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The Dispatch

The Dispatch – June 11: Children of Confusion 

Party chairman offers conversion therapy, workers refuse to show up for the national restaurant project, and modern-day Charons carry wicked souls through Tbilisi’s underworld.

On Friday, the hail of banknotes – unfortunately in Russian Roubles – rained on the signature coiffe of the ruling party chief Irakli Kobakhidze. In a time-honed tradition of youth protest, activists threw the paper notes from the balcony as Kobakhidze was being escorted down the university stairs (six bodyguards, no less) after having delivered this semester’s last lecture for the law students. The gesture was meant to show dissatisfaction with what they saw as the Georgian Dream’s steady drift (some say, enthusiastic paddling) into the Russian mainstream – of which Mr. Kobakhidze is a committed oarsman.

Kobakhidze, of course, hit back, claiming it’s his young detractors that have their “orientation mixed up in all possible ways,” rehashing his earlier homophobic tropes. 

Why homophobic, some may ask? Well, the thing is, Kobahidze – who studied human rights law in Germany, let us not forget – went on to suggest… well…. a conversion therapy of sorts. He said those tumultuous youths need to be “saved” and require “getting their orientation back on the right track” by making “boys get wives” and “girls marry, reproduce.”

The not-so-tempting match-making offer of the GD head naturally left some of us dreading the prospects of having to perform Orwellian “duty to the party” one day (now that Mr. Kobakhidze and HIS party comrades are having us refer to Orwellian dystopias over and over again).

But before we plan our Dream babies to save the “genetic pool” – the latest obsession of our leaders – we can’t help but worry about the future of those kids in the country that is facing disorientation in many other, much more realistic ways. 

Here are Dispatch and Nini, trying to find the right path through Georgia’s dark tunnels of confusion

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

If reproduction is the priority, you won’t find a better time to plan a baby in Georgia. The country is apparently enjoying an exceptional period of peace and enviable economic prosperity. Or at least that is what the government would have you believe.

At the start of the week, the prime minister happily announced that poverty is at an all-time low, unemployment is rapidly dropping, and inflation is slowly adjusting. But another news circulating around the same time was to show the harsh reality behind the numbers. A viral video showed the head of Retro, a restaurant in Batumi popular for Adjarian Khachapuri (Georgian cheese boats), physically assaulting a waiter. 

You know how explosive video recordings like this can be when graphic imagery makes it much harder for people to unsee whatever horror they just witnessed. A heavy backlash followed, leading to the arrest of the abusive employer (he was later released on bail). The labor inspectorate wrote a solid fine to the facility for a long list of labor rights violations, the staff quit in protest, and another restaurant in the area offered them new jobs. Batumi’s humid air suddenly was filled with a vast sense of happy endings.

Except, few think it was an isolated case of workplace abuse. After decades of post-Soviet denial, more people came to acknowledge the evils of labor exploitation in recent years. A set of major labor reforms were pushed, yet they came with gaps, while the labor inspectorate – a key product of these reforms – has yet to reach its full potential. The culture, too, is yet to catch up, so those working in gastronomy have to repeatedly endure low pay, workplace abuse, and delayed and denied payments.

And this happens when – for a second year in a row – restaurant owners complain about labor shortages, saying that people are not showing up for their job vacancies. The national project of opening as many restaurants as possible and inviting as many tourists as possible to dine away all economic problems is apparently failing: people are not signing up for that. Will the party’s new mass-reproduction doctrine fill that void? Or will it only produce more “confusion”? The policy planners better consider all the risks…

Gilets Jaunes of the Underworld

Speaking of filling voids and confused orientations, the best place to observe employment trends and disoriented people is the so-called “transfer tunnel,” or the passenger tunnel connecting Tbilisi’s two subway lines. The age-old tunnel is creaking under the weight of the million-and-a-half city, and the problem came to a head last year when the narrow passages were repeatedly overcrowded and jammed. Claustrophobic rush-hour images made rounds on social media, and stories of panic, fainting, and air deprivation were reported by commuters who had to go through the ordeal of changing the train lines every day. 

Tbilisi authorities responded. They initially blamed the problem on the careless passengers who didn’t bother to walk on “their side” of the tunnel and obstructed each other. Tbilisites would readily admit that this is clearly something we would do.

Yet that lack of pedestrian culture existed before the protracted public transport reforms and traffic jams would push more people underground and spell trouble. Then, finally, Tbilisi city administrators came up with a temporary solution. They deployed an army of municipal workers to handle the disaster on a day-to-day, hour-to-hour basis.

The outcome could not be more visually stunning: a long, moving human fence stretching from one subway line through the long tunnel to another line, composed largely of men and women close to retirement age, wearing yellow vests, rearranging themselves with every incoming train to create ad-hoc passages of the proper size, and to directing the crowds coming from two opposite directions in a way that they don’t end up trampling each other to death.

The hellish visual is worthy of Dante/Bruegel co-production: for aren’t these the servants of the latter-day Charon Corporation, transporting the souls of the damned to various circles of hell, to the tunnels at the end of the dark tunnel, because being anywhere is better than being stuck in limbo. Every wicked soul here carries the sin of confused orientation – in its most literal sense, and the gasps of tormented commuters are so much more convincing as the afterlife soundtrack than Carl Orff’s O Fortuna

But what is hard to ignore is the absurdity of the hard work these middle-aged yellow vests do daily. Is this really what creates jobs these days?! Our own inability to walk past those coming from the opposite direction without harming them, our refusal to change our behavior just a bit to leave some space for others?

Well, the sense of absurdity peaks when you realize that much of the recent political work, much of the recent activism in Georgia has followed the same pattern: the eternally recurring routine of yelling at each other in the vain hope that it will avert imminent disasters, of which we had – and have – many.

Sometimes it works, but as long as the passages stay narrow and rules remain unchanged, the success will only be short-term, forcing us to wake up every morning to repeat the routine, day in, day out, till the fatal exhaustion sets in. The jobs are the same, even though they come with differently-colored collars, and some of them pay more and may look better on a CV.

Confused orientation indeed.


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