2 Days of Namakhvani Protests in Tbilisi – Strange Alliances, Main Paradoxes, and Controversies | Discourse around Protests Draws a Line of Key Social Divisions | Troubled: Queer Support for Rioni Valley Protests | Egoistic Thinking: Georgian Reaction to Ryanair Incident
As the protests against the controversial Namakhvani HPP moved to the Georgian capital on May 23, some ugly truths hit Tbilisi too: after more than 200 days of protests, the Namakhvani cause – coming from the “outside” of the political and intellectual “center” – still reverberates and shocks it. The body politic, so painfully constricted to the capital’s few neighborhoods, and the sterile TV studios grapple helplessly with the fresh understanding – not all politics are Tbilisi politics, not all disputes come from these neighborhoods, not all lines are dividing the same sides… Here is Nini, your operator, trying to make sense as the old divisions try to adapt and absorb the new.
STRANGE ALLIANCES The scale of two days of the long-announced massive protests of the Rioni Valley movement on May 23-24 did not surprise anyone. Large crowds coming from western Georgia were joined in solidarity by the participants of various newly-emerged workers’ movements across the country, as well as by the residents of the capital city. Their backgrounds and ideology are as diverse as they may be: Tbilisi rally united groups from political left and right, with radical-right, and ultra-right standing – uneasily, even aggressively – but still alongside prominent feminist or LGBTQ activists. After the government refused to meet protesters’ demands overnight, the activists pledge to continue protests and disrupt the road traffic.
- In Photos: Tbilisi Hosts Massive Protest Against Namakhvani HPP
- Gov’t Dismisses Namakhvani Protesters’ Demands as ‘Ultimatum’
AND A UNITY EVEN STRANGER This, however, was not the only strange alliance that Tbilisi witnessed that day: those who are against the cause of protesters – and thus for building the Namakhvani HPP – also found a common ground, and discovered themselves with no less unusual bedfellows. Together, they employed some rather rough – some may even say ethically questionable – tools to fight the protesters’ cause.
Namakhvani protests have divided the Georgian public. While the opponents of the project cite detrimental investor agreement and underresearched environmental concerns, the supporters – among them political elites both from the opposition and the ruling Georgian Dream party – believe the project is essential for energy security to make the country less dependent on the imported energy, particularly from hostile neighbors. The statist and economic liberal streams, strong both in the ruling party and the opposition thus converge in their disdain to the counter-establishmentarian left and right. The old schemas are visibly breaking down: sometimes the protesters are slammed for keeping xenophobic radical right groups, who try to ride the wave of protests at arm’s length. Sometimes, they are branded as Russia-managed, or as Russia’s useful idiots, because… apparently that’s the best (or the most habitual?) way to discredit people in Georgia. Follow our Namakhvani tag for earlier developments about the controversial project.
So below are some of the most profound and strange controversies (and sometimes paradoxes) the two days of protests brought to light:
- Pseudo-patriotism allegations: the government officials, led by PM Irakli Garibashvili slammed the rally by likening the protests to “pseudo-patriotic activism” from the “dark” 90s. Note to self: this is the same Garibashvili, who is the pivotal protagonist in the infamous “Cartographer’s Case”, and the associated “David Gareji is Georgia” plots, which claims the conspiracy of the previous government and civil servants “sold our lands to Azerbaijan.”
- Discrediting campaigns: the media/social media campaigns, often through fake news and unfounded allegations, have accompanied the protests since their origins but intensified ahead and during the Tbilisi protests. Read more here.
