Grab from TV footage showing restored Bagrati Cathedral in Kutaisi on September 16.
Two weeks before the parliamentary elections, senior opposition and ruling party representatives, including President Saakashvili, gathered on Sunday in country’s second largest city of Kutaisi to attend a ceremony, led by Georgian Orthodox Church leader Ilia II, marking the opening of controversially rebuilt medieval Bagrati Cathedral.
Saakashvili vowed to rebuild the cathedral in early 2008 when after being inaugurated for his second presidential term he took a spiritual oath in the ruins of this early 11th century cathedral, named after Bagrat III, the first king of united Georgia.
Last week Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Ilia II, invited both the opposition and the authorities to attend the opening ceremony and President Saakashvili responded with a televised address to the nation on September 14 calling on political parties to show unity.
“We are grateful to everyone, especially to you Mr. President… who have participated in the restoration of this magnificent cathedral,” said Patriarch Ilia II, who was standing next to President Saakashvili inside the cathedral.
“This [cathedral] is the most symbolic embodiment of the idea of Georgia’s unity. I want to thank his Holiness for initiating restoration of this cathedral,” said Saakashvili, who attended the ceremony with his wife and six-year-old son. “Representatives of many political parties came here. We may have differing views, including on politics, economy, but I hope we do not differ on the main issue that we should never cede Georgia to our enemy no matter of our personal ambitions.”
“If we stand together, like we do now in this Cathedral… we will also be able to restore united, strong Georgia,” Saakashvili said.
Although the Georgian Dream opposition coalition, which is the major rival of Saakashvili’s ruling UNM party in the upcoming elections, was represented at the ceremony by most of its senior figures, the leader of the coalition Bidzina Ivanishvili was not present.
At the time when ceremony was ongoing in Kutaisi, Ivanishvili was preparing for a two-hour television phone-in show on Channel 9, the TV station funded by him.
“This [opening of restored cathedral] is a really positive event in our history,” Ivanishvili said when he was asked during the program on Sunday why he did not attend the opening ceremony. “But Saakashvili is trying to hijack it and tries, like in other cases, to misappropriate it. It [restoration of the cathedral] has been done by the Georgian people and I personally have contributed largely to the restoration of this cathedral.”
“I do not want to downplay [importance of this event], but as the political process is ongoing now I want to stress once again that Saakashvili is trying to capitalize on it as if he has done it; his contribution is the least to restoration of this cathedral,” Ivanishvili said, adding that he was not able to attend the opening ceremony, because of his phone-in show on Channel 9, during which he mainly spoke of his coalition’s key pre-election promises ranging from agriculture development to social protection and healthcare and also criticized Saakashvili’s government as the worst one in Georgia’s history.
Among Georgian Dream senior figures present at the ceremony in Kutaisi were Irakli Alasania, leader of Our Georgia-Free Democrats party; Davit Usupashvili, leader of Republican Party; Zviad Dzidziguri, leader of Conservative Party; Gubaz Sanikidze of National Forum party. Among other opposition representatives present at the event were Christian-Democratic Movement leader Giorgi Targamadze; New Rights Party leader Davit Gamkrelidze; representatives from the Labor Party and from several other parties.
Reconstruction of the Bagrati Cathedral has been a controversial project.
The UN cultural agency, UNESCO, inscribed the ruins of the Bagrati Cathedral, jointly with well-preserved Gelati Monastery close to Kutaisi, on the World Heritage List in 1994.
But after the start of the Bagrati Cathedral’s reconstruction, the site was inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger in 2010. UNESCO at the time called on the Georgian authorities to halt the reconstruction, saying that the project was undermining the integrity and authenticity of the site.
At its annual session this summer, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee was planning discussion of a report and a draft decision lambasting reconstruction works of the Bagrati Cathedral; according to that draft decision, as a result of restoration works the cathedral “has been altered to such an extent that its authenticity has been irreversibly compromised and that it no longer contributes to the justification for the criterion” for which it was inscribed on the World Heritage List. The Georgian authorities criticized the report as “unprofessional”; at its session in early July the World Heritage Committee decided “exceptionally to adjourn the debate” on the issue until its next session in 2013.
Patriarch Ilia II, who described restoration of the Bagrati Cathedral as “a huge miracle”, invited both the opposition and the authorities to jointly attend next week opening of another cathedral, located in port town of Poti in western Georgia.