Transregional Center for Democratic Studies

State of Emergency for All? Power Relations and Challenges to Democracy in Georgia during the Pandemic

by Malkhaz Toria, Graduate program is Sociology, New School for Social Research (NSSR), and Coordinator of the Memory Studies Group at the New School

Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Vake Park, Tbilisi, for Victory Day 2020. She wears a face mask, during the COVID-19 pandemic, 9 May 2020. Source: WikiCommons.

Georgia government’s measures to cope with the outbreak of COVID-19 have received quite positive assessments from both the World Health Organization and local experts. Even some opposition parties have acknowledged that the authorities had taken necessary preventive steps in a timely and adequate manner. In particular the country’s top epidemiologists—sometimes referred to as “the four musketeers”—are praised for coordinating the Georgian health care system’s success in dealing with the pandemic. Every day they update the public through their media briefings about new cases of infection, the number of recovered patients, and ongoing preventive measures. They have assured the public that the government’s appropriate actions, which include the declaration of a state of emergency, the shut down of major cities to decrease mobility, the nationwide lockdown, the quarantine, and the curfew, have avoided a dramatic acceleration in the number of cases. Hospitals and healthcare professionals in the country have enough beds and sufficient medical equipment to treat all infected people. 

However, criticism is mounting over the government’s response to the crisis caused by the pandemic. There are questions as to whether the relatively low number of confirmed cases of infections reveal flaws in the tracking of infected people, given the state’s inability to do nationwide testing; as of May 3, there were 589 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 8 deaths. If true, this suggests that the authorities are trying to sell their failure as an example of successful management. Opposition parties have also slammed the government for not having a real anti-crisis strategy to address the impact of the coronavirus on the economy. There are no plans, for instance, to ease the financial burden for ordinary people or businesses by cutting taxes and/or subsidizing them. 

The opponents point to more structural problems, namely, that the ongoing pandemic vividly exposed unbalanced power relations and a selective approach to human rights and equality in Georgia. The state of emergency during the outbreak of COVID-19 does not include all segments of society. The Orthodox church was semi-officially privileged to defy governmental restrictions, while “regular” citizens were kept in isolation under the threat of heavy penalties. The Easter services in churches, even though they were not crowded, seriously jeopardized the state’s efforts to enforce social distancing measures. There are also growing concerns about the government’s interests in exploiting the pandemic to shrink public space and undermine democracy, to silence alternative voices critical of the state’s economic, political and social measures during the emergency, and to gain advantages for the upcoming parliamentary elections in fall 2020. 

In certain critical respects, the emergency decree, which was passed on March 21, raised questions about who possessed the real sovereign authority to impose the emergency. Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia positioned himself as the one “who decides on the state of exception,” which brings about the total suspension of the law , and who guarantees order in exceptional situations. However, the necessary restrictions were already implemented before the official declaration of the state of emergency. This had included canceling the education process, banning mass events and gatherings. Thus, the state of emergency was actually just a formalization of measures that were already taken. This situation raises questions concerning the nature of the state of emergency in Georgia. It seems that the state protects the rights it must restrict during the pandemic.

Many were doubtful that the imposition of the state of emergency and curfew would help to halt the spread of the coronavirus because special restrictions did not apply to all. This became evident when the Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC) allowed believers to attend Easter Vigil on Easter Eve, April 18. Eventually, the Authorities reached consensus with the Church, which agreed to follow essential recommendations and called parishioners to maintain social distancing during the Easter celebration and remain within the churche’s premises until the end of the nighttime curfew at 6 am. However, holding the service during a state of emergency was widely perceived as an open challenge to secularism and democracy in Georgia by a powerful and widely trusted religious institution. Therefore, this “agreement” was perceived as the “government’s capitulation to the fait accompli.

 Today, Orthodox Christians make up 83.9 percent of the religious population, predominantly ethnic Georgians. The GOC claims to be the “State’s guardian angel” as it promotes ethno-religious values and ‘traditions’ of the majority. Particularly, an array of issues that are essential for secular society, including guaranteeing the rights of religious minorities, anti-discriminatory measures, LGBT rights, and basic civil liberties, are occasionally met with protest from the church. 

The special status of the GOC was formalized in a constitutional agreement between the Georgian State and the GOC in 2002 referred to as the “concordat.” The agreement delegated exceptional authority to the GOC. The privileges included exemption from taxes, freeing religious clerics from military service, allocating state funding; article 11 placed on the state the responsibility to compensate the material and moral damage inflicted to the Georgian Orthodox Church by the Tsarist empire (1801-1917) and particularly, by the Soviet regime (1921-1990).

