As we slowly roll into the new year, the ending of 2022 in Georgia does not appear to be much different from last December: the country is caught in the continued polarization, with a renewed spotlight on the health of its jailed ex-President; economic hunger here again meets the political one for change; and the blaring horns of traffic jams in Tbilisi scream public discontent. As the music from Christmas celebrations drowns out all unhappy noises for a while, the eternal discussions resurface about the right date to mark Christmas, to best fit our religious, pragmatic, and – most importantly – geopolitical preferences.
And yet, Georgia is bidding farewell to a year that shook us with unthinkable developments with lasting and dramatic impact. In 2022, one global crisis followed another, and Georgia found itself at the center (isn’t it always at the center?) of all new chaos and new opportunities. But all these new things got lodged in older, firmly fixed local narratives and patterns of thought and action.
Nini is back to the Dispatch to conclude 2022, review its highlights, and outline the trends to watch for in the coming year.
Farewell to Masks, Hello to Arms
THE VIRUS FADES When the last year started, the Covid-19 pandemic was still the global crisis that threatened to kill us all. Hard to recall what happened exactly: did it become less fatal, did we just stop to care, or did we all just get sick at some point or the other? One way or another, in the course of the year, the pandemic got slowly demoted from a public health emergency to a personal problem. Its many victims are now public statistics, but the pain that remains is real.
THE WAR COMES The Russian invasion of Ukraine found Georgia immersed in its habitual infighting and unprepared for this new challenge. The contrast between the government’s and public reactions could not have been starker. Many Georgians met the initial weeks of war with eyes sleepless from obsessively checking the news, with massive rallies of solidarity, with volunteers helping the defenders in what they believed was Georgia’s war, too. The government, on the other hand, doggedly resisted and even tried to subdue these sentiments, refusing to call things by their names and justifying the super-cautious stance with the need to maintain peace against the threat of war.
SHOTS FIRED In their defense, authorities claimed they provided humanitarian aid, backed international resolutions, and aligned with financial sanctions to aid Kyiv. But all of this came with a dollop of increasingly confrontational rhetoric that the ruling Georgian Dream party leaders exchanged with the Ukrainian authorities. It only got worse with time: Ukraine repeatedly accused Tbilisi of aiding Russia to dodge sanctions and went as far as to sanction close associates of Bidzina Ivanishvili, known as Georgia’s informal ruler. Georgian leaders, in turn, refused to tolerate prominent Georgian opposition figures enjoying career opportunities in Kyiv, and spared no opportunity for verbal attacks on the Ukrainian government. The Georgian Parliament was perhaps the only one in the world that refused to lend its ear to Volodymir Zelensky.
SECOND FRONT The highlight of war-related controversy was Tbilisi advancing a “second front” conspiracy about external and internal attempts to drag Georgia into the war with Russia. Even if initially inspired by the actual occasional calls from desperate Kyiv for Georgia to do its share of fighting and distracting Russia, the Second Front Conspiracy turned into a one-size-fits-all tool for the Georgian leaders to fend off and vilify any criticism, be it from local opponents or international partners. Voiced by Georgian Dream leaders, and even more viciously by the MPs who formally left the party to “speak the truth,” the Second Front Conspiracy also became the main tool to attack and discredit western diplomats.
RUSSIANS ARRIVE Another visible war effect was tens of thousands of Russian migrants rushing to Georgia to escape sanctions, Moscow’s crackdown on dissent, and mobilization. The influx was met with a mix of economic excitement and political apprehension toward this large group of immigrants, leading to repeated calls on the government to tighten its migration policies. The calls went unanswered, and as the year ends about (estimated) 80,000 Russians continue to try to awkwardly fit into Georgia’s crowded cities, leaving locals confused about how to handle this very much unique situation.
Big Opportunities, Bigger Disappointments
CHANCES CREATED Amid destruction and uncertainty, the war also brought rare opportunities, the most notable of them the chance for Georgia – along with Moldova and Ukraine – to become the EU membership candidate. The two co-applicants succeeded, while Georgia was given a conciliation prize of recognition of its “European Perspective”. Tbilisi was asked to do its homework on 12 priorities and come back for candidacy after it has finished.
CHANCES BLOWN This failure was widely attributed to persistent political polarization, flawed reforms, and unwillingness by the Georgian government to at least try to reverse the damage: the ruling party intensified attacks towards EU institutions in weeks leading up to the negative decision while drawing more outrage for jailing a major opposition media personality on questionable charges. This process also inspired a massive pro-Europe rally in Tbilisi, with a scale not many remember, providing a rare physical manifestation of what we’d only seen before as numbers in opinion polls.
… AND CHANCES REMAINING As the year ends, the government claims they did their homework, but others feel the government did very little, and the main work is still ahead. The candidacy certainly remains the biggest intrigue for 2023. Much will depend on how much the ruling party and the opposition are willing to deliver, and on how strictly Brussels will be measuring geopolitical expediency against the established criteria. Till then, one of the main tests (both for candidacy and democracy in general) will be electing the new public defender, and whether the process survives the government’s repeated attempts to eviscerate the remaining independent institutions.
