Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Georgia may renew itself by restoring its monarchy

Gerald Warner, Scottish author, broadcaster, columnist and polemical commentator who writes about politics, religion, history, culture and society in general.

As war-torn Georgia struggles to assert its sovereignty and redefine its identity, there is now a growing possibility that the country may have recourse to an option that has been simmering on the political agenda for the past 18 years by restoring its ancient monarchy and recalling the head of the Bagration dynasty to the throne.

Even before the Russian invasion this proposal was being canvassed within the past year. The Bagration dynasty is more than a thousand years old and was forcibly removed from the Georgian throne by Russia in 1801. The Georgian people never consented to the abolition of either their monarchy or their national sovereignty.

When the Soviet Union collapsed and Georgia declared independence, one of the earliest proposals for a constitutional settlement was the restoration of the monarchy. In 1991 the Georgian government and parliament officially recognized Prince George Bagration-Moukhranski as head of the royal house. The fact that they took the trouble to do so demonstrates that the monarchy was a substantive political issue.

During the civil war and general turbulence that ensued, the monarchic question was sidelined, though it never completely disappeared. Opinion polls showed wildly fluctuating public opinion on a restoration, varying from 2 per cent support to 45 per cent (with only 29 per cent opposed). A succession of authoritarian presidents - Gamsakhurdia, Shevardnadze and Saakashvili - provoked a backlash against the power of the presidency. Lately the opposition parties have adopted the slogan „Georgia without a President.“

Democrats have been talking about monarchy on the British model and citing the example of King Juan Carlos in Spain to prove the practicability of a restoration. What brought things back to the boil, however, was a sermon preached by the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, His Holiness Patriarch Illia II, on October 7 last year, in which he publicly called for the restoration of the monarchy as the „desirable dream of the Georgian people“. That led to the question being debated in parliament.

Now the situation has been radically transformed. Mikheil Saakashvili is badly discredited. The nation may, for the moment, be rallying around him as a symbol of national identity, but that effect will not last long. His was the only political party in
Georgia unambiguously opposed to a restoration, but it has little credibility now. In a time of defeat and suffering people are turning to the church, which is royalist.

Georgia has no military options against Russia, its economy has been devastated, it lacks diplomatic leverage. Yet there is one politico-cultural gesture it could make to renew itself, to reassert its national identity, to unite around a non-partisan symbol, and that is to restore its monarchy. The fact that it was originally abolished by Russia would give added meaning to this act of constitutional renewal.

The acknowledged head of the royal house, the de jure King George XIV, died earlier this year; but his 32-year-old son Prince David could be called to the throne of his ancestors as David XIII. This could be the holistic reinvention of itself this unfortunate nation needs.



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