Soviet-Era Monument Steals the Show in Georgia’s COVID-hit Marneuli

An Orthodox cleric launches a crusade against a statue of a controversial ethnic-Azeri historical figure

It seemed as if life was slowly returning to normal after a two-month-long lockdown had been lifted in Georgia’s virus-stricken Marneuli Municipality – ethnic Azeri majority area south of Tbilisi – on May 18. But then a Georgian Orthodox Bishop delivered a rabble-rousing Sunday sermon, demanding to dismantle a statue honoring a Soviet-era figure that is endeared by many of Georgia’s Azerbaijani community. Some fear that with his controversial appeal, the high-ranking cleric may stoke an anti-Azeri sentiment in a multi-ethnic country.

Bishop Giorgi Jamdeliani, who oversees Marneuli and Hujabi Eparchy, addressed his flock after a church service on May 24, excoriating Marneuli Mayor for his decision to restore a crumbling statue of Nariman Narimanov (1870-1925), a Tbilisi-born Azeri who had made his name by collaborating with Bolsheviks to bring down the fledgling republics of Azerbaijan and Georgia in 1920-21.

“It is a shocking thing that his statue is still on display in the heart of [Marneuli] city,” pontificated the cleric. He raved that Narimanov had not rendered any service to Georgia throughout his life and hence, he deserved no honors. After “toppling the democratic regime of Azerbaijan”, went on the Bishop, Narimanov facilitated a military intervention that ushered Georgia into seven decades of Soviet rule.

The Bishop gave the Mayor an ultimatum – to swiftly remove the statue from its plinth and then throw it away like a piece of junk – “within a reasonable time.” He backed up his claim with a piece of legislation – the Georgian Freedom Charter indeed prohibits displaying Soviet symbols in public spaces.

The Orthodox cleric disavowed – rather preemptively – that he was targeting Narimanov, one among many, multinational Bolshevik comrades that did harm to Georgia, due to his Azeri background. Nevertheless, Bishop Giorgi drew a sharp distinction between ethnic and religious minorities – there are those who serve the Nation, and those who do not – he insisted.

Bishop’s confrontational sermon sparked anger among Georgia’s populous Azeri community, suspecting a hidden agenda behind his railing against the remnants of the totalitarian past.

“This is hardly the first time when Bishop Giorgi preached ethnically tinged sermons aimed at sowing the seeds of discord,” notes Rashan Ziadaliev, a civic activist from Marneuli region. He recalls that a month ago, the cleric referred to ethnic Azeri citizens as “visitors” to the country, “temporarily residing on Georgian soil.”

No surprise that Sandro Bregadze, firebrand nationalist and founder of the Georgian March movement, jumped on the bandwagon, throwing his weight behind the Bishop and vowing to “defend his Grace to the last drop of blood.” Soon a Georgian-language barrage followed on Facebook, calling for razing down of statues honoring “Narimanov and other traitors.”

Kamila Mamedova of Marneuli Radio is concerned that many Azeri residents view cleric’s double-edged address as an attack on the source of their ethnic pride. “When you insist that the Azeri are not indigenous to the land and press them to leave for ‘their original homeland,’ [Azeri] people find it hard to swallow an assault on a prominent personality of their kin,” she argues. Mamedova also suggested looking into “the etymology” of Narimanov’s popular appeal.

Ziadaliev acknowledges that Narimanov is a deeply divisive figure and should not be glorified for his Bolshevik endeavors. On the other side of the coin, he notes, Narimanov – a physician and a lifelong educator – was a fine specimen of Azerbaijani literati and left a rich cultural legacy. “Senior people from my village Kizilajlo [in Marneuli region] still tell stories about him going door-to-door – campaigning against the child marriage and promoting the merits of women’s education,” he says.

Still, it seems hard to detach Narimanov from his ambivalent biography or to replace his statue with one of a less contentious figure of Azeri descent. The problem is, Ziadaliev adds with some regret, all such figures are neglected or airbrushed from Georgia’s history. “In my school years, I could not find a single reference in textbooks about renowned Azeris who had played a role in our country’s past – though there is a handful of them – Khudia of Borchalo, Mirza Fatali Akhundov and others,” he remarks.

Soviet Past Research Laboratory (SovLab), a respected institute that studies Georgia’s Soviet history, delivered sharp criticism of Bishop’s remarks. “[The issue of dismantling] Narimanov’s statue must not stir a fresh conflict in the region. Instead, senior clergymen should strive to establish Peace on Earth and Goodwill Towards Men,” reads the statement released on May 27.

SovLab researcher Irakli Khvadagiani concurs with the assessment that Narimanov’s name is tainted with his Communist credentials, adding that he should by no means be lionized. However, he thinks that a standalone effort – removal of a statue – would have little if any bearing on the larger context of rethinking Soviet legacy.

There are legitimate grounds to cast doubt on the sincerity of cleric’s intentions, the historian told, drawing attention to GOC’s reluctance to demand purging of scores of monuments venerating ethnic Georgian Communists with the same zeal.

“Entire Georgia is dotted with Stalin’s statues and other Soviet symbols, and the Church has not taken an unequivocal stance towards Stalin’s cult of personality,” notes Khvadagiani. He himself takes the middle ground regarding the fate of Narimanov’s sculpture and calls for reaching a consensual solution – by launching an informed discussion with locals, to start with.

The Patriarchate (Holy See of the Georgian Orthodox Church) has not yet commented on the cleric’s sermon.

Meanwhile, Bishop Giorgi made a comeback significantly dialing down his ethnic-colored rhetoric. “I want to stress that such [totalitarian figures] are free of ethnic affiliation. I view Georgian collaborators – [Sergo] Orjonikidze and [Philipe] Makharadze [Bolsheviks who have egged on Soviet Russia’s invasion in 1921]– on par with Narimanov,” he stressed.

Instead, the Bishop brought back to the fore the border dispute between Georgia and Azerbaijan over a strip of land that houses Davit Gareji Monastery. A fertile ground – for him – to pour more fuel on the fire.

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