Dispatch: Feb. 27-Mar. 5: Faith No More
“I am for order and discipline! I am from the majority. All of this [system] – holds together because of those like myself!” says an agitated citizen in the landmark 1979 movie “Garage” – by far the most nuanced satire of the Brezhnev-era society. It takes a lot of flexibility to live in a rigid system. It takes a reality-twisting effort to remain with the majority when this majority only exists in the words of repressive leaders.
The adaptation patterns of those long-gone days perdure in Georgia through social norms and through the maxims of our parents.
“Study well but keep a low profile; be useful to your country but try not to get noticed,” this is the code of life of the so-called “decent people,” so artfully dissected by Nato Alkhazisvhili in her op-ed this week. “Decent people” is a soviet moniker where “decent” is pejorative. It means “stupid” — too decent for their own good, too decent to benefit from the corruption, from career paths offered by fake compliance with the party line. Those are not the ones who deviate only along the ever-shifting general line of the ruling party and who always stand with the majority.
The decent people are not with the majority. Yet, they often ARE the majority, just the silent kind. They make the atrocities of the self-proclaimed majority possible, yet they have internalized the moral high ground. They had done nothing reprehensible, they did not rat out the neighbors to the KGB, nor did they pull the trigger. Yet, they did not raise their voice in opposition, either.
The last week’s discussion in Georgia was about the new legislation to repress and restrict the freedom of the children – and sometimes grandchildren – of those “decent people” to associate and to act without the will of the self-proclaimed majority imposed upon them.
They failed in their parents’ eyes. They got noticed by hardening oligarchic autocracy. How would they act now that they have been noticed and singled out? Would they put their heads down and become the bricks into the new wall that separates Georgia from Europe?!
This is Jaba, and those troubling thoughts swirl at the Dispatch now that the postman has rung twice.
Nothing to see here
The ruling majority has mastered the absurd: its leader said had Georgia accepted the plan to defuse the political crisis, mediated by the EU Council Chair, Charles Michel, in April 2021, “Russian tanks would have rolled into the capital,” supported by opposition and CSOs. The speaker of the Parliament wrote to the concerned Council of Europe commissioner that there was nothing to worry about. Prime Minister hailed last year’s “historic” application to the European Union and pledged accession strategy. All of this, just as the ruling party accused EU MEPs of being parts of “the global party of war” and shamelessly repeated that the proposed legislation that would tag CSOs as “foreign agents” complies with EU legislation – when the EC, U.S. and the EU 27 said repeatedly it does NOT.
Georgia’s foreign friends are confused and angry. “WTF is happening to my beloved Georgia?” tweeted one. But what is happening is patently clear to the trained ear. The rulers who proffer those patent lies are gaslighting the opposition, keeping the hesitant confused, giving their supporters tactical talking points – and above all, keeping those “decent people” quiet. How?! By simply saying – “see?! I can tell lies, and NOTHING is going to happen to me,” – I have the power, which means the privilege to distort reality, and if you put your head up, I will make your reality crumble into a Kafkaesque nightmare of accusations, libel, security service stalking, trolling and – why not – arbitrary arrests.
In an absolutist despotism, there is no place for ambiguity – everyone knows who is in charge, and that person is circumscribed by the power of other mandarins and by the will of God. In a democracy, even though politicians may be tempted to tell lies, institutions keep them real.
In a transition towards authoritarianism – and that’s where Georgia is – the institutions have been neutralized, and ambiguity is the regime’s friend. The ambiguity is an alibi: it allows decent people to delay action (especially dramatic action) until it is too late. When they’ve finally come for you, the dramatic outcry seems like a grotesque exaggeration.
The day when the ruling majority MPs were cynically denigrating CSO representatives that came to testify to committee hearings, many of the very same CSOs received a polite letter from the government asking them to contribute comments to the cabinet’s 2023 action plan for EU membership.
Should they respond yes, and engage in the process? Could the non-governmental associations and media allow that ambiguity to perdure? Can they keep training civil servants, providing technical assistance to the government, and participating in roundtables and discussions about policy? Could their international partners and donors keep asking them to continue doing that, those very donors whose funding to civic activism is about to be labeled as running spy rings?
When Vladimir Putin was going down the same road, he acted with certain perverse integrity. Awash with petro-dollars, Russia first banished foreign donors from the country and then started persecuting their beneficiaries as “agents.” The cash-strapped Georgian government can’t afford that – in fact, nearly two-thirds of the grant money goes to the government, either directly or through consultancy firms. And these will be exempt from the scope of the new repressive law.
The ruling party chair outlined the contours of the deal with western partners – stop funding activists, election watchdogs, and programs that support minorities. In other words, don’t pose any institutional obstacles to us remaining in power in the 2024 elections, and you have a deal. The chair of the European Integration committee was also clear – give us the EU candidacy as a geopolitical gesture – forget about principles and values.
The room for keeping that ambiguity intact is shrinking. But the room for decision – especially the one to be taken by Georgia’s foreign partners – is still there.
They may accept the Georgian Dream’s deal and let the most robust – albeit imperfect – institutional element of democracy: Georgian civil society with watchdog and activist functions, die. At least for now, hoping for resurrection at some distant political turn of events.
But that decision would hinge on their faith that the current administration truly wishes to integrate with the West. The grounds for that faith are thin on facts and based on words only.
But that is true for any other faith…