survey conducted by the Pew Research Institute, 81% of Georgians said that it was very or somewhat important to be a Christian to be “truly Georgian” (Pew Research Center, 2018). In a 2020 Caucasian Research Resource Center (CRRC) survey, 83% said the GOC was ‘very important’ for their family, 79% considered the GOC to be the ‘foundation of our identity’, and 80% agreed that the GOC ‘promotes the preservation of moral values in our society’. However, when asked the more pointed question of whether or not ‘Georgian citizens should be Orthodox Christians’, some 50% said they agreed or strongly agreed (CRRC, 2021). It should be noted that this widespread belief that Georgian Orthodoxy is a prerequisite for being Georgian stems from the post-Communist collapse, during which many Georgians saw the GOC as a way of getting rid of the Soviet legacy in the absence of a clear and consistent state ideology (Gegeshidze & Mirziashvili, 2021).


Societal tolerance of LGBTQ+ rights is very low


Perhaps the biggest bone of contention for the GOC has been LGBTQ+ rights. Leading up to Tbilisi’s 2019 Pride event, which was eventually cancelled due to ‘increased threats’ from clerics and nationalist groups (Agenda.ge, 2019), the GOC said:


‘The lifestyle of LGBT persons is a sodomite sin and thus contrary to the Christian faith and traditional religious teachings, as well as the general morality. We underline, that the Church sets itself apart from sin, but not from the repentant sinners, whom it embraces with love, and assists in reverting to God’ (Civil.ge, 2019).


Leading up to the 2021 Tbilisi Pride, the Patriarchate issued a statement saying:


‘A non-traditional way of life is propagated by the organisers of the planned “Pride” under the guise of protecting human rights; It contains signs of provocation and conflicts with socially recognized moral norms and aims to legalise grave sin’ (Patriarchate of Georgia, 2021, translated by Google Translate).


2021’s Tbilisi Pride descended into violence, injuring dozens of activists and journalists, and resulting in the death of the Pirveli 1 cameraman Lekso Lashkarava.


Such outspokeness on contentious social issues from the GOC is duly reflected in public attitudes towards LGBTQ+ rights and abortion. In the same 2016 Pew Research Institute survey, 95% of Georgians said they were against gay marriage. Even among younger Georgians, 94% expressed the same opinion. In the same 2020 CRRC survey, 69% of Georgians said that having more LGBTQ+ MPs would have a ‘negative impact’.


When it comes to other minorities, however, there appears to be a broad agreement that their rights should be protected. In a 2019 National Democratic Institute survey, while only 27% said LGBTQ+ rights were important, 72%, 71% and 92% said the same for ethnic, religious, and disability minority rights respectively (NDI, 2019: 73). But religious tolerance also has its limits. In the Pew survey, only 17% and 27% of Georgians said that they would be willing to accept Muslims and Jews respectively into their family respectively, reflecting the aforementioned widely held belief that Orthodoxy is very important to Georgian families and Georgian identity.


“Traditional Georgian values” are at odds with the founding values of the EU


To recap, almost all Georgians are religious and the overwhelming majority of them are Georgian Orthodox Christians. The overwhelming majority of Georgians have a favourable view of Patriarch Ilia II, and the overwhelming majority have a favourable view of the Georgian Orthodox Church. The former has extremely conservative views especially on LGBTQ+ rights, and the latter, while I have been told there are some more progressive voices within, is still very conservative indeed.


The overwhelming majority of Georgians see the GOC as fundamentally important to both their families, their identity, and for ‘promoting moral values’. These facts are reflected in Georgians attitudes towards LGBTQ+ issues and abortion, which are overwhelmingly conservative. While Georgians may nominally support rights for religious minorities, if these societal issues become a personal reality, Georgians will largely revert to previously conservative ways.


These latter trends are wildly at odds with the six founding values of the EU, and point to considerable intolerance of sexual, and to a lesser extent, religious minorities in a country whose Prime Minister has claimed democracy and human rights are protected. Indeed, anti-Muslim discrimination is another underlying tension within Georgia’s societal make-up.


Taking another look at statistics concerning Georgians’ views of democracy, the EU and EU membership highlight contradictions within the Georgian mentality which can be explained by the conflation of so-called “European values” according to Gharibashvili, and “EU values” according to the EU. A lack of appreciation of one of the principles of democracy, that being majority rule but minority rights (U.S. Department of State, 2022)[1] likely also contributes to this.


What do Georgians think of democracy and the EU?


With regards to attitudes towards democracy in Georgia, in December 2021 92% of Georgians said that it was either important or very important for them to live in a democratic country, although 50% said Georgia was not a democracy (NDI, 2021: 23). Turning to the issue of polarisation, a serious problem in Georgian politics, in the same survey as above 80% supported cross-party collaboration even if the actions or views of the opposing party were unacceptable to them (ibid. 35). In June 2021 61% wanted to see new political parties (IRI, 2021: 42), and a whopping 97% said polarisation was bad for the country’s development (ibid. 67). The conclusion, therefore, is that Georgia’s desire for democracy is very high and this is a fact that is reflected in the country’s frustration with ongoing polarisation.