CABLES AHOY We’ve heard that a drowning man will clutch at a straw, but it appears that after sinking to the bottom of the sea, one can still find something there to clutch on. To get European favor, the Georgian government was seen flailing at an undersea cable, to be stretched between Georgia and Romania and facilitate electricity exports from the Caucasus to energy-hungry Europe. So far, the Commission’s response has been very enthusiastic. Will the cable manage to electrify the fading lights between Tbilisi and Brussels, and will that light blind the EC to the government’s many democratic failings? Will it serve as an umbilical cord to tie Georgia to what it sees as its European destiny? Let’s hope that since no cable can stretch beyond its length, Georgia may still have to deliver on its reform commitments.
DEAD COMING ALIVE And there are other things trying to emerge from the deep sea. The war sent lots of international cargo to Georgia, finally giving the country the much-promised transit hub role. This might be what pushed the government to bring back the mothballed Anaklia deep-sea port project. Critics, however, remain skeptical about the government’s plans. And the port is not the only water-related project worth watching in 2023, as authorities also pledged to bring back controversial energy projects such as the construction of Khudoni HPP in Svaneti. White elephants?! We’ll wait and see.
Good Economy, Bad Economy
GOING UP The war caught Georgia on its path to post-pandemic economic recovery, and economists expected the new geopolitical realities would push the economy back to its poor state. Yet, against all odds, the country ends the year with double-digit GDP growth. Some of that ‘miracle’ – including stark appreciation of the national currency – have been attributed to the cash that Russian immigrants keep bringing in.
GOING DOWN The upward trend clearly had its winners, but not everyone won: the influx sent the rents skyrocketing in big cities, sparking lengthy, noisy protests among students who struggle to find accommodation. And many other things remain unaffordable for low-income groups due to steadily high inflation. As for the future, uncertain of outside shocks, economists abstain from predicting how stable any of these trends are.
GOING AWAY Growth also did not reverse the general nihilism in the labor market, with employers in many fields refusing to raise salaries while many frustrated workers prefer to emigrate, increasingly to chase their American dreams at the U.S. shores. The war also briefly stole the spotlight from important labor trends like workers uniting to demand decent conditions. Next year, those matters may slowly emerge from the shadows.
Polarization and Other Misunderstandings
BUSINESS AS USUAL Polarization continued to create the main context for political processes while remaining one of the key concerns in Western eyes. The ruling party never stopped blaming the opposition for everything that was wrong in the country, while major opposition forces could not help but attribute the government’s every flaw to Kremlin. As the year ends, opposition MPs have so far managed to abstain from another parliamentary boycott, but the rivaling forces are yet to master the rarest virtue – the compromise. Much will also depend on the fate of jailed ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili and how the government will address his rapidly worsening health.
LOOKING FOR NEW No major election is scheduled for the coming year, but that does not mean that nobody will call for it, or that the year won’t again feel like one long campaign. The largest opposition party, the United National Movement, ends the year with a leadership crisis and just like its most prominent leader, struggles for survival. Most of the rest of the opposition, too, fails to properly represent public concerns, polls say. The usual question for the coming year: will new, different forces emerge to finally focus on numerous pressing social, political, and economic concerns that still lie there, untouched?
Poetry vs Drama
ROGUE PRESIDENT Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili, who started the year with attempts to end deep political divisions with her “national accord” project, could not herself escape the mighty polarising pull of Georgian politics. This year saw her further distancing from the ruling party that once backed her candidacy, and the President goes into the new year openly confronting the government – but not yet Bidzina Ivanishvili.
PARDON MY FRENCH President Zurabishvili has not given up on her dreams to unite and recently resorted to different tactics by diverting public attention to things more beautiful, like poetry. Now – like never – is the right time for poetry, Zurabishvili said as she was hosting an art event in December. But Georgians have been preferring drama over poetry for a while, and wanting to be everyone’s President can also come with the risk of alienating everyone: her remarks earned backlash as many want her to use her few remaining powers and pardon severely ill Saakashvili. Zurabishvili has so far refused to grant the wish, her recent rhetoric, however, seems to allow for such a possibility.
…and Poetry in Motion
BRIGHT SIDE With how things stand, we may not have time for poetry in the coming months, years, or decades. But there will always be a time for football, and 2022 has been a truly good time for Georgian football fans. The national team had a rare winning streak, while its biggest rising star, Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, went to Italy’s Napoli to kick off a remarkable international career – and that despite his unpronounceable name. Watching him play brought unimaginable joy and was the year’s major highlight for most Georgians.
LOOKING FORWARD So when two months ago the young star suffered a back injury that forced him to take a break, it did leave the country with some unfillable void: apparently, whatever miraculous qualities one’s feet may possess, no back is strong enough to carry the emotional well-being of the entire nation for too long. But now that Kvaratskhelia regains his shape, his games may again be the one positive thing to look forward to in the coming months. Meanwhile, it will be up to political elites to find ways for Georgians to diversify their sources of happiness.
There were, of course, more things happening in our beloved country in the course of 2022 than we could list above, but we’d rather not bore our readers with further drama on New Year’s eve. Season’s Greetings, and may the next year bring you much happiness and peace – in its most desirable and least controversial form!