- Nazis and Commies! Some opposition leaders, like right-libertarian Zurab Girchi Japaridze, described the protests as the union of “fascists of various colors and red-green communists.” This comes from the very same opposition leaders who themselves struggle with some questionable political and economic ideas, like privatizing sidewalks and considering pedophilia an economic activity to be regulated by the market’s invisible hand…
- Perfection Requirements: Nobody likes a rookie: Varlam Goletiani, a 28-year-old leader of a rather single-issue protest and a newcomer to the political scene, found himself pushed against the wall. To be considered credible, he now needs to give the answers about LGBTQ issues, the Cartographers’ case, and everything else the ever-struggling nation of Georgia has gone through after regaining its independence. He tries to say, his movement voices people’s concern about specific matters – but that response is not going to carry him far. He is playing in the major league now…
- Troubled: Queer Support: still, in a country where even police often refuse to guarantee the safety of the LGBTQ activists, managing large crowds with participants of diverse ideologies and views becomes quite a challenge. Various LGBTQ activists have expressed open support to the protests, and some of them legitimately expect some reciprocal respect for their identity and personal safety. There were at least two reports of violent hate attacks on activists wearing LGBTQ symbols on part of prominent radical-right figures. The response by rally organizers was limited to denouncing violence and calling everybody to abstain from wearing any symbols but the “national” ones. Their opponents reasonably retorted that that religious (Orthodox Christian) symbols were apparently allowed. There were calls on police to properly respond to the incidents, but so far the men in blue observe from afar.
- Unfreedom of religion: while many from Rioni Valley, the area where HPP is set to be built, openly brandish their Orthodox Christian identity as the component of their struggle, the protest leaders so far refrained from alienating other faiths. Still, social media was filled with pictures of protesting clerics or religious symbols in the rally. The groups that portray themselves as ‘tolerant’ obviously have a problem with outwardly religious compatriots identifying with Namakhvani protest. Freedom of religion and the freedom of expression: another troubling issue of liberal democracy that surely won’t be resolved over the power-plant discussion… But it helps to try.
- Us vs them: the ‘bridges’ between Tbilisi and the countryside featured strongly in the public discourse too. The protesters were sometimes portrayed by those on the ‘woke’ side as lacking awareness to grasp all the benefits of the colossal project, unable to see the bigger picture. But what about those in the capital who lack empathy and disregard the human rights concerns linked to such large-scale projects? In 2020, such violations were identified in another large-scale HPP project, Nenskra, by international watchdogs: EBRD, EIB Say Nenskra HPP Non-compliant to International Standards.
- From Russia with Love: last but not least – for years – if not decades – now, political discussions in Georgia were marked by branding those with different views as Russia stooges. The approach has been widely applied by the ruling party and the opposition in their mud-slinging matches, but now both have turned their projectiles against the Rioni Valley movement. Arguments? The radical right figures which are close to Russia happen to approve of the protests, and also, the protesters speak ill of Turkey, the chief investor. So – goest the argument – the protest, which intends to damage the prospect of Georgia’s energy independence, has to be manipulated from Russia. This comes, ironically, from the government responsible for indefinitely suspending the Anaklia deep sea port project, which was – for a fact- opposed from Russia.
POSITIVE THINKING PATTERNS Speaking of Russia, occupation and human rights concerns that Georgia is comfortable sacrificing for its perceived “national interests: The reaction by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the incident in Belarus, where a Ryanair flight was diverted to capture the opposition media figure, was more than meek. It came late – after the plane has landed at its intended destination in Vilnius, after the ordeal. And it expressed happiness over the “safe landing” without too much fuss about the incident. Parliamentary Speaker Kakha Kuchava had a tad stricter tone, but still lacking emphasis on the journalist’s detention. As an exception, President Zurabishvili was more aligned with the European Union’s tone in her tweet, calling “forced landing of the Ryanair flight in Belarus and the arrest of a journalist” unacceptable and violating “too many international norms to be ignored.” Which, still, begs a question: exactly how many international norms Madam President is comfortable with ignoring?
VALUES WITHIN BORDERS The meek response was, unfortunately, not an isolated incident, but a part of the larger predicament of Georgia’s foreign policy, with became a hostage to a single, egoistic issue – what if President Lukashenka gets angry and recognizes the independence of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia? But what if, by drifting too far from the EU and U.S. positions, the country finds itself both stripped of territories and drained of its moral case for being a part of the free world? We got some interesting read to fuel that debate:
- Opinion | Time to Change Georgia’s Self-centered Foreign Policy
- Opinion | Georgia Must Build the Moral Case for its European Future
That’s the full lid for today. Celebrate the bizarre and the curious in Georgia’s politics with us every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday!