Repression Despite the Rose Revolution

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 religious bodies.

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.