The Dispatch

The Dispatch – February 24-25: Time for Republic, Reborn

100 Years Since Tbilisi Fell to Soviets – More Protests Planned – Gov’t Lifts Restrictions, Curfew Remains – Opposition’s Unlearned Lessons – Ruling Party’s Responds Int’l Criticism –  Shaming and Framing Media Campaigns  – Academics Weigh in – Jailed Melia Misses TV Set

Good evening from snowy Tbilisi, which mourns today 100 years since the Soviet conquered the capital of the Georgian Democratic Republic. There shall be no better day to force Georgians to think of the common future, but as things stand, instead, the country is bracing for new waves of ever-lasting crisis and dangerous polarization, fuelled by narcissism and egos of Georgia’s politics.

SAME OLD SNOW It was on the night of February 24, 1921, when Giorgi Kvinitadze, Commander-in-Chief of the Georgian Defense Forces decided that he was risking being outflanked and took a fateful decision to leave the capital. Soviet Russia’s Red Army took over Tbilisi the next day and even though the Georgian resistance continued for almost one more month, that day marks the onset of 70-year Soviet occupation. This ended the fledgling statehood of the Democratic Republic of Georgia, the first social-democratic nation in Europe. The trauma from 100 years ago still lingers, with the ruling Georgian Dream and opposition parties trading accusations over bolshevism and collaborationism.

ID(L)ES OF MARCH Multi-striped opposition will be setting their differences aside once more and marching together in Tbilisi on Friday, to protest opposition leader Nika Melia’s pre-trial detention, and to compel the Georgian Dream to release the alleged “political prisoners” and to schedule snap elections. Even though Georgia’s strategic partners have been very concerned, and even “shocked” as the UK Ambassador put it, their facilitation is yielding only proforma results so far. The Prime Minister says he always wanted talks (“So Help Me God!”) but is “categorically” rejecting the snap polls and the release of Melia. The Georgian Dream has been here before and hopes the foreign pressure pendulum would swing to putting pressure on the opposition. They may be right. We were harsh in our editorial yesterday, but we got some attention. Here it is if you missed it:

SICKNESS THAT CURES To get some traction after a disastrous start, new-old Prime Minister Garibashvili decided to lift some of the restrictions linked to the pandemic. Importantly, however, the curfew effective daily from 21:00 to 5:00 stays indefinitely, protest and freedom of expression will set you back USD 600 – that fine, which is well over most Georgians’ salaries, is applied if you brave into streets after the government-imposed bedtime. And the government-sponsored trolls have already been deployed to remind everyone that it is not authoritarianism looming large, but rather a UNM-era dictatorship that we are supposed to hate.

OLD HABITS DIE HARD These voices are getting some help from the opposition quarters. Gigi Ugulava, who kind-of-left European Georgia a little while ago feels reinvigorated by the battle cry. Ugulava, former Tbilisi mayor, who already served his jail time, was promising to track the policemen who arrested Melia. “The names of the participants of the vandal operation will be on social media, on every street post,” said Ugulava. That kind of talk will come to haunt the opposition. And also, Mr. Ugulava, weren’t you supposed to be yielding your place to youth?

FRAMES But the Georgian media is way past that small-minded place where Mr. Ugulava now finds himself. Both pro-government and pro-opposition channels have been chain-naming-shaming-framing in a protracted spat of polarizing hysteria. Pro-opposition Mtavari-Arkhi TV, for example, has replaced surnames of GD MPs with “Gavrilov,” referring to Orthodox Communist Russian MP whose Tbilisi visit in June 2019 gave birth to much of Georgia’s political crises. The pro-government POSTV channel, which has recently said it switched to “emergency broadcasting” to save us all from the UNM, retorted in kind, putting bullying titles to opposition figures speaking: UNM leader Zaal Udumashvili was displayed with “UNM’s unchanged Anchor” byline.. while European Georgia’s Bokeria was framed as “Saakashvili’s Security Council Secretary.”

RAISIN BUNS In the meantime, the ruling party is rushing to deflect international criticism. The western allies’ stocks are up among the opposition, but the ruling party is hunkering down. The GD MPs did not deny that criticism was anticipated, “and even partly acceptable,” to quote Nikoloz Samkharadze, Head of Parliamentary Foreign Relations Committee. But Samkharadze asserts, Mr. Melia is of the particularly nasty lot, not to be found elsewhere in Europe. Hence the foreigners’ misguided reaction. MP Giorgi Khelashvili, the Georgian Dream’s foreign policy starlet accused the opposition of cherry-picking (or to be more accurate, picking raisins from buns) saying the western voices have also been calling upon the opposition to end the parliamentary boycott. Some foreign expert voices were also raised in Georgian Dream’s support – old-time Georgia hand Lincoln Mitchell has admitted Irakli Kobakhidze’s flamethrower language is “lacking in political deftness”, but that the West’s hard talk does not fully address UNMs “lawlessness”. We are likely to see Mr. Mitchell on Imedi TV soon, and often.

ACADEMIC WRITING  For those who prefer some well-polished academic commentary over hysterical media-bullying, we’ve got you covered too! Responding to the “gruesome facts of the arrest of the leader of the largest opposition party and civil activists,” the academics – primarily including law professors and lecturers of leading Georgian universities – addressed the government to come to their senses. More specifically, professors called on the authorities to analyze existing risks, refrain from hindering the country’s democratic development, cease the use of repressive instruments, free the political prisoners, stop political persecutions, and return to the negotiations.

COLD MINDS vs SNOWFLAKES Public Defender Nino Lomjaria who slammed Melia’s arrest as disgraceful came under fire by ruling party leaders, including MP Giorgi Volski who decried the Ombudsperson’s statement as “emotional.” Of course, there is no place for creatures as sentimental and emotional as women in national crises: let the rational and cold-minded men take it from here… Oh, no, wait – a civil war, two ethnic conflicts, assassination attempts, and revolutions later, perhaps it is not the female gender that gets to be blamed for being excessive.

JAILHOUSE MOCK In the meantime, Mme Lomjaria visited the UNM Chair in custody to find out that he feels okay, except for the TV set he was lacking in his cell. The Special Penitentiary Service of Georgia quickly responded he can buy it in the jail shop. Finally, normal prison conditions in Georgia: you do not have to miss the outside world when jailed, they apparently provide all the lockdowns and inequality in there too!

BACK TO THE ROOTS Georgia was lucky in 1918-1921 (perhaps much unlike after 1991) to have the whole legion of clever, educated, dedicated, and professional, the political class that has imagined this commonwealth and expressed their hope and objective in the First Constitution, passed under the accompaniment of cannonade of the battle of Tbilisi on February 21, 1921. The new generations can and shall reach their ideas, and while the political fashions may have changed, the imagined Republic shall always fly the banner of human progress, individual liberty, and solidarity towards the disadvantaged and the oppressed.

This was all for today. Dispatch comes back on Friday – hopefully! 

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