Tornike Sharashenidze is professor and head of MA Program of International Affairs at the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs.

These shameful events posed new questions (or rather question marks) for the Georgian democracy. The country has achieved a lot since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It has effectively fought crime and corruption; it has managed to change its government through peaceful elections.

But is Georgia a secular state if the church can mobilize such a huge crowd and challenge the authorities? Can Georgia be a democracy when so many people do not understand basic values of liberty? These two problems may turn out much more difficult than corruption and fair elections.

But these problems are to be tackled immediately. For this, one has to understand what went wrong during the 22 years of independence and how it happened that May 17 became possible. This is a complex question, and so the answer is complex too. Let’s concentrate on the outstanding points.

1. The Georgian Orthodox Church. The Georgian church once played a visible role in preserving Georgian independence and the national idea in general. But since the annexation of Georgia by the Russian empire (the late 18th century) the church underwent drastic changes. Not only its autonomy was scrapped (and it became a part of the Russian church) but it became (like the Russian church proper itself) a subsidiary of the government. Of course, things went worse under the communist regime when church was controlled by KGB. It goes without saying that KGB influence could not be eradicated for 22 years. Besides, despite regaining autonomy Georgian Orthodox Church is still closely affiliated with the Russian church which still seems to be controlled by the Russia special services. As a result the Georgian church is generously provided with literature that condemns “the Satanic West,” “Masonic conspiracies against orthodox peoples” and praises “spiritual unity of the orthodox against the West.” It would not be fair to say that all of the Georgian clergymen are influenced by this propaganda but unfortunately there are more than enough. Their name is Legion and they are against Georgia’s European choice.

The Georgian church gained huge influence over the people due to the simple fact that Georgian authorities never were so popular given the difficulties of transition period – in wide-spread poverty and political instability church seemed to be the only institution that stood above the mundane problems and vanity. Realizing the increasing popularity of the church and especially its leader (patriarch Ilia II) the Georgian authorities (first Shevardnadze than Saakashvili) tried to turn the clergymen into their allies by granting them unprecedented economic privileges. As a result the Church receives a huge sum from the state budget and it enjoys tax exemptions (whereas it is vastly involved in commercial activities). Finally this backfired against the Saakashvili government. The Legion realized that by bestowing the above mentioned privileges Saakashvili merely tried to win time and keep the church quiet while he drove Georgia toward the West. Consequently these clergymen got involved in the election campaign of 2012 and contributed a lot to the change of regime.

After the elections the Legion became even more self-assured. When the LGBT rally was announced and when the new authorities supported the rights of sexual minorities the Legion was genuinely offended – they did not get involved in the regime change for nothing; they expected the new authorities to obey the rules dictated by the Legion (in better case they expected the new authorities to denounce Georgia’s pro-Western stance). On May 17 the Legion challenged the new authorities, it demonstrated its power. Now it is the turn of the government – either it repeats the mistake of Saakashvili or it reacts in a proper manner.

2. Education. The Soviet Union hardly provided education relevant for liberal values and democracy. Unfortunately since regaining its independence Georgia has struggled to reform its education system. Not only the elder people but the Georgian youth too severely lack civic education. The discussions among common people are dominated by conspiracy theories and evolve around mystical subjects. These people are easily influenced by the Legion.

3. Poverty and unemployment. As Georgia suffers from unemployment lots of people start to seek shelter in religious ceremonies, lots of people prefer to listen to promises about divine help rather than look for opportunities. Unemployed, poor people are always disappointed by their authorities; they are easily manipulated by the “spiritual leaders” and led against minorities that are blamed for their failures.

May 17 should become another turning point for Georgian democracy. It has made clear that the country faces a serious problem. If not the shameful events of this day the problem could be neglected further and the Legion would become even stronger. The Georgian non-governmental sector unanimously condemned the May 17 events and hopefully it will follow the problem to the end. Hopefully the authorities will do the same. If they do not do so then they will endanger not only their own position but the future of the country too. The authorities should start to apply civil code to the Legion, demonstrate strong commitment to the rule of law and finish with the interference of church in state affairs. Make no mistake: the church in West also committed various crimes and atrocities. This problem was solved only when the church was separated from the state and so it lost political power. Now the same has to be done in Georgia. It is not so easy but there is no other choice. It is now or never.