The days couldn’t be nicer in Tbilisi. After we nearly accepted the ultimate arrival of gloomy winter days, autumn made a beaming comeback to the city streets. The sun has been sending its warm rays generously, lighting up even the darkest corners of the Georgian capital in golden palettes and inviting artistic souls to leave their confinement and seek inspiration outside. Well, not every artistic soul. Some of them were instead asked to contemplate the possibility of a different type of confinement. Over the past weeks, one after another, Georgian artists have been summoned to the cold rooms of the State Security Service to testify. Why, one might ask? Because they applied their soft brush strokes to the wrong CANVAS.
Here is Nini and Dispatch, with yet another series of absurd developments that have painted our faces with a very artistic blend of smile and terror.
Story of an artist
We’ve all heard about art being revolutionary, usually with a dash of a French accent. But in Georgia, in all seriousness, a coup has traditionally been an artist’s job. Look no further than Jaba Ioseliani, the infamous Georgian warlord of the early 1990s known for his criminal endeavors with more than a passing dabbing into art and literature.
Ioseliani is primarily remembered as a thief-in-law who formed and led Mkhedrioni (Horsemen), a paramilitary unit that would be instrumental in overthrowing the first Georgian President, Zviad Gamsakhurdia. Alongside its involvement in the Tbilisi civil war, the Mkhedrioni also rose to notoriety for its criminal rampage through Georgian provinces, making it a potent symbol of the trauma and shame of those years.
Ioseliani, their leading Horseman, was undoubtedly emulating the revered medieval Georgian monarchs, whose memory was passed to generations as being men of many talents. And just like those monarchs, Ioseliani – riding his imaginary white horse – would use his right hand to give (para-)military orders, while his left hand was reserved for drafting novels, plays, and a bibliography for his doctoral thesis on fine arts. And while his right sleeve was stained with blood, the left one was smeared in ink and oil pastels. His left (sinister?) side of the brain pondered real-life political strategies, while the more creative right(eous?) side was preoccupied with somewhat more fictional tragedies. And as his body fed from loot, his brain would take nourishment from more transcendental academic conversations.
Having lived a life of troubles, Ioseliani died in 2003 (this paper even did his obituary). Symbolically, that also turned out to be the year of a new revolution, only this time – gracefully bloodless. At least what we thought at the time. But the years pass, and history becomes what we make of it.
These days, some would disagree the Rose Revolution of 2003 was quite so bloodless in the end. Others argue it was not quite a revolution. But neither would be fully confident that Didube Pantheon, Tbilisi’s second-most-prestigious resting place, was the right place to bury the Chief Horseman.
A more cynical viewer would say, hey, the man needed a grave in a visible spot so that the nation could collectively dig him up, shove him into ongoing discussions, and bury him again after failing to figure out what to do with this pestiferous memory of him.
Who knows, maybe we can only judge him after agreeing that he was a “one hundred percent Russian [or insert your villain country here] project?!” Because here, in Georgia, the collective judgment is only unified if we can agree to blame someone else for “doing it to us.”
Best Kind of Bloodshed
Fast forward to 2023. The life got much easier and much more enjoyable for artists. No more need to take up arms and terrorize the population. All you need to do to be counted as a seditious revolutionary is register for training at a respectable agency, make sure it is Western-funded, show up, and go back to whatever artistic pursuits fit your fancy. Sure as hell – ta-daaa! – in a few weeks, you get a besuited gentleman to call you names on national television, and shortly afterward, you get a call from the State Security Service to show up and own up, pretty please.
For weeks now, the news kept trickling in about film producers, publishers, theater directors, and photographers being summoned for interrogation, ever since security services have gleefully latched upon a new “revolutionary plot.” They say horrible things were to unfold (Zombie Artists for Halloween, anyone?!) if the EU decided not to give Georgia the coveted candidacy
because the government did not do what it was told.
The Center for Applied Nonviolent Actions and Strategies (CANVAS), a Georgian offshoot of the Serbian network, was implicated as the key culprit. Protestations that the training they organized was about ways of maintaining artistic independence (in the country where it has been often challenged) did not fool Georgia’s steely-eyed spy-catchers. No, that was just the cover-up, and those artistic types were up to no good, argued Security Service, their claim being echoed and amplified to wail by the Greek chorus of the ruling party leadership, their subservient talking heads, and media.
It wasn’t the first coup allegation by the Georgian Dream government. And clearly, it won’t be last. But the usual circus of investigations and questioning got unusually drawn out this time. Maybe our security officials got some extra spare time on their hands after safely escorting Otar Partskhaladze, the US-sanctioned ex-prosecutor suspected in FSB links, out of the country?
Or, more likely, they are trying to boost extreme tourism by offering the Revolutionary Autumn Special. For, isn’t everything in this country ultimately done for the sole purpose of boosting tourism?! You have to agree that merging a Caucasian conspiracy plot with the Balkan one is bound to be the hit: a double jackpot to those white guys who like traveling to dangerous places.
Yet, there is a high note of paranoia creeping in. Take this weird occurrence: the high-browed, artsy Georgian magazine Indigo decided to dedicate its next special issue to the history of protests and resistance in Georgia. A respective event was advertised on social media, and the ruling party was instantly triggered. So triggered that the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES), the oldest German party foundation supporting the endeavor, had to issue a clarification and essentially spell out the word “h-i-s-t-o-r-y” for the ruling party chief Irakli (“Vultures Everywhere”) Kobakhidze, a man who loves to publicly take pride in his German education.
Seems that even the much-practiced German foreign policy caution hits its limits when it encounters the sad consequences of what Georgians learn in Germany. But probably, it’s not FES’s fault that Mr. Kobakhidze forgot what his Duesseldorf teachers told him about handling complex ideas the moment he boarded the plane home. Georgia does black-or-white only, please, no shades.
Thirty & Thirties
Ioseliani’s darkly colorful (yes, that is possible) persona did not come up to our minds by sheer accident. When the ruling party invokes times of troubles, it capitalizes on the fear of people who suffered from Ioseliani and many, much less colorful, but no less brutal, figures. The government must stay vigilant so that the unrest of those times does not make a comeback, right? And those artists… too vain, too colorful, too wanton… and too good at channeling their creative talents into making trouble. Yet…
Yet, leading a political discourse in Georgia is like walking in a vast minefield of trauma. Detonate one visible mine on purpose, and the chain-explosions of other, more deeply buried bombs start. And when you thought to be having the upper, solid ground, you may find the soil being kicked from under your feet.
Try to send others (mentally) to the dark times 30 years ago, and you may accidentally end up in the 30s of the past century instead: the years when knocking on the doors of artists meant something much, much darker. And, when nobody, not even the youthful party gonzo, was sure, to whom the bell tolled until that black car stopped at their door at 3 a.m.