The Dispatch – November 22/23: Utopia

Rose Revolution Anniversary – To Ban or Not To Ban the “Alt-Right” Party – Politicians with Big Ideas – Georgia Ponders Activation Policies – Brave Judge Acquits Activist

Now that the government ended its reckless game of chicken and Mikheil Saakashvili agreed to end his hunger strike, Georgia is experiencing that proverbial eye-of-the-storm moment. It is bound to be brief – and just as we hold our breaths to see whose ruby slippers will be poking from under that house – candy-colored utopian ideas inflame the political minds of this country. Here is Nini with usual updates from Georgia.

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ANNIVERSARY Georgia marks Saint George’s day on November 23, and some will remember the 18th anniversary of the Rose Revolution, an important milestone in the country’s recent history that led to ousting Eduard Shevardnadze administration in 2003. Incidentally – or not – late Shevardnadze’s unpublished 2004 video interview surfaced a couple of days ago. The former President is heard, among others, taking pride in creating “Georgian democracy” during his decade-long tenure, while subtly warning the new United National Movement-led government against less democratic inclinations. The interview alimented some of the political discussion since many young Twitterati don’t even remember the legendary “White Fox” in action, and also as a reminder that assessing each administration’s legacy requires due historical time to pass… Until then, the nation will have to settle for distorted images, cardboard cutouts, and persisting temptations of the current rulers to assert themselves against the portrayed sins of their rivals. Killing the dragon?! In politics, that’s often just public relations. Becoming one?! You bet.

NORTH ATTACKS Some in Georgia who followed the tense developments around Saakashvili anticipated this