The past week had a tragic twang to it. It opened with the demise of Vakhtang Kikabidze, an iconic Georgian for most of the 70s, which brought about a closing sans closure to an era. It ended with a mass shooting that left five dead. Between these bookends, extremists claiming “this is our country”, shy but intense bromance between Tbilisi and Moscow, the ruling party using civil servants to spread propaganda… Could there be a silver lining?
Here is Jaba for the Dispatch and I will be attempting to discern the reasons for optimism.
Social media is the mirror reflecting Georgian society. Admittedly, it reflects only a part of it, but the rate of presence on Facebook is quite substantial. True, the mirror is also crooked, by the vice of its algorithm that decides what we see and how often. We were reminded once again this week that the ruling party is doing its own share to distort the debate, by engaging civil servants to post negative comments and spread its propaganda.
Yet, through the foam of the information waves, one can see an underlying unease. When it comes to a range of current developments hitting our screens, one call reverberates among the chattering masses, emerging here and there like a sacred lament, like a distant but recognizable meme that unifies an otherwise fragmented audience. “SHARPEN THY FOCUS!” the call says, imploring the all other commentators to grasp what this one commentator perceives as essential…
How come we debate whether Buba Kikabidze represented Soviet appropriation of the Georgian identity or the Georgian resistance to it? How come we tie the family violence, or psychosocial rehabilitation of ex-military, to the bloody shooting? How come the government talks about the concerns of Georgians residing in Russia in the same breath as the resumption of flights with the murderous Russian regime?
Keep in line. One truth, one land, one focus.
Where does that compulsion to demand the events given from a single point of view? Is that what the hate groups gathered to block the academic’s lecture in Kvareli had in mind when they said “we decide what rights you have?” Ghia Nodia, a veteran commentator compared this compulsion to the “cancel culture” on the U.S. campuses. Perhaps. Perhaps we are all looking for our “safe spaces.”
But let us dare to step back and take a positive view. And yes, this is hard, but let me try.
The advancement of society is inevitably about the acceptance of complexity. The departure from authoritarian thought is about acceptance of other points of view. The next step is that all views have the right to exist, but not all of them are legitimized by knowledge. As someone who has observed Georgia’s civil debate for decades now, I can’t help but notice that whenever a development strikes, competent analysis follows. Diverse, equally credible, or enlightening commentaries emerge. You will find it if you know where to look. But if you look at random, the competent voices would be drowned out by static and by propaganda. They are also decredibilized for not speaking with one voice.
The maturity of commentary is mostly coming from where one should be looking for it: professionals in academia, observers in watchdogs, and investigative journalists. But this competent commentary does not penetrate policy and especially political debate, or if it does, it gets ridiculed out of the room as “too complex”, “contradictory” and “out of focus.”
The politicians tell civil society that they are out of touch with people. They insinuate, that experts are “anti-Georgian” or “anti-Christian.” But maybe, just maybe, it is the politicians that are completely disconnected from the daily reality of the populace. When they cheat to stay in power; when they silence the activist groups through bribes of violence; when they hide public information and instead finance troll armies and push outright lies through public television and their party mouthpieces. Or when they get blocked in vacuous internal battles for power. Yes, they just try to put up smoke and mirrors to hide how aloof, how out of touch they are, and how little they care.
So no, Georgian democracy is not broken because Georgian society is immature. Society is growing, it has grown in the past decades. The Georgian democracy is broken because the link between facts, opinion, expertise, and politics is broken. And it is broken not through some accident of history or deficiency of society, but on purpose, because the absence of that crucial connection keeps those people that don’t care and don’t do much to bring about the real, publicly beneficial change, in power.
This must give us pause.
Much of Georgia’s civic activism has been born in the late 1990s with a notion that its mission is distinct from the way in which power is gained and distributed in the country. That imaginary firewall got its first dent when one part of the civic activists moved to the government in 2003, creating what our newspaper called then a bittersweet moment. Yet the distinction remained there, however fictional.
The ruling party now challenges civil society actors for breaking that invisible contract, when they called for the “national unity government” in June 2022 and – they argue – stepped on the partisan scene. Some civic leaders may agree with that charge, others – not. But whether the forms of its participation and the way to articulate its demands may be perfected, the civic agenda today is also necessarily political.
It is true that it is sometimes hard for foreign observers to grasp what Georgia’s “civil society” is. Many Europeans balk at the notion that few, established groups, mostly created with U.S. support, monopolize that name. Driven by their home point of view, many Europeans are used to consensus politics, in which the policy process is served by party-bound think tanks and partisan civic groups – which are often absent in Georgia. Or even government-funded research institutions, which are delivering an independent point of view – a phenomenon often absent in Georgia. For many Europeans, civil society groups are grassroots and volunteer movements, and while they deride the capital-based, professionalized offices of CSOs, they lose the perspective that volunteers contribute time that they have, because they don’t have to think about the material survival of their families. More “European” civil society groups start to emerge in Georgia now, but deriding the “established” CSOs only makes it easier for the politicians to mount the wave of propaganda against what they call “rich NGOs.” If that wave contributes to the passing of the “foreign agent” laws, all civil society groups would suffer.
In a polarized political environment where the two main parties feed on each other’s hatred to survive, the only credible policy challenge comes from civil society organizations and academia. The charge of “being out of touch” no longer holds. Many civic and activist groups, from professional unions to social assistance providers, outside the capital too, advance specific proposals. Like the ones for providing free lunches at public schools. The proposals remain unanswered. The “established” CSOs could and should do more to integrate complexity and emerging diversity of opinion, use their established position, and act as facilitators and conduits to the policy process, including internationally. These are not abstract calls for “more democracy”, but concrete policy proposals that help people.
The vibrancy of Georgia’s democracy depends on how, and how much these proposals manage to reforge that hidden link between the expert and activist community on the one hand, and the political process on the other.
To think democratically, we all need to think politically. But the absence of progress in Georgia, or of the agency for change is a myth – and the one that is entertained for the political purpose.
We will end on this bittersweet note and will be seeing you next Sunday.