The Dispatch

Dispatch – March 25: Marie Antoinette

A man is a man. A woman is a woman. But every rule has an exception, and that exception is a group of Georgian male lawmakers who have been acting and sounding too much like Marie Antoinette lately. This unplanned gender reveal party takes place amid the fierce narrative wars between the ruling party and the opposition, as the latter tries to thwart the former’s determination to make the campaign all about gays. And as is so often the case, the polemics – including in the halls of parliament – have produced some uncomfortable truths.

Here is Nini and the Dispatch newsletter with the updates about the ill-fated European monarchs, hopefully also ill-fated bills, expat voters, and – of course – rainbows.

Let’s start with the good news and the bad news, which are basically the same news: the ruling Georgian Dream party has finally provided a glimpse of the previously announced anti-LGBT bill. Although we have yet to see it on paper, the bill – if passed – will, among other things, restrict the marriage and adoption rights of same-sex couples or non-heterosexual individuals, ban gender reassignment surgery, and prohibit gatherings or censor information aimed at “popularizing” the above-mentioned issues. The bill also states that any official document must identify “the female or male sex corresponding to his/her genetics” (more details here). 

The “good” thing is that GD wants it to be a “constitutional law”, which requires the votes of at least 3/4 (113) of the MPs – something the party cannot achieve even with its stable parliamentary allies. Alternatively, the votes of 100 MPs will suffice if at least the same number of MPs vote for it again in the next parliament. Nor are 100 votes something that GD and its allies will gather on their own. But it is less about who votes for it and more about labeling as “pro-gay” those who vote against – or refuse to vote for – the repressive bill. Such labels are clearly not going to help the opposition win the voters they desperately need in the overwhelmingly conservative country. The GD, on the other hand, could use this to further consolidate its power by aiming to regain a constitutional majority – a grim prospect that its opponents should take more seriously.

You don’t fuel me

How does the opposition plan to resist the pressure? So far, the key strategy has been to push an alternative agenda by (finally) confronting the government on hot-button social and economic issues such as the high cost of living and emigration. While massive emigration is not a new problem for the country, its effects have recently been felt more acutely. Georgian businesses have been talking about employing migrant workers after longstanding concerns about “labor shortages” – as more and more people head abroad in the hope of earning a decent income. But GD and its allies aren’t having any of that criticism.

“If [Georgians] are fleeing the country, why is there such a big traffic jam in Tbilisi?” asked Dimitri Khundadze, a member of People’s Power, the ultra-conservative GD spinoff known for its rich record of inventing problems. “We say that people are hungry […] but now that Tbilisi is full of cars – do these cars run on water?” fumed Avtandil Enukidze, another ruling party-friendly MP. Enukidze made it to parliament after the leaders of the Alliance of Patriots, once a relatively powerful conservative party, boycotted the 2020 elections and handed their mandates to a bunch of millionaires who bankrolled the party. But since Georgia was somewhat used to this level of irony, the group took the mockery a bit further and renamed themselves the European Socialists.

One man who was not in denial was GD whip Mamuka Mdinaradze. Mdinaradze has risen to new prominence as the main face of anti-LGBT legislation, and his basic GD impulses to make it about the United National Movement seem to have overwhelmed his defensive instincts. “Both my cousin and one of my closest friends have emigrated. That would not have happened under [UNM], and you know why? – They’d be helped to make millions and then asked to pay the party out of [emigration],” said Mdinaradze, a man known for his fluctuating morals and a pair of Gucci shoes that his critics find a little too extravagant for someone willing to outlaw anything not masculine enough.

Men without women

The Georgian Dream government has never really denied the scale of emigration. In fact, the ruling party has a history of using diaspora issues to defend controversial policies, such as the resumption of air travel with Russia. But the party has largely refused to see it as its problem, and rightly so: emigration is last on the list of Georgian Dream’s problems. Those who are unhappy and uncomfortable leave the country to send money back to their loved ones, boost the economy, and allow the government to claim credit for it. Those who stay often rely on remittances, making them less dependent on and more indifferent to government policies.

For decades, the conventional wisdom has been that emigrants – especially women who disappeared overseas to work as caregivers for richer Europeans – carried their struggling country and its economy on their backs. (Who knows, maybe this is why some men became so insecure about gender roles and started pushing illiberal laws as a coping mechanism?) But the main reason why emigration is now becoming such a hotly debated campaign issue may also lie in the opposition’s calculations: despite an estimated one million Georgians living abroad, their turnout in elections has been insignificant, while those who do vote tend to vote for the opposition. Part of the reason for this is the small number of available polling stations and bureaucratic shortcomings that make it difficult for many members of the Georgian diaspora to reach the ballot boxes on election day.

Now that the odds are in the ruling party’s favor, the opposition would make greater use of the expatriate protest vote. Since last November, some opposition parties have been campaigning to expand the territorial coverage of electoral districts abroad to increase diaspora participation – a move also inspired by the example of Moldova, where diaspora voters played a major role in Maia Sandu’s victory in 2020. President Salome Zurabishvili, herself an emigrant, has been a vocal supporter of the campaign. The ruling party and Georgian authorities, however, have hit back at criticism, accusing the UNM of artificially limiting emigrant participation in the past and showing little willingness to make significant changes.

Clutching at straws?

Will diaspora participation play a decisive part in the upcoming elections? So far, not very likely. But simply discussing the issue can make a big difference. It can still mobilize and engage Georgian migrants, who may become more aware of the unfair reality – contributing so much, sacrificing so much, and yet deciding so little in their own country. This sense of injustice, in turn, creates a much-needed narrative conflict between the issue of economic emigration – the single biggest thing responsible for ruining the “sanctity of the family” in Georgia – and the invented, or rather imported, imaginary threats of “LGBT propaganda”. Who knows, maybe our leaders did not learn their lessons last March and are about to shoot themselves in the foot again.

At least the heavens above don’t seem to be supporting their new rainbow-phobic venture: later that same Monday, after Mr. Mdinaradze had finished presenting his anti-queer bill, the Tbilisi sky displayed the first double rainbow of the spring – oddly enough, just as it did after the horrific homophobic pogroms of July 2021, and even more oddly, just as one of our colleagues at accurately predicted. So maybe we are not as alone as we fear?


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