Support for EU membership has also remained consistently high over the past decade, with 83% of Georgians being for membership in December 2021 (NDI, 2021: 18). Concurrently, 77% of Georgians supported membership of NATO (ibid. 20). Since Russia’s renewed invasion of Ukraine in February and March 2022, it would not be misplaced to assume that Georgian support for EU and NATO membership would have increased even more.


Therefore, in line with the above discussion on Georgian attitudes to democracy in their own country, there is a similarly high level of support for membership of democratic, supranational organisations. These facts are reflected in what Georgians will believe would be the potential outcomes of Georgia becoming a member of the EU. In 2020, 78% agreed or strongly agreed that Georgia ‘would become more European’ (whatever that means!); 77% believed that Georgia would gain human rights protections; and 74% said Georgia would have more democratic institutions and values. That said, the same survey also revealed that a substantial minority of Georgians, 39% to be exact, believed that the EU poses a threat to Georgian traditions (CRRC, 2021).


A second recap is needed. The overwhelming majority of Georgians want to live in a democratic country, and yet half of Georgians say that Georgia is not a democracy. The overwhelming majority want to see the end of polarisation, and a very large number would like a wider variety of political parties. This high level of support for democracy combined with dissatisfaction with their own democracy is reflected in support for membership of the EU and NATO. There is also a broad perception and understanding that EU membership should guarantee the protection of human rights and foster democratic values. A large minority would view such developments as a threat to Georgian traditions, however.


Georgians want to live in a democracy, but are they ready to accept its obligations?


We now come to the crux of my argument. While they may not consciously admit or realise it, a large minority of Georgians believe that improved human rights and more democratic values are antithetical to the Georgian traditions which are viewed by many as ostensibly European. All the while, an overwhelming majority want Georgia to be more democratic. Unless the perceived Georgian traditions and democratic values find a way to coexist, any form of harmonious coexistence is impossible.


Widening our conclusions to the whole population (and not just focussing on the aforementioned 39%), the overwhelming majority of Georgians, again, consciously or otherwise, display a skewed perception of what exactly democracy entails. Very many will at least nominally voice support for democracy and the EU but simultaneously express or exhibit a patchy commitment to one of democracy’s fundamental principles and to the values of the EU. This doublethink is very well embodied by the statement from the GOC in the run-up to 2021’s Tbilisi Pride parade that descended into lethal violence:


‘We respect human rights and freedoms, which naturally implies freedom of choice. Forcing this choice on others by others is violence and violates rights, freedoms and choices of the vast majority of our society, regardless of ethnicity or religion or other affiliation [...] It is imperative that our society see that European democracy is not a rejection of the thinking and way of life of the vast majority of people and their religious sentiments’ (Patriarchate of Georgia, 2021, translated with Google Translate).


This statement demonstrates a lack of appreciation of the democratic principle of majority rule but minority rights, and I offer this as one potential explanation for the contradictions I have set out in this article. Democracy is not an invitation for the majority to undermine the rights of the minority just because the majority believe they have a democratic mandate to do so. Democracy is not analogous to tyranny of the majority, but an entrustment of the protection of the rights of the minority with the majority in the expectation that should the latter demographic become the former, their rights as the new minority will also be protected by the new majority.


This reality speaks to a perhaps obvious but fundamental characteristic of conservative opposition to the protection of especially LGBTQ+ rights in Georgia: fear. It is a fear that the emergence of a binary opposite and “other” will one day supersede them and restrict their own rights of freedom of belief and their right to act accordingly, so long as it does not impinge on rights of the “other”. Democracy and orthodoxy can coexist in Georgia, but both sides must appreciate that equality and human rights are a two-way street. Otherwise, this is simply not democracy.


Europe and the EU are not the same thing


A second potential explanation to the above contradictions which can exist concurrently with the first explanation is the often confused distinction between “European values” and “EU values”. While the former is contestable to begin with, the latter is not. It is codified and effectively non-negotiable. The former is predicated on geography and culture, the latter is predicated on political ideology. The results of the surveys discussed demonstrate a considerable and conscious Georgian affiliation with their own conception of Europe, but not necessarily the EU. A conflation of the two, which I myself have experienced, could explain these tensions between Georgian orthodox tradition and Georgian EU ambition. There is a likelihood Georgian PM Irakli Gharibashvili is himself confusing Europe and the EU when he argues that Georgia’s avowed “Europeanness” should automatically translate into membership of the EU. What may well be a fairly accurate if not overly historical appraisal of European values is not analogous to contemporary EU values.


For orthodoxy and democracy to coexist in a “European” Georgia, it is my opinion that Georgians who simultaneously seek democracy, EU membership, and the protection of what they perceive to be Georgian identity - which altogether is a very large proportion of the population indeed - must appreciate both the democratic principle of majority rule and minority rights, and the difference between Europe and the EU.


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[1] In the 2020 CRRC survey, 60% of Georgians said that the USA was the most important political partner for Georgia, more than any other single country. The EU scored 56%, Ukraine - 32%, Azerbaijan - 15%, and Russia - 11%.