On January 14, Georgians celebrate “Old New Year,” marking a day that concludes the weeks-long holiday season, full of neverending festive dinners, silly fights, and the noise of explosives to provide matching sound effects. But not all fights were silly, and Georgians did manage to have some potentially transformative discussions upon entering the new year.
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The first two weeks of 2023, like in any other year before, is when Georgia remains awkwardly stuck in a sort of a time-limbo between two New Years – the more widely celebrated January 1 and an “old-style” January 14, popularly known as Old New Year. This is also a rare occurrence in time and space when the new precedes the old, perhaps to remind us all that not all progress is as linear as we’d want it to be.
But this year, it was the date between these two new years that got the most spotlight: the Orthodox Christmas. The vast majority of Georgians mark Christmas on January 7, since the Georgian Orthodox Church sticks to the Julian calendar, currently about two weeks behind the officially used Gregorian calendar. And this year, again, Georgians followed their best Christmas tradition, which lies in questioning the date of the True Christmas. Critics have long called to move the celebrations to December 25 – indeed, the Georgian Orthodox Church did move to the Gregorian calendar briefly, in 1923-1925. Many blame the doggedness with which Georgia clings to January 7 on Russian influence – indeed most national churches that do so, tend to be under the cultural and religious influence of Moscow. Critics of the critics, on the other hand, propose (sensibly, we think) to let the parish decide.
But a discussion won’t be a good one in Georgia if does not go full Manichean: the country (and the world) are divided into pro-Russian and the pro-West, into good and evil, the lines are drawn in the sand, and trolls activated. The sirens of approaching moral police (and doom) wail loudly in your ears.
This is how the ruling party-cum-Spanish-inquisition “caught” some of the prominent Georgian watchdogs (to use their preferred nomenclature, “rich NGOs”) in the deadly sin of “proselytizing”. In an apparent continuation of the conspiracy-fuelled smear campaign, the ruling party accused watchdogs of publishing their online season’s greetings on December 25, but not repeating them on January 7. That kind of omission apparently now gets you into trouble: first, it was the government’s mouthpiece Imedi TV that aired a piece breaking this news to the public.
Next came a ruling party-sponsored Facebook page In Fact (სინამდვილეში) which went after the same NGOs to accuse them of “religious propaganda” and “proselytizing” (covering the development also earned Civil.ge the same red stamp, so we’d advise being careful unless you want to go down in history as a devoted missionary). Some tried to defend the watchdogs, arguing the purpose of timing was just to cover all upcoming celebrations rather than a deliberate preference for any particular date. But does anyone really owe an explanation?
Well, in fact, In Fact is quite cavalier in branding its opponents with red stamps: what they flag as “disinformation”, “hate speech” or even “sexism” often turns out to simply be an unpopular opinion. Lately, for example, they seem to prefer using the “anti-Georgian propaganda” stamps to mark any take criticizing the Georgian Orthodox Church or personally Patriarch Ilia II (which may make good research material for religious nationalism studies. Anyone?).
As ridiculous as those allegations may sound, the context is anything but amusing. It has been clear for a while that the ruling Georgian Dream party, having tried and erred for years, found its ideological sanctuary in conservatism, continuously giving itself to temptations to use religion to its political advantage. But while populism may not be the rarest and deadliest of politicians’ vices, this happens in a country where unchecked mob violence in the name of religion makes some of the most traumatic memories of the recent past. Now the emergence of new attempts of (ab-)using religion to crack down on criticism has a chilling effect: it breeds a sense of insecurity, lack of safety, and uncertainty over how wrong things may go.
PAINS OF TRANSFORMATION
People may have more potential for change in themselves than some conservative politicians want us to believe. Are things really changing beyond those hate-filled political headlines?
It was one recent tragic news that inspired this question: a prominent 26-year-old Georgian transgender woman, Liza Kistauri, was recently found dead in Belgium, mixing grief into the Christmas holidays. Kistauri rose to fame during her teenage years, drawing attention for her bold social media appearances, humorous and honest personality, and diverse artistic talents.
Kistauri continued her virtual public presence after coming out as a transgender woman in 2018. But in a widely transphobic society, physical public spaces became increasingly inaccessible and unsafe, pushing her to emigrate to Belgium. She was open about the bullying she had to endure over the years, some of which continued after her death: the news about her death attracted some hate-filled comments as some reacted with sarcasm while others still openly disapproved of her identity in their attempts to show sympathy. Such takes (that are – sadly – not uncommon) left queer-supportive commenters disappointed and pessimistic about the ongoing struggles and grim future LGBTQ people are facing in Georgia.
But our cautiously optimistic eyes also noticed unusual numbers of compassionate reactions, in places one would least expect it, with many openly expressing grief but also showing love, respect, and acceptance of everything that Kistauri represented. Those were the people who knew her, even from afar, who followed her journey and her struggles, or who grew up with her sympathetic and amusing media presence, and who let themselves be influenced by real human experiences rather than by what hatemongers preach.
This impression, too, had its skeptics. Some warned not to succumb to illusions, suggesting it’s only a temporary, tragedy-inspired burst of humanity among Georgians, not a change in the winds, nothing sustainable. This could be true. But may we still pause and acknowledge the change brought about by brave persons who stand up and make their mark, bring love to unlikely places against all the odds, and dare to thrive in unsafe, hostile environments?
MANY LITTLE THINGS
Numbers, too, confirm some quiet transformation going on: a study from last year, for example, found that while the country remained predominantly intolerant towards queers, there was still a noticeable growth in acceptance compared to public attitudes six years earlier.
And there are many other things that either try to bring about change or show the ones underway. For example, in a country where the queer-visibility is often dismissed as “propaganda,” the public broadcaster suddenly dared to make a lesbian couple a part of the storyline in one of the TV series they produce. In another development that came last November, an openly feminist, green, and queer political party, Mtsvaneebi [მწვანეები/Greens], was inaugurated in Georgia. Emerging from activism, the party pledges to be the flagbearer in uniting progressive politics, minority issues, and climate and environmental concerns, among others.
Change never happens overnight. These experiments may or may not work out in a deeply polarized political scene, which brings out the worst in people. But we try to remain hopeful and will keep you posted.