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Father Basili, thug or hero, casts glare on Georgian contradictions

By Winston Featherly
Tuesday, July 29
Last week the government released from jail a radical priest who once terrorized the country’s religious minorities but is now in ailing health. The defrocked Basil Mkalavishvili, better known as Father Basili, led his followers in violent attacks on Jehovah’s Witnesses and Baptists in an attempt to purge the country of foreign faiths.

The Saakashvili administration, to its great credit, used the huge public support of the heady post-Rose Revolution days to run through some tough reforms—including the long-overdue arrest of Father Basili, proving the government’s democratic bona fides to the international crowd, and the state’s strength to those accustomed to defying it.

But Father Basili was no fringe extremist. By the reckoning of the human rights ombudsman, tens if not hundreds of thousands of Georgians saw him as a defender of values, not a persecutor of innocents.

That underscores a lurking inner conflict in Georgia: a fierce protectiveness of national values that is at odds with Tbilisi’s foreign policy. Georgians seek greater national security from Western links, but fear their national heritage will be overrun by those same ties. They purport to be European, but reject contemporary European values of openness and tolerance.

There is broad Georgian support for the country’s NATO membership bid, which will certainly go far in guaranteeing national security. But as the alliance’s chief said last October in a Tbilisi speech, NATO also stands for “democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.” Anyone who supports Father Basili respects none of those.

Georgians are trying to have their cake and eat it too by seeking military and economic integration with the West while violently resisting integration of values. Deeply rooted in history, this fundamental contradiction will take more than one political generation to resolve.

There are fewer subtleties in the dying Father Basili. One of our Q & A respondents, a 52-year-old telephone operator named Karina, put it best: “I saw him on TV beating Jehovah’s Witnesses with a cross. I don’t think that a man who calls himself a Christian should do such things.”