Levan Tsutskiridze is Executive Director of the Eastern European Center for Multi-party Democracy (EECMD)
Georgia has witnessed unbelievable violence during the first week of July. The homophobic mob, egged on by the religious extremists that are entrenched in the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchy and encouraged by the Government’s inaction, targeted the activists of Tbilisi Pride (which had to be canceled), civil society representatives, and critical media. At times, unchained violence broke on simple passers-by who happened to be “inappropriately” dressed. Many people – and an unprecedented number of journalists, 53 – were injured. One cameraman, Lekso Lashkarava, who was reportedly beaten by tens of assailants, was found dead two days after having being discharged from the hospital. The July violence has further increased the gap between Georgia’s democratic aspirations and the reality: it has been years now, that the key indicators are slipping, while polarization and violence in Tbilisi and in the country grows.
It is hard to believe, that this violence was spontaneous, or a result of police incompetence. We have seen in the past years, that the police possess and can deploy substantial resources and skills to control the mass protests. After all, millions were spent on equipping and training the riot police – including by the partner countries. Almost one month has passed after the violent events, but nobody took the political responsibility. The Minister of Interior, faced by the opposition and media protest in the Parliament, left the hall without providing his report. The inaction of the government, coupled with hate speech and, at times, even physical confrontation of the officials with their critics, is perceived by ultra-conservative, violent groups as an encouragement, especially since their leaders remain unpunished.
What is happening in Georgia, is a premeditated attempt by the small, but influential group of the religious and civil authorities to cancel democracy while pretending to act in the name of the majority of Georgians. Violence on journalists is not a culmination, but merely an intermediate step of this plan. If this attempt goes unpunished, they will do worse.
This is because the organizers of this group have no positive agenda – they only want to cling to money and power indefinitely. Now that they have embarked on the path of violence, the stakes got higher: many are conscious that they took part in criminal actions and shall the winds chance, may be prosecuted. For this very reason, any means are now good to cling to power.
Society must respond to this unbridled aggression peacefully, but in an organized fashion, which is both realistic and feasible.
In reality, those who are rationally engaging in violence and organized pogroms are a minority, and their actions not only do not reflect the will of the majority of Georgians but directly oppose it. These minority groups benefit from impunity and gain influence because they hope that their friends and supporters high up – in the government and the patriarchy – will always stand by them, will continue to provide protection, resources, and information which feeds their violent actions and, it seems, their personal fortunes, too.
But their fortunes may turn. They are a political asset now but may become a dangerous liability tomorrow. What happens then? Nobody from their protectors would shed a tear. They feel the time is short, and that’s why they are going all in, trying to capitalize on transient success. The more time passes, the higher the risk that they will be chosen to carry the buck. The democratic civil society must use it as an advantage.
We can be confident, that this violence, will fail, sooner, or later. This is because they have already failed the battle of ideas: resorting to physical violence is a clear indication that they have no more arguments and are fighting the rearguard battle. Yes, the danger will persist, their failure won’t be automatic and nobody – neither the United States or the European Union – will fight this battle for us. The future of Georgia’s democracy, and, therefore, the future of Georgia is to be determined by the Georgian citizens, it is up to us to carry the risks and shoulder the effort.
To succeed, the public protest against violence, intolerance, and all those vices that were on display in July must move beyond spontaneous rallies and demonstrations, take a much more organized, determined, and, crucially, diverse form. It is hard to recall a pro-democratic civic movement that achieved anything without having a long-term vision and specific plan of action. Of course, events may emerge that change the political context, but these are events outside our control and therefore, we cannot possibly count on them. It is therefore essential to come up with a clear and large-scale, democratic action plan which will represent a consensus of all democratic forces.
This is a difficult task, but not impossible, especially now, when the democratic center became a target of violence and reprisals and is, thus, existentially threatened. The non-violent, pro-democratic, civic project and movement shall have clear objectives and an obvious plan. This is the precondition for the survival of the democratic center, and for its ultimate victory.
This is not the task only for the liberals to undertake, because, despite their influence and their experience in spearheading the protest, there are not many of them. Without them, no change is possible, but only they are not capable of achieving a breakthrough. What is important to acknowledge, is that the future of Georgian democracy, the rule of law, and of individual citizens is not only of concern to liberals. It is not true, that the Georgian society is cleft in two – a small group of liberals on one side and orthodox traditionalists on the other. Our country is very diverse and we, liberals, who like to think about diversity, must reflect this preference to diversity in concrete actions. We must build bridges to other groups that are also trying for their voice to be heard. Unfortunately, today we again are at the stage when the dividing line does not pass through political beliefs and preferences for various nuances of democratic governance but is rooted in our vision of the future – do we want to live in a free, democratic, society, or a quasi-authoritarian, backward, failed and poor state?
Politics and civic activism are the domain of ideas. If we insist on perceiving our society divided in two, that is the political world we would get, and the actions we would take. But if we can demonstrate to ourselves and to the outside observers, that our society has many more factors of unity, than of division, then we would be able to form a wide and strong democratic coalition. The majority of Georgian citizens do not like violence in our streets, are against corruption in government, church, or politics, and want to have a brighter, more promising future in the country. To live, where her or his rights are respected and where the law serves society, rather than party or criminal bosses. This is the link that unites liberals and conservatives alike.
We are at the stage when the majority must realize that it is not a monolithic whole, but a sum of individual minorities, and that it must act accordingly, so that tomorrow, other of its composing parts are not targeted by the unbridled mob. Some groups are not actively protesting violence and effectively stand outside the democratic process because nobody speaks to them today. To find the missing links that unite, the liberal forces must deliberate internally, and with conservatives, the city with the village, those better off with less fortunate.
The mistake that we often made, was to assume that we cannot possibly understand each other. But the situation has changed now: there are no complex issues, the tragedy of the past days has driven a clear line dividing the society between the majority that resents violence and the minority that supports it. The choice is now simple: living in modern, civic society or choosing obscurantist diktat of the clerical and political elite. Most Georgian citizens prefer the first option, even those who do not speak out publicly – at least not yet.
Only wide, inclusive dialogue can bring about the “grand coalition” which is required for meaningful pro-democratic change. Political parties, media, and civic activists have their role to play in that coalition. But its membership must go beyond these traditional actors – the real civic coalition must be built from local communities up, consolidating in the capital at the highest political channels – through the parliament, but also through civic action, protest, or diplomatic relations. Such a grand coalition, which, alongside good ideas, would have good and actionable plans and international support would be a strong combination for our future combat for liberty – of which there would still be many, and soon.
The democratic community of nations will understand the ideals of such a coalition and will find the common language with it. Statements made by our international partners are a testimony to their unwavering support of democratic civil society. In the immediate future, free media and civil society will come under increasing pressure from the radicalized groups that unite, more and more obviously, under illiberal banners and consolidate significant financial and political resources. The international community, which could always count on Georgian civil society as an ally in building the democratic future, will yet have to play an important role in assuring the resilience of these actors and for making sure that pressure exerted upon it does not remain without international reaction and tangible response.
Georgia’s democratic forces can still do a lot, but in the political battle that is upon us, in an incomplete, damaged democratic system, the victory will depend not only on the soundness of ideas and arguments but on better organization and on building a truly democratic coalition. Nobody will be a loser of this combat, save the small group of violent criminals. And this is what Georgia needs now: a shared victory. If we achieve it, not only the democracy won’t be canceled – which is now a real danger – but it would emerge strengthened and with a wider basis of support required for a systemic reset.