The Dispatch

Dispatch ’23 | Jan. 1-8: Self-harm

The year 2023 dawned uneasily on war-torn Europe, and so it did in Georgia. The country seems engaged in an inexplicably cruel cycle of self-harm. When individuals are concerned, psychologists tend to define self-harm as a coping mechanism to provide temporary relief from intense feelings such as anxiety, depression, stress, emotional numbness, or a sense of failure. This “temporary relief” seems to have become permanent. What is that failure, that grieving the country seems to be coping so destructively with? And how can the country heal?

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SHADOWBOXING “Self-harm” was the ominous concept in the ongoing hearing on whether Georgia’s former president Mikheil Saakashvili, should be released on health grounds or transferred to treatment abroad. His lawyers appealed for such release, foreseen by law, on Dec. 1. What should have been a straightforward case of hearing medical testimonies and weighing them against the requirements of the law, transformed into an unseemly mudslinging match. The ruling party leadership implied Saakashvili was “simulating”, while the justice ministry – illegally, Public Defender says – released hospital video recordings to prove this point. The court president has been dragging the hearing – despite the lawyers claiming medical urgency – for over a month now.

The Saakashvili case has been sapping oxygen from Georgian politics since his return and imprisonment in October 2021. The people who carry the titles of statesmen regularly engage in mockery of the medical testimonies, stoop to prisoner’s personal denigration, and give free rein to the passions of revenge.

Rallies in support of the former president have grown thinner, and his former party, UNM, is being torn-up from within by the leadership challenge. Instead of doing its duty as the country’s largest opposition force, it is consumed by that single issue. Saakashvili’s lawyers seem to have changed tack. The ailing inmate and his party friends have been increasingly humble in asking for a presidential pardon. Saakashvili himself wrote to the nonagenarian Orthodox Patriarch, Ilia II, but to no apparent avail. UNM’s attempts at mobilizing international opinion to counterbalance the flailing domestic efforts seem feeble.

Public reflection on the polarising “Misha issue” is so clouded by passions, it is hard to unpack. His strident supporters are convinced that the Georgian Dream is doing Putin’s bidding by punishing his erstwhile foe. This was indeed the position shared by Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Moscow. Some of Saakashvili’s detractors say he deserves to suffer, as he shows no repentance for the “crimes” (especially those he has NOT been sentenced for). The Georgian Dream’s propaganda machine implies he is a weakling who can’t take prison as the real man should. Social media – that crooked mirror, where the paid trolls rule – is fuelling divisive and destructive discourse further.

All the while, the wider public seems to be overcome with that emotional numbness – one of the main causes of self-harm. Do Georgians think Saakashvili’s death would jolt them awake into political life? Hardly. They just want the issue to go away and stop polluting the airwaves and newspaper inches.

All the while though, the process is destroying what is left of the faith in the judiciary, insulation of civil service from political pressures, and trust in medical expertise… You name it. That is a dangerous slope, and Georgia’s foreign friends start to take notice. Most ambassadors from the Western capitals met the Justice Minister in a sort of unofficial demarche.

President Salome Zurabishvili seems to be the only adult who keeps a relatively clear head about the harm that is being done. “For almost a year we are completely blocked in this discussion, debate, and fight around Misha [Saakashvili] There is no other topic, and there is no way to advance any other issue. The country is drowning in this issue and both political sides benefit,” she said, exasperated. But even as her differences with the current GD leaders and the government increasingly become an abyss, Zurabishvili still looks too burdened by ties to Bidzina Ivanishvili, or too inexperienced as a politician, to build tangible political bridges with the opposition and transform her words into action.

DARKNESS FROM WITHIN The parliament speaker tweeted a long thread with happy green checkmarks supposedly marking massive success in implementing the EU requirements for granting Georgia candidacy. But the political reality behind the litany of legislative “successes” is grim. The ruling faction in the Parliament has failed to honor its commitment and elect the Public Defender backed by the opposition. The post of the Central Election Commission’s head is also vacant, and since the ruling party has been voting down candidates suggested by the President, the current batch for the posts have no apparent qualifications in election management. In the meantime, amendments to the broadcasting law that may curb free press sail through the legislature. The Georgian Dream does not distance itself from the proposal of the ruling faction’s radical wing to adopt the repressive “foreign agent” laws. More than that, the ruling party mouthpiece, Imedi TV runs a story “Rich NGOs do not congratulate the nation with Orthodox Christmas” and has the “experts” lined up to back up the thesis of NGOs “not perceiving Georgia as a motherland.” Yet another hatred-fuelled non-issue, that is likely to dominate the airwaves in January and distance Georgia from its EU path. And quite simply, from sanity.

REALITY IS POLITICAL In the meantime, real life goes on. And is sometimes tragic. An infant died in the dawning days of 2023 because she could not receive speedy treatment, impeded by the Russian occupation barbwire. Georgians seem falling sick in scores and the hospitals are reportedly being saturated, as resurgent seasonal flu ravages the country – but the national disease center guards silence. The mining company with murky backlinks to Russian oligarch seems to get a dodgy gold-mining contract. A protestant clergyman discovers a brick smashed through the windshield of the car, parked in his driveway. Matters like that, which should be forming Georgia’s political reality, shaping public opinion, and impacting policy get crowded out by petty playground squabbles, gagged by polarized media, and mired in the fickle social media buzz.

In the current public climate, the reality is random, it is beyond our personal or collective control, and beyond the responsibility of those who govern. What a comfortable background for keeping the power indefinitely.

Just ask the Church. “It is a fact: our permanent place is not in this world. We are not born for this life, we are born without blemish and we would revert to that state. That would certainly happen as we would depart this world,” read the Christmas epistle of the Orthodox Patriarch.

How soothing. How reassuring.


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