Naked truths reveal a shifting social consensus in Georgia
Georgia’s exceptionally long Christmas season is finally over, and we know that from the social discontent boiling in the streets of Tbilisi. Last week saw fierce solidarity efforts to protect indebted families from losing their homes in the cold. The protests were partly successful in stopping evictions – at least temporarily – and drew attention to a persistent problem. On the flip side, the turmoil left two activists imprisoned and facing years in jail. And, as with any Georgian protest, it’s hard to predict whether the cause ultimately survives the frantically shifting public attention. Yet, short outbursts of anger and frustration – and the debates they spark – may leave some room for reflection: are we witnessing a paradigm shift in how Georgia approaches social problems and their solutions?
Here is Nini, and Dispatch, with updates about the past week’s uproars and what they might reveal about shifting social consensus in Georgia.
Veil of ignorance
We can talk all we want about Georgia’s social problems and complain that they aren’t talked about enough. But there is always a certain amount of ignorance that prevents us from seeing the true extent of these problems. Where does the ignorance come from? The distracting political discourse is certainly partly to blame, but problems like poverty have also some inherent invisibility to them. You can see children who have clothes to wear and food to eat, but not their parents who have been forced to emigrate to make ends meet. You can read stories of cured patients, but not the struggle of their families to recover financially from skyrocketing medical bills. You can see that someone has a warm home but overlook that they are about to lose it to debt. Poverty is often about absence, poverty is often about shame, and shame is often about social norms that need to be revisited.
Invisibility and shame were probably responsible for the collective shock back in 2018 when it was revealed that 600,000 of 3.6 million Georgians were blacklisted by banks for bad debts. And despite the reforms to address it, the problem of over-indebtedness continues to haunt Georgian families. CRRC survey data show that well into 2021, more than 40 percent of Georgians admitted their families had debt. Nearly 90 percent said their families had no savings, meaning that a single emergency – large or small – could leave most families scrambling to find a credit lifeline. No current statistics are available, but despite the past years’ economic growth and various social initiatives, the economic shocks during and after the pandemic might have pushed more families into debt.
Of homeless and hopeless
Yet statistics often fail to show the true horror of a life in debt. This may be part of why so many were appalled when anti-eviction activism revealed some ugly truths about the longstanding struggles of many Georgians. Three families were threatened with homelessness as the enforcement authorities planned a series of evictions in snowy winter temperatures. Fierce efforts by support groups to thwart those attempts succeeded in postponing two evictions, while the initial “successful” eviction was reversed as the family managed to reach a deal with the lender following a massive public outcry. The biggest accomplishment of activism, however, may lie in a broader push to rethink the very foundations of political and economic relations responsible for the silent ordeal of many families.
It was the story of Marina Khatiashvili, whose family was initially evicted on January 23 following a dramatic standoff, that captured the spotlight. Khatiashvili, who was fighting a fifth eviction attempt, describes 15 years of ordeal where she had paid four times the amount of her original loan to banks and lenders and still lost her only, and more valuable, apartment (read more details about this case, eviction practices, and the broader issue of over-indebtedness in our separate article).
The story may look complicated, but experts and observers say it’s part of a trend. A single financial crisis can condemn Georgian families to a lifetime of misery, with mounting debts and losing their only possessions despite attempts to pay the lenders off. Many, including the people around us, the neighbors we meet every day, and our relatives, may have become walking dead, resigned to a life where there’s nothing to gain – only to lose – and waking up only to make a last effort to save their children from homelessness.
What were you
Over the past decade, the government had to reintroduce some regulations into the largely deregulated financial/banking sector. Upper limits on interest rates and fines were reimposed on loans, while private lenders were restricted from lending through mortgage deals. The new curbs, however, proved insufficient to prevent predatory lending practices, partly because legal loopholes allowed usurers to take further advantage of economic hardships that didn’t go anywhere.
Yet, despite the scale of the problem, the discussions have been confined mainly to smaller activist and academic circles. The most powerful politicians often come from business and money. They are unlikely to take the initiative to tackle the issue. And those who suffer from debts are less likely to speak out, possibly because they feel guilty and fear the judgment of those who blame their financial misery on their individual bad choices. Importantly, they have no credible political representatives interested in their plight.
“We now need a public consensus, a large public consensus to ask the question – what kind of society do we want to live in – a society where we throw children out into the streets and leave them with nothing, or a society that is protected from such things?” Beka Tsikarishvili, a left-wing activist, said in his remarks to Realuri Sivrtse [real space], a talk show aired by the public broadcaster.
It’s not fair
That consensus may now be slowly forging: The public debates of recent days have shown that Georgians are increasingly moving away from a singular obsession with individual responsibility when judging such cases and focus on the overall fairness of the situation in which the indebted find themselves. And while there is still disagreement about the exact solution – do we need more regulation? Or less? Or better? – many seem to agree that the current situation cannot be fair. The passage of time and the change of generations seem to have softened the post-Soviet cynical disbelief in the sincerity of social solidarity. The time also dug a hole under the unshakeable belief in the ability of the markets to achieve not only efficient but also just solutions. In Georgia, we know that a paradigm shift is indeed happening when the Georgian Orthodox Church takes time to weigh in on the side of the victims, rather than the government.
But some changes are pending. For example, Georgia has yet to let go of the tradition where every social change requires personal sacrifice. It also has to get rid of the rule of thumb that anyone attempting to challenge the authorities invites an exemplary quasi-legal punishment. Anti-eviction protests left two activists (and academics) arrested and, as often in this case the Court leaned in heavily on the government side. The two now face up to six years in prison (!) for damaging the car of the national enforcement agency. As activists from various corners continue to push for their release, the proportionality and pro-state bias of the prosecution and courts is again called into question. The two, at least, had good intentions, their supporters argue, unlike earlier cases when others, more chummy with the ruling party, were detained for truly disturbing crimes and still released on bail.
Again – this cannot be fair. But will the winter of discontent burgeon into a spring of articulated political demands that may bear fruit during this autumn’s elections? We will see that together.