A story of missing flags, missing freedoms, and missing humans
Greetings from Georgia, which recently celebrated its 32nd Republican (re)birthday (and 105th birthday) in all its glory, passion, and disruptive controversies. But no worries, dear country, we love you with all your flaws, will try to correct them, and won’t accept any other version of true love.
Here is Nini, and this week’s Dispatch, to tell you about a very Georgian celebration of Independence Day.
Do you (not) like my decorations?
The preparations for Georgia’s Independence Day celebrations on May 26 started early. The decorations on the facade of the parliament building, featuring Georgian flag elements, were already there and staring down at crowds during last week’s rainy rallies against the resumption of direct flights with Russia.
Then protests took a break, Monday came, and Tbilisi residents woke up to see a brand new Rustaveli avenue: the entire section of Tbilisi’s main thoroughfare was covered in countless red and white strips of fabric, creating one long and captivating ceiling with a national flag pattern. The red-white sky appeared just as the sun, too, took note of its summer duties and sent its rays down to the capital, turning fluttering flags in the breeze above the street into a piece of art.
Who could have resisted those charms? Social media exploded, with everyone from the fiercest government critics to the most avid ruling party supporters happily posing under the decoration. Something fresh was in the air, an approaching fest where everyone who claimed to love their country would contemplate its past and future and maybe even try to bring closer their strongly diverging views on how that love should be practiced.
But, alas, this is NOT what ultimately happened.
At long last, some inquisitive eyes noticed not only what was there but what was missing, too. Beyond the five crimson crosses of the national flag, the absence of a touch of the deep blue and a sprinkle of yellow stars of the European flag was striking — and particularly so, since during the last year’s celebrations, the EU flags were omnipresent and matching the Georgian ones in size and stature.
Spooked by the government’s recent bromance with the Kremlin, anxious pro-EU Georgians saw the omission as yet another bad omen. Panic and fury ensued. The government semi-excuse followed, claiming that the decorations are set thematically every year, so the many EU flags last year were linked with EU-themed celebrations. This year’s theme, the chancellery argued, was focused on freedom so more Georgian flags.
Indeed, last year’s May celebrations were linked to Brussels’ rejection of the candidate status to Georgia. One may even argue that the EU flags, filling erected every available free space, were the government’s desperate attempt at damage control (this year, the EU’s decision on whether Georgia passed the threshold comes later, in December).
So yes, the government’s explanation might have – technically – been right. Except, nothing else about the Georgian government’s EU policy has felt right recently, and so few bought the excuse.
Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose… ♪♩🎵
One of the many things that did not feel right was the way the ruling Georgian Dream party handled the backlash: sticking to their favorite policy of offense being the best defense, the party leaders hit back sarcastically that the critically inclined citizens found the national symbols irritating. “These are the people without a motherland,” said Irakli Kobakhidze, the ruling party’s cynic-in-chief, striking dangerously close to the Soviet trope of blaming all ills on “cosmopolites.”
The attitude is in clear continuity with the ruling party’s newly found “conservative” (or shall we say, “Brexiteering”?) stride of portraying the country’s sovereignty and its Western integration as an “either-or” choice.
Yet, perhaps, the correct approach would be not to jam the war of symbols down peoples’ throats and to stop the war of symbols, lest one day indeed starts responding to the symbolism with nausea rather than pride. Those who lived in Soviet times remember the feeling…
So it was: Georgians were struggling to find the version of patriotism in which the nation waves the same flag(s). And on top of that, the word “freedom” has gained new political hues.
The reason why official the slogan/hashtag #WithLoveforFreedom did not resonate was twofold. For one, the switch from #ToEurope seemed less like a celebration of free will and more like a false excuse one finds to deal with rejection.
And also, the way Georgian leaders have been articulating the concept recently – as freedom from what they portray as (imaginary) Western meddling, as opposed to (real) Russia’s imperial landgrab rubs many Georgians the wrong way. It feels like the rulers demand the freedom to oppress at the expense of freedom to choose one’s fate.
So freedom, just like “sovereignty,” “peace,” or “dream” – became yet another concept to gain the Orwellian double meaning in Georgia. Perhaps, we could blame the stars? Georgia’s republic was born under the Gemini sign, so everything must come in twos?
Of flags, freedoms, and other missing parts
Did all the controversies that preceded Independence Day interfere with celebrations? Not really!
Georgia and Tbilisi celebrated, countless people hit the streets, the anthem was sung, military aircraft cut the sky in two, and the best of Georgian traditional culture was on display: wine, music, national clothing, unique arts and crafts, the brash aesthetic touch of Tbilisi’s stylish mayor, spat of the president with the Prime Minister, protest marches, and more ‘don’t tell me what to do’ vibes that make us truly Georgian.
Irony aside, May 26 remains one of the most beautiful days in the Georgian calendar, pushing scores of people of all social milieus outside on a warm day to see and feel each other and maybe find their chosen version of homeland that everybody tells them to love and protect.
Celebrations were held elsewhere in Georgia.
Tsalenjikha, the opposition-ran municipality in Samegrelo, chose to stand out by displaying the EU flag alongside the national one and – notably – remembering the symbols of the brave Ukraine.
Many cheerful images came from Kutaisi, the much-admired historic western Georgian city. But then was this one picture in local social media about a neighborhood enjoying a traditional supra (Georgian festive table) in the middle of their street on May 26.
It was meant to arouse the warm yet nostalgic feeling of the community some fear is dying out in the Georgian city hustle. Yet, the social media commentators quickly noticed that something big was missing here, too: there are no women in the picture. And as inquiries piled on – where have all the women gone? – the “kitchen” was – surprisingly – not the first guess by the social media comentators. The shared conclusion was that the women had emigrated and were now bankrolling the street celebration through their hard labor in Europe. Naturally, few looked for the EU flags on that street: in Kutaisi, Europe was present through its absence.