Later, during president Mikheil Saakashvili’s (2004-2012) administration, the state continued this balancing policy especially when the important reforms were on the agenda. For instance, the Church was extremely dissatisfied with the Law on General Education (2005) that aimed to guarantee the independence of public schools from religious unions, establish principles of neutrality and non-discrimination, and prohibit the use of public schools for religious indoctrination, proselytism, or forced assimilation, etc.; generally, the law intended “to eliminate an ingrained connection between the education system and a religious institution.” To avoid GOC’s protest, Saakashvili’s government amended the tax code and granted it exclusive tax-exempt status. As a result, the GOC became free of revenue tax and its products (imported church utensils and products such as incense), noncommercial property, and land could not be taxed.

The current ruling party “Georgian Dream (GD),” led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, advanced further the tradition of “amicable relations with the GOC. Over the last eight years, the GD authorities have indulged the clerical leaders with generous financial and in-kind donations, as well as with policy concessions on a range of issues, including land sales, sexual minority rights, and drug laws. In exchange, they successfully secured the GOC’s electoral endorsement.

Thus, this recent agreement follows the “traditional” strategy of balancing constantly shaking power relations between the state and the church, but the pandemic opened new opportunities. In this situation, having the GOC on their side would benefit the realization of the government’s political agenda that, many suspect, might include monopolizing the country’s public space and political life. “The domestic political developments suggest that Georgian democracy is in for a difficult year with its democratic opposition and political pluralism under severe pressure.” There are worries about the fulfillment of the agreement on electoral reform, which was reached in March this year, between the government and main opposition parties. The agreement, facilitated by the US and EU, presupposes distribution of the majority of seats, 120 out of 150, under a proportional system with a 1% electoral threshold and 40% seats required for a single party to form a government. This deal might be a big leap toward political pluralism in the electoral system in general and for the upcoming parliamentary election in October 2020 in particular. 

However, there are no significant changes in the government’s confrontational rhetoric and strategy. On the contrary, already in January 2020, the country’s main public space in front of the parliament building in the capital city was closed down for renovation, preventing protests gatherings in this location. In March, the accounts of the two main opposition TV outlets were blocked because of ‘unpaid taxes,’ a move that can be interpreted as an attempt to silence critical voices. Apart from this, certain opposition party leaders were accused and sentenced for organizing “violent rallies.”

Meanwhile, the government has already been accused of authoritarianism for approving, quickly and without proper procedures, tough penalties for breaking emergency-law regulations on April 23, 2020. According to its opponents, these changes in the criminal code, which impose up to six years in jail for a repeated violation of these regulations, do not conform to the basic human rights laws guaranteed by the country’s constitution. There were even Facebook check-in protests scheduled that demanded a stop to the state of emergency and use of excessive power. Thus, it seems the state of emergency, which we thought was an exception, will last for quite a long time. The government tries to use the controversial and selective regulations during the pandemic to control and manage citizens’ lives. On March 21, the day when the state of emergency was declared, the prime minister stated that the main priority of the government is the health of the people. However, certain measures go against this claim. The state’s “power over life,” in the Foucauldian sense, and care for the sake of the population reveals serious flaws. The GOC’s open disobedience of the restrictions is a manifestation of this failure or an intentional move to ally with the powerful religious institution against the democratic segments of society. An illustration of this could be the government’s selective implementation of the standard healthcare and security regulations. In particular, this was revealed in the state’s attempt to trace the spread of the pandemic and its treatment of different clusters of infected people. For instance, while certain clusters were accurately identified and in response certain regions of the country were completely locked down and quarantined, infected priests, and the so-called “church cluster” were not dealt with in a similar way. Accordingly, no special and preventive state measures were taken regarding the GOC. Consequently, because the state cannot or does not want to restrict all, the health risks and the economic hardships for those who are told to and obey to “stay at home” are disproportionately high.

Malkhaz Toria is an associate professor of history and head of the Memory Studies Center at the Ilia State University (Tbilisi, Georgia).

This piece was a contribution to the Democracy & the Pandemic Mini-Conference of the Democracy Seminar held on May 20-21, 2020. Some parts of this piece also appeared in the Reflections from Decolonizing Eastern European Studies Group Members at The New School collection available here.

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