It was one of those many nights in Tbilisi when you take a routine walk after work and run into history in the making. The area in front of Orbeliani Palace, the residence of the Georgian president, is not that big. So, late on November 8, it got easily crowded. Part of the public had to observe the development from a dark, dimly lit park across the street – making it hard to discern the true scale of the gathering. Still, when Salome Zurabishvili left the building to address the public, she could see many things clearly. She could see flying flags of Georgia, the EU, and (of course) the ones featuring ex-President Saakashvili’s posterized face. She could see the Tbilisi TV tower, lit European blue-and-yellow, shimmering in the distance. And she could see hope, long-awaited hope.
Locals, opposition politicians, diplomats, watchdog heads, activists, teenagers, and Georgian seniors all showed up after the President called to gather at her place to mark the important date for the nation. Many wanted to celebrate the EU Commission finally recommending their country for the much-desired candidacy, and perhaps the Orbeliani palace seemed to be the only right place to do the cheering. Or, who knows, maybe they came to celebrate her: posing in front of a colorful collage assembled from works of Georgian artists, Zurabishvili’s long-famous aesthetic sense gave backing vocals to her newly – and surprisingly – discovered fame. And who would have thought that popularity would be that easy, or the crowds so fickle? All it takes in Georgia is an official mandate and the ability to act normal. Because, as this week would again show, “normal” is a condition that the ever-tumultuous country is desperately striving to achieve.
Here is Nini and our weekly Dispatch, to talk about bittersweet days that this November offered in Georgia
What happens after it happens
This week would have been a rare week of joy if it hadn’t started with a tragic event. On Monday, Russian occupation forces shot and killed Georgian citizen, Tamaz Ginturi, as they tried to apprehend him near the occupation line they patrol. Ginturi, a 2008 war veteran, had gone with his friends to pray at St George of Lomisi Church, a sacred place for many locals that had been sealed shut by Russian/South Ossetian forces months ago. Another Georgian citizen was abducted during the incident but eventually released.
The shocking report was met in Tbilisi with grief, anger, and questions. The first question was why it happened. Was it an inevitable outcome of the tense security situation on the ground? Or was it a deliberate escalation from Moscow ahead of the much-awaited decision from Brussels? Or is the answer much simpler and much more gruesome: they just killed him because they could, as they do daily in Ukraine? The latter, unsettling answer triggered another imminent question: what now?! Do we shoot back? Or fall back on usual condemnation? Do we call the enemy by its name? Do we make frantic calls to foreign friends (if we still have any)?
While the ruling party and its opponents traded usual accusations, the answer to those questions is boring and anti-climactic – we don’t know. We may know how the government will react. We may know that we won’t like it. We may know what is wrong, but we hardly know what is right. Yes, still, we do not know, even though the matter has topped Georgia’s political discussions.
As for this latest development, there were more bitter cries than there were battle cries from all sides. Serious and uncomfortable conversations were once again swept under the carpet, with a vague hope they would take place at some appropriate juncture – and with a dull pang of realization that they won’t.
In the meantime, the impotent anger against the government is only matched by the despairing irritation at those who present themselves as their opposition. Less than a year is left before the next general elections. It is obvious that the ruling party will try – again – to cash in the credit for maintaining “peace,” even though the latest tragedy demonstrated the extent of “peace” that one can buy from Russia even paying the price of appeasement, if not collaboration. So, how could the opposition convince the public that it can come up with a less shameful – but still responsible – Russia strategy?
Think outside borders?
“Sadly, the approved response model (calls on various international organizations, blaming opponents and many others) is less effective, and it rather resembles self-deception than a predefined strategy. Most importantly, it doesn’t yield any valuable results,” Kornely Kakachia, a Georgian political analyst, wrote on Facebook as he reflected on how to respond to similar incidents. “A small, occupied state that presently is not part of any alliance, has very little resources to defend itself. Due to military disbalance and many other factors, a weak state will find it difficult to deliver an asymmetrical response to an aggressor.”
But Dr. Kakachia still believes there is a way if there is “unity and political consensus.” The solution, the analyst says, can be found in the “irreversible Europeization” of the country so that “we can strategically cut ourselves off from the source of threat.”
This brings Kakachia and probably many other Georgians to November 8, when Georgia got one small step closer to becoming part of the European Union. There has never been a shortage of EU flags in Tbilisi, but on that night, every blank space was covered with yellow stars on a blue background. The news about being recommended for EU membership candidacy by Brussels, after the botched first attempt, took social media by storm. Georgian netizens, in turn, stormed the official EU social media accounts to let the world know how happy (or desperate?) they were and maybe also to boost Brussels’ ego.
What are they so excited about? One expectation can indeed be eventual protection from military threats, even though the EU is not a military or security alliance. Others may be cheering for the recognition of their hard work. Others still – as a recognition of their European identity.
But let us be honest: waking up in the cold mornings, it’s not the question of whether they are European or Asian that first comes to mind of many Georgians. Instead, they worry about work – or its absence, the future – or its dreaded absence – for their kids, health, safety, traffic jams, or degrading public transport.
In short, they yearn for a “normal life,” normal in it conveying individual dignity and free of at least some of today’s threats and paralyzing uncertainty. So, whether or not one is familiar with arcane ways of functioning of the European institutions, there is that hope that this “normal” life is within reach, and it may come from more reforms, more motivation, and more assistance and pressure from Brussels.
But in the mornings, even before those thoughts come flooding in, there is a reflex – hitting that snooze button after the alarm clock goes off. The emotions from November 8 will subside, and we will be left wondering – did Georgia actually move forward on its EU path? Or did it collectively hit the snooze button to postpone the hard work that is required to secure the flagpole in Brussels? Many of the conditioned reforms are still to be implemented and the government does not exactly radiate the political will to get on with the work.
Repeatedly hitting the snooze button can be a tempting way to claim five additional minutes from facing the ugly reality. But we all know how it often ends: at one point, half-asleep, one makes the wrong move and dismisses the alarm for good – indefinitely protracting one’s slumber.