The Dispatch

The Dispatch – May 26/27: Times They Are A-Changin’

Georgia Marks Independence Day – Rioni Protests Leave Tbilisites with Bad Conscience – Violent Incidents Spark New Queer Debate – Funding Questions on Rioni Protests Point at Ugly Reality – Opposition Party Gets Rid of Female MP – Major Win for Borjomi Strikers – Controversial Election of HCOJ Members

Today Georgia celebrates Independence Day – the most significant national holiday, allowing the public to reflect on the path the country has gone, and the way ahead. Two days ago, on May 24, the world marked another important date – the birthday of Bob Dylan, the iconic musician and poet. His famous song, “The Times They Are A-Changin’” could indeed (hopefully) serve as the anthem of all things the nation is going through at the moment. Here is Nini, your operator, trying to catch up with all the rapid shifts on the ground.

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Happy Independence Day! Georgia marks 103 years since it proclaimed itself the independent Democratic Republic on May 26, 1918. The independence back then was short-lived, lost to Soviet Occupation in 1921, but reclaimed 70 years later, in 1991. Symbolically also today, the remains of General Giorgi Kvinitadze, Georgia’s National Hero and the commander-in-chief of the Democratic Republic of Georgia, were reburied from France with full military honors. Georgia meets the celebrations with fresh and turbulent discussions supposed to reflect on acquired liberties and define new freedoms.

DISRUPTIONS Along with holiday celebrations, Tbilisi hosted massive rallies for four days in a row, organized by the Rioni Valley Movement protesting against the construction of the controversial Namakhvani HPP in western Georgia. After days of protests, controversies and deliberate traffic disruptions, the activists left the capital city and headed for Rioni Valley, where they pledge to obstruct ongoing preparatory works of the HPP. The four days left some Tbilisites with a bad conscience, with a sense that the capital, quite unfairly, failed the protesters: by, for example, getting annoyed due to the resulting traffic jams, while the months-long restrictions on the freedom of movement expression against Rioni Valley residents have been more or less ignored from the center (more discussion highlights in our previous issue).

SYMBOLS OF DISCORD Key criticism directed at the Tbilisi rally organizers involved mismanagement of hate attacks against LGBTQ activists over queer symbols by ultra-conservatives who attended the protests. Denouncing violence, the movement leaders first called on protesters to avoid wearing symbols to prevent further violence and instead concentrate on the common goal. Following criticism that Christian symbols were allowed, Maka Suladze, one of the leaders, stated she would temporarily put away the cross she was carrying with her, not to make anybody uncomfortable in the city as diverse as Tbilisi.

BETWEEN RIGHTS AND WEAPONIZATION Some local LGBTQ groups openly backed the Namakhvani cause but called on leaders to explicitly denounce the “acts of violence” against activists on May 23-24 rallies. The incidents and related criticism, however, gave a rise to a debate whether the sensitive issue risks to be weaponized against similar protests, and all this without asking the very members of the queer community first: in a blog published by Publika magazine, an author identifying as queer voices fears about his identity being used for smearing and splitting purposes against those taking care of the country. “One acronym – LGBT (involving us) has often become a ‘weapon’ to destroy important social movements,” the article reads.

FUNDRAISING CULTURES Organizers of Tbilisi protests were hounded with questions about how they fund the rallies: among them, Irakli Kobakhidze, Chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream party, had the audacity to question the finances of the movement, threatening with inquiries and alleging the protesters could not afford the expensive stage in Tbilisi with own resources. The activists have repeatedly stated they mostly depend on money transfers by Georgian emigres who back the cause. Indeed, it is well-known that Georgian crowdfunding culture is largely dependent on such transactions. The organizers further pledged to make their funding public and transparent. There is a single problem though: the fact that political elites only “make it” through backing by the wealthy has become so normal in Georgia that an alternative, truly democratic reality is neither imaginable nor allowed.

THE LEAK Heading back home, Rioni activists take some little win with them: a leaked Justice Ministry report which echoes the opponents’ concerns over “capitulating” state concessions in the investor agreement of the Namakhvani HPP. Authorities have not so far denied the authenticity of the document which went public on May 25. For a government that is usually quick to denounce disinformation, this sounds like a confirmation. More: Leaked Justice Ministry Report Critical of Namakhvani HPP Accord.

A QUOTE Mamuka Khazaradze, former banker leading the opposition Lelo for Georgia party, offered his own version of Jimi Hendrixian “when the power of love overcomes the love of power the world will know peace” quote:  “It is when ‘let’s build’ rallies beat the ‘do not build’ rallies that the country starts its revival,” he wrote on Facebook, alluding to the ongoing anti-HPP protests.

A QUOTA The mandate of Salome Mujiri, the female MP from the New Political Center – Girchi party, was canceled by the Parliament on May 25 upon her own request. Her replacement with Aleksandre Rakviashvili, a male candidate, had been expected from the very campaign period, as the party protested 1-in-4 gender quotas and even appealed it at the Constitutional Court. The move, however voluntary, harms recent initiatives towards equal representation. To prevent similar maneuvers in the future, Georgian Dream MP Nino Tsilosani suggested a bill to allow mandate replacement only with the MP of the same gender.

BORJOMI WIN After all, collective action does make sense: following 8 days of a general strike, workers of Borjomi factories producing popular mineral water say they have reached an agreement: most demands have been met, including pay rise and improved labor conditions. The protests reportedly prompted changes of administration and director, with the new head being more open to dialogue.

BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE The government, which acts quite unbothered over the ongoing protests, may have the reason to do so: while most attention and discussions focused on Rioni Valley cause, 4 judges have been elected as members of the High Council of Justice, the body overseeing the judiciary, in a questionable procedure against the calls by diplomats and local watchdogs who claim that the move goes against the spirit of the EU-brokered April 19 Agreement.

That’s the full lid for today. Celebrate the bizarre and the curious in Georgia’s politics with us every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday!

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