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Georgians form a human chain against Russian occupation, September 1, 2008. Photo: Vladimer Shioshvili/flickr

Those Suspicious Georgians

Mistrust is becoming a key societal characteristic of democracy

Back in 1990s, an optimistic argument was widely held, that during democratic transition a country like Georgia would overcome the Soviet-era estrangement between the state and the citizens and enhance interpersonal as well as institutional trust. But twenty years down the road, the polls and surveys seem to paint a starkly different picture.

The Caucasus Barometer survey, administered by the Caucasus Research Resource Centers (CRRC) reveals that various elements of interpersonal trust are stagnating and even declining in Georgia.

The Caucasus Barometer 2017 reveals that majority of Georgians (52%) respond with “you cannot be too careful” to “most people can be trusted” statement. In comparison, only 18% say most people can be trusted, while 30% remain neutral.

Significant decrease in trust was observed between 2013 and 2015. The 2013 survey showed that those agreeing “most people can be trusted” amounted to 29%, additional 33% believed that “you cannot be too careful,” while 35% remained neutral. In 2015, in comparison, the number of those who say they trust most people decreased by 10% while the number of those saying “you cannot be too careful” hit 52%. Additional 27% cautiously place themselves between these two options.

Low trust and dashed economic hopes

Rati Shubladze, Sociologist and CRRC researcher explains: “trust can be discussed in two ways. Firstly, trust is a factor in economic relations and secondly, there is a dimension of social capital.”

In the first regard, Shubladze says, “decline in interpersonal trust in Georgia is linked to country’s economic performance.”

“The country is not moving forward fast enough in terms of economy. Before, between 2004 and 2007, Georgia had a high economic growth and high social mobility. Despite all the problems of raising inequality and unfair distribution, in Georgians’ perceptions, rapid changes were possible,” Shubladze adds.  “Today, the myth that something may change soon is not there anymore”.

He says people perceive economic stagnation setting in since 2012, which is something even the government admits. While the 2012 marked the first time Georgians have experienced peaceful transfer of power, the initial optimism expressed in 2013 polls quickly faded, as economy failed to pick up.

Importantly, Shubladze tells us, “change in the level of interpersonal trust does not happen in an isolated manner. Rather, we see trust in general decline – towards any institution… towards anything”.

Spontaneous protests that have paralyzed Tbilisi’s main thoroughfare in May and June of 2018, albeit short, were a vivid demonstration of plummeting trust towards the executive branch officials in Georgia. The dramatic fall is particularly noticeable towards the government, police and prosecution, as a regular political survey solicited by the International Republican Institute (IRI) has also shown.

In search of elusive “social capital”

As for social capital, “it is peculiar in Georgia,” CRRC researcher tells me. “While institutional trust in a classical sense and involvement in organizations have traditionally been low in Georgia, countries like ours had higher levels of interpersonal trust. But even in this regard, we now see a decline in Georgia.”

At least some economists, such as Elinor Ostrom, an American political economist known for her writings about social capital, argued that the governmental performance affects not only economic outcomes, but may also have impact on the development (or not) of social capital – with interpersonal trust being one of its chief markers.

Interestingly, Caucasus Barometer 2017 also showed that more educated Georgians tend to trust more. Shubladze explains that “less educated with less social capital are less eager to trust.”

Florian Muehlfried, social anthropologist who has done extensive anthropological research in Georgia tells me that Georgians’ skepticism can in part be culture-bound. He considers it has to do with the overall uncertainty people had to deal with historically – the uncertainty which was amplified and re-enforced during the hard transition in 1990s.

“If you are able to trust the future, you can develop certainty towards the future: probably think about storing some goods, about capitalizing others. But if you don’t, this is a situation in which you cannot have a sense of certainty,” says Muehlfried. It does not make sense to invest in what Georgians call “Tsutisopeli” – “the world of one minute” – simultaneously denoting human life-time and the subjectively perceived world this human lives in.

In this sense, Merhlfried argues, “mistrust is encoded in [the Georgian] culture.” Although he warns: “I am against essentionalizing of culture of mistrust… Trust is very context-specific and person specific, so we need to be very specific when we ask about trust,” he says.

Is mistrust really a problem?

Muehlfried argues that trust should not automatically be problematized. He tells me that “certain amount of mistrust is very healthy for society and the society that tries to do away with mistrust will become totalitarian.”

“We seem to observe the opposite to mainstream assumptions of high-trust or low-trust societies in Georgia,” Muehlfried tell me. He believes that “certain mechanisms of functioning democracies are based on mistrust and this has history in Georgia as well.” Certainly, the classical notions of the “checks-and-balances” as well as the processes like a parallel vote tabulation are essentially based on mistrust – a notion that, if left to their own devices, state officials (and people in general), might make self-serving, or simply erroneous decisions.

So while mistrust might not be automatically bad, and may even serve a healthy purpose, are Georgians becoming more probing and skeptical, or more atomized and cynical? An answer to that question might help us deduce the direction in which Georgia is heading – according to the IRI poll, 67% think it is the wrong direction.

About Otto Kobakhidze

Otto Kobakhidze has graduated from Central European University's Nationalism Studies Program in 2017. He is currently pursuing his doctoral degree in culture studies at Tbilisi State University.