Thursday, December 23, 2004. Page 8.
Repression Despite the Rose Revolution
By Lawrence A. Uzzell
Of all the former Soviet republics, only one has
signed a formal concordat with its historically
dominant church but with no other religion. Only one
has failed to enact a law spelling out the rights of
minority religions to publish, build houses of worship
and own property. In practice this republic allows
even less religious freedom than Russia.
But unlike Russia, this republic is moving as fast as
it can toward NATO membership. It boasts a president
with a U.S. law degree, a rapidly growing U.S.-trained
army and a larger flow of U.S. financial aid per
capita than any other country in the world except
Israel. Yet most of the protests against human rights
violations come not from Washington but from activists
in its own capital, Tbilisi.
When Mikheil Saakashvili won power in Georgia's Rose
Revolution a year ago, activists were euphoric. Now
they complain that in some respects human rights are
actually shrinking. For example, a survey published in
October by Reporters Without Borders ranked Georgia
94th among 167 countries in freedom of the press. A
year earlier Georgia stood at 73rd of 166.
Judges are also experiencing new restrictions; one
lawmaker, a member of Saakashvili's own party, said
last month that the zealous fight against corruption
had turned the courts into "mere recording chambers"
for government prosecutors. Ghia Nodia of the Caucasus
Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development
suggested in October that Saakashvili and his circle
are suffering from a classic case of "prolonged
revolutionary syndrome," which makes them rationalize
setting aside the rule of law.
Georgia now has somewhat more religious freedom than
it did a year ago -- but was starting from a low base.
During the last years of the Eduard Shevardnadze
administration it became common practice for
ultranationalist mobs to raid the worship services of
Baptists, Jehovah's Witnesses and other unpopular
minorities, beating up worshippers and burning their
Bibles. The police and the courts made little effort
to stop such pogroms; the mobs felt such impunity that
sometimes they even videotaped their own attacks. The
most notorious leader of this reign of terror -- Basil
Mkalavishvili, a defrocked priest of the Georgian
Orthodox Church -- was finally arrested in March. A
leader of the Jehovah's Witnesses told Felix Corley of
the Forum 18 News Service last month that "there has
been no violence against us in the past year -- it
stopped with the change in power." Baptists and
Lutherans, however, have continued to suffer low-level
violence such as vandalism of their church buildings.
Genuine freedom requires more than the absence of mob
violence. To this day it remains virtually impossible
for religious believers outside the Georgian Orthodox
Church to build new places of worship. When minorities
such as the Baptists, Lutherans and dissident "True
Orthodox" seek permission to build, the secular
authorities routinely find excuses to say no.
Sometimes, the authorities claim that the 2002
concordat with the Georgian Orthodox Church gives it
the right to veto building applications by other
The consensus among minority religious leaders is that
they will continue to suffer such restrictions until
Georgia enacts a law explicitly authorizing them to
organize as legal entities like other NGOs with
institutional rights of property ownership, financial
operations and the like. In the words of Malkhaz
Songulashvili, head of Georgia's Baptists, "Without
legal status we don't exist in law." Government
officials have discussed the possibility of such
legislation with Songulashvili and others, but
concrete progress remains elusive.
Last year's Rose Revolution was a genuine triumph of
democracy over a profoundly corrupt government. But
such victories can soon turn hollow -- as Russians
learned in the 1990s, and as Ukrainians may learn in
the near future. Saakashvili needs to think less about
maximizing his own power and more about building a
solid base for freedom, including religious freedom.
Lawrence A. Uzzell is president of International
Religious Freedom Watch. He contributed this comment
to The Moscow Times.