Georgians’ major victory over the ruling party’s attempts to introduce Kremlin-inspired “foreign agent” laws this week marked a decisive geopolitical choice of the country in favor of the West. But it also signaled the desire to move away from the outdated rules of hate and mutually assured destruction that have for decades dehumanized Georgian politics.
Here is Nini at the Dispatch to conclude the week full of nice surprises
For a long time, Georgians have been incredibly lonely.
Just look at the older residential buildings in Georgian towns, often looking like patchwork quilts or amateur lego constructions: every flat here has its unique shape and facade, coming from a very unregulated renovation boom of earlier years. In those years, many tried to eke out more air space by turning their balconies into rooms or attaching entirely new extensions (now illegal) to their facades.
It is unknown who exactly started that trend, and it is unclear whether the ultimate goal was to get more living space or to mark one’s territory. But many instinctively followed in expanding their habitats, all according to their tastes, abilities, and insecurities, building themselves little empires where they’d withdraw and silently compete with other rival empires.
Yet more than homey quilts or quirky legos, those buildings soon came to resemble public safety disasters, leaving all its inhabitants with a silent fear of upcoming earthquakes turning them all to dust. This type of self-sabotaging behavior followed “every man for himself and God against all” logic to borrow the title of one German classic film.
The same logic has been present in many other aspects of local life: buying more cars to overcome public transport shortages only further paralyzed traffic; trying to rush into the bus before others get out only increased everyone’s daily stress; a manner of leading conversations as of they were a contest happened at the expense of listening, left all participants angry and exhausted rather than relieved (forget about the truth…); or having politics where the refusal to entertain the notion of compromise repeatedly led to national crises.
Yet who can blame those who come from Georgia’s post-independence chaos of the 1990s? The country had to embrace its long-awaited freedom without much preparation, with scarce resources, and with little trust in each other. In a rat race that naturally followed, the unwritten rules favored selfishness over honesty, conflict over cooperation, and strength and power over kindness.
The ruthless competition, in turn, produced negatively-tinted political agenda, with election campaigns focused on who is defeated rather than who wins, and the candidate choice dictated not by hope but by the absence of it: the preferred candidate would not make your life better but might turn the lives of your perceived rivals (much) worse.
Capitalizing on loneliness and anger, feeding on and benefiting from social divisions, has become the political strategy of choice. No surprise that the Georgian Dream party, founded by a billionaire who was the biggest winner of the competitive logic of the past decades, has mastered these tactics better than anyone else.
But autocrats start digging their graves the moment they believe their own propaganda. When the Georgian Dream and its allies rolled out the “foreign agent” bills, a division to culminate all divisions, people objected.
It turns out the party badly misread the population of its country. It preferred to see them as a mob bent on destroying each other. High public consensus favoring the EU integration was perceived as an outcome of random “yeah, why not?” ticking the box in the opinion polls across what seemed like the correct answer. Indeed, only a few Georgians had heard how the EU works or could tell the difference between its institutions. Waving blue, stary flags was nothing but a mere pathetic gesture, a learned habit that could be easily unlearned, right?
Well, few indeed can tell the difference between the Council of the EU and the European Council in Georgia. But people still know more than one gives credit for and enough to know what they want: large parts of society have close relatives who have emigrated to work in European countries or friends who traveled there as tourists. Tales are told and heard about the level of trust, welfare, liberties, and dignity Europeans enjoy.
And many know more than enough about the suffering that the absence of such rules brings: even if they continue to be caught in the usual poisonous races, few come out as winners. So those Georgians who refused to give up on their dreams of better politics, when faced with little time to discuss things more thoroughly, placed all their hopes in a single word, “Europe.”
“It is true that today, the old moral heights do not exist in Georgia anymore. This is a fact,” prominent journalist Davit Mikeladze wrote in Times (დროება) newspaper editorial back in 1874. “But when the European way of life and European education set foot in Georgia, then we will hopefully get back on track.”
Calling oneself a “European” thus marks in Georgia – in the 19th century and the 21st – the longing to become a better version of oneself, not the will to become or identify with somebody else. Calling oneself “European” means identifying with politics and the way of life people want for themselves, with the single positive, forward-looking reform agenda that has been shaping the country’s otherwise exclusive politics for many years.
Probably also no coincidence that it was Nana Malashkhia, a 47-year-old woman who became the symbol of last week’s protests, the now-famous “woman with the EU flag.” She recently introduced herself as a “civil servant” and represents those who focus on building and caring in a system that fuels distrust and destruction. She represents those who choose to break the cycle, hoping to achieve a trust-based society where everyone can let down their guards, take care of each other, and leave behind their collective and individual loneliness.
Georgian Dream, on the other hand, appears to be sticking to its usual polarizing and divisive tactics despite the bitter setback it suffered. As irrational as this may look, chances are they simply know no other way of doing things: one’s sense of rationality is often limited to the rules and norms that shaped them, not some universal truths and judgments.
The country now has big battles ahead, the battles that will be fought between the Georgian Dream and Georgian dreamers. Victory will not be easy, nor is it likely to be quick, but we may simply hope that the odds favor those who want to win rather than those who simply want others to lose.