The Dispatch

Dispatch, April 23-30: Homecoming

Where we belong — Europe is a multiple destinations — Schuman Family Values

When you put the word “dream” in your political party’s title, you are walking right into the inevitable – even if lazy – “dream-to-nightmare” journalistic cliche. It is much more original to see that pun brandished as a badge of honor. We “will concentrate on the liberals’ nightmare: the international convergence of national forces,” announced the organizers of an ultra-conservative shinanigan in Budapest, and Georgia’s Prime Minister, Irakli Garibashvili, jumped right onto that nightmarish bandwagon. But from where we stand, we invite you to rejoice at all things logical – indeed, denying medication to children is hardly consistent with the political moniker of being “progressive” or even “social-democratic” – the European political families which Georgia’s ruling party has formally chosen to belong to. It’s all about coming home, where one feels most comfortable – even if the dinner table is full of freaks.

This is Jaba with the Dispatch, reporting from Georgia, where everyone is going in the same direction but hoping to reach different destinations.

The Dark Continent

Populists like to speak in the name of the majority, whether or not they are particularly attached to the democratic system of government. Cajoling, crafting, and even manufacturing public support have been the trade of rulers and politicians from time immemorial. With popular support, you can get that magical political Swiss knife: the lever to push your policies through, the shield to protect you from scrutiny when you slip up, and the club to bludgeon your opponents with – at times, literally. But would a politician eagerly follow the people’s professed will? Last week, Georgia showed that the answer to that question is far from straightforward.

Look at the polling figures: 89% of Georgians want the country to join the EU, while 80% want to see themselves in the Atlantic military alliance. These are the kinds of popular majorities that would make even Lucius Cornelius Sulla defer his march on Rome. And duly, PM Garibashvili shook hands and exchanged niceties in Brussels last week. But his smile was forced, and his step – stiff after taking the likely scolding behind the closed doors. Quite unlike when the PM was found beaming while taken for the ride by the Azerbaijani strongman or melting under the fatherly embrace of the potentate in Ankara.

One assumes that the kind of crowd that is slated to gather in Budapest would be more to PM Garibashvili’s liking: the oligarchic former Czech ruler Oliver Babis, who was ejected by mass protests; the firebrand Austrian fascist Herbert Kickl; Janez Janša of Slovenia, tried and convicted for corruption, “Marshal Twitto” who takes pleasure in curbing free media; unsavory figures from the Italian La Lega. And, of course, the host and master of ceremonies, Tbilisi’s great friend, and an inspirational leader of Europe’s illiberal dark alleyways – Viktor Orban himself. The former U.S.-based advisor for the “Georgian Dream,” Lincoln Mitchell, said Garibashvili’s participation was “tell me you are a fascist without telling me you are a fascist.”

But what if this is the way for Mr. Garibashvili and his posse to conflate Georgians’ expressed aspiration for Europe with their own political creed?! After all, Mark Mazower argued convincingly – in a book whose title this chapter references – that fascism is at least as powerful a force in European political history as is democracy and that we ignore the potent power of that ideology at our own peril.

What if, contrary to what the opposition argues, the Georgian Dream is not following Putin’s bidding but wants to see their country in Europe, except in Europe where the likes of Mr. Kickl and Orban hold sway?

What Lies Beneath

One notable supporter of Georgia, U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (Dem. NH), remarked last week that “it’s very clear that people of Georgia want to look west, to Europe, they want democracy.” But while it is hard to deny that Georgians indeed look west to Europe, authorities in Tbilisi likely think (and hope) that democracy is for Georgians a “nice to have,” not a “need to have.”

Looking at the same recent poll which gave EU and NATO overwhelming support, you’d find that 45% support the EU membership as it would improve the economy. Only 2% say the expected democratic advancement is the reason (slide 65). NATO, too, is more predictably linked with expectations of heightened security and defense (52%). The linkage with EU/NATO values – democracy, the rule of law, and respect for minorities, seems not to register in Georgians’ pro-Western stance.

The “deus ex machina” of Georgian politics, PM Garibashvili’s mentor and patron, Bidzina Ivanishvili, is undoubtedly amenable to economic incentives. And he should be no less concerned about his own security, what with scores of Russian oligarchs, minor or major, being defenestrated with terrifying regularity?

But Georgia – including its Western-looking liberal-minded business bubble – seems to be reaping more of that from Russian windfall than from the EU, sending the national GDP rate steadily upwards. And in terms of security, Russian tanks next door, or Russian killer in Mr. Ivanishvili’s bedroom, are more of a short-term threat than the NATO umbrella at an unclear point down the historical path.

What would you do if you wanted to signal Russia that you are on its side but struggling against external pressures? The cheapest signal is the statement of the value-bound credo: “gender propaganda has not been kind to Georgia, but Garibashvili believes that activists and politicians have a duty to respect the will of the majority, and the vast majority of Georgians reject propagandistic, demonstrative LGBTQ pressure.” This is how the ultra-conservative conference in Budapest pitches the Georgian chief executive’s speech.

That speech – to be given on May 3 or 4 would likely kick off the campaign for the 2024 elections in Georgia after its intended opening salvo – the “foreign agents” law – fell flat. Just down the calendar – May 17 – the Day of Sanctity of Family in Georgia, instituted by the Georgian Orthodox Church to coincide with – and to directly oppose – the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia (IDAHOT).

The coming spring and summer in Georgia are likely to be hot and present the test of how deep the Georgians’ commitment to liberal European values runs. But Georgians are not alone in that boat – Europe, too, will have to vote in 2024. As the new European Parliament is shaped, it would be up to Europeans to prove that Mr. Garibashvili’s choice of the venue for his political homecoming was quite as ridiculous and out of touch with European trends as we think it should be. Could the visiting French foreign minister impress this upon her hosts? We shall see.

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