“I shall go to France or to Italy to study… to serve my nation… what could stop me?” – wrote a young female student of the newly consecrated Tbilisi University in her private journal. A scion of the aristocratic family, seeing her future blossoming in the newly born Republic of Georgia, whose flag she carefully emblazoned on the cover of her adolescent journal, the witness of her most sacred and private dreams and aspirations.
As cruel fate would have it, only two years later, on February 19, 1921, the life of Maro Makashvili, aged nineteen, was cut short by the Russian artillery shell. Nurse Makashvili fell on the battlefield while tending to a wounded soldier. That shell stopped her potential future in Europe. And soon ended the European dream of independent Georgia, as the Russian Red Army overran the trenches near Tbilisi.
That tragic story is a starting point for two tales. One is the heroic one of Georgia’s aspirations for the European family. In it, the heroism of Maro and thousands of other Georgians who fell fighting for it serve as the guiding light for future generations. Another one is that of the foolish youthful ambition to escape the geopolitical fate, which is doomed to fail – again and again. In it, Maro and others are foolish youths who – misguided by the western imperialist agents – threw their lives away.
Georgia’s recent history can be viewed as interlacing of these tales, of the choices made for one or the other – or, sometimes, paradoxically, for both.
This is Jaba with the Dispatch, as Georgia is hurtling to the point of choice between these two narratives once again.
LOCKED DOWN AND LOCKED OUT
The Munich Security Conference is probably overrated. But it still is the place where the powers of the western world meet and take a moment to reflect on the future. It is also an opportunity to position oneself on the global agenda. As the Georgian Prime Minister took to the podium on Saturday, Feb. 18, he was not flanked by the posse of the leaders clamoring for EU membership. Neither was he speaking about Black Sea security – a hot topic as the Russian cruise missiles overfly its shores and the air defense facilities gear up for defense on its western shores but leave the eastern one unprotected. He was not, God forbid, tackling the challenges of corruption or fancy new topics like digital innovation. No, he was flanked by the sworn enemies from South Caucasus, a personified cordon sanitaire lest the two leaders from Baku and Yerevan went for each others’ throats. PM Garibashvili looked visibly bored, rehashing the old, domestic talking points about Mikheil Saakashvili being “a good actor” and claiming economic success.
There was one point he was insisting on, though – it was peace. Mr. Garibashvili likes to present himself as a peace-monger against what his party colleagues have taken to call The Global Party of War. “The only peaceful period in the country is since we came to power,” thunders the title on the government’s webpage. So PM said the war in Ukraine should cease. It should end in peace. We should do everything to stop it. No, not for Ukraine to win, because – Garibashvili said – “we can not now tell what is going to happen.” The ruling party leader Irakli Kobakhidze was franker at home – he said Russia was winning.
Yes, Mr. Garibashvili went through the motions speaking about more European integration and claiming that his government was implementing the EU conditions. But nothing specific, no loud and clear commitment, no demand to be admitted into the European family.
Limp. Drifting in the viscous milieu of “we cannot tell what will happen.”
VULTURES, VULTURES EVERYWHERE
And while the PM was entertaining good company and thanking the likes of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) for multi-million assistance that helps his government deliver concrete benefits to citizens, his ruling majority was gutting the capacity of the very same people to have access to some of the funds and help themselves. The ominous “foreign agent law” tabled by the hissing appendage of the Georgian Dream, under the brand name “People’s Power,” would have all non-governmental entities and media which get more than 20% of their funds from abroad or from international organizations (say, the same EBRD) register as foreign agents. Of course, even English-language readers know by now that in Putinist lingo “agent” means spy.
(Mr. Kobakhidze was caught denying this, parroting Putin almost word-by-word. Watch it here if you can follow Georgian – it is uncanny).
In the last 27 years, only the U.S. government poured USD 3,4 billion in assistance to Georgia in 1992-2020 only. Most of it went to the government and its various agencies, and only part of it – went to independent civil society groups, which bridge the government’s inexistent capacities in various fields from research to social assistance, provide opportunities for citizens to associate freely, care of common problems, work for change.
Many ruling party leaders worked in CSOs. Party leader Irakli Kobakhidze who now berates the “agents,” worked as a project manager at UNDP, the agency that also funds CSOs. Shalva Papuashvili, who would probably hit the gavel adopting the Putinist law, headed the Georgia team for GTZ, a German technical assistance agency that is funding many of the “agents.” They know that CSO funding is transparent. They know that the government signs off on all bilateral and multilateral aid programs because CSO funding falls under priorities agreed upon by the government. More so, they know that the register of foreign aid has existed for years now – and the website has been created through foreign assistance. And above all, they know that passing that law would cross the thin red line and dynamite Georgia’s prospects of getting the EU candidacy.
But this is immaterial; both of these gentlemen live now in the world when they respond to the constituency of one. Mr. Ivanishvili is an oligarch, and it is in the nature of the oligarchs to be intolerant to the financial flows that bypass them – especially if this money goes to people who criticize them. No wonder that the quasi-government agencies that are now firmly under the ruling party’s thumb will not be subjected to the “foreign agent” law – the foreign money flowing to the ruling party coffers if apparently cleansed of the “agent” bacillus.
And so it goes. The parliament is poised to fast-track the law, with the first hearing at the parliamentary bureau – a top political chat shop – taking place tomorrow.
In Georgia, where this law is adopted, this newspaper probably has a maximum of two years left, at best. But trust us, and we won’t go silently into that night.
Maro Makashvili’s spirit will guide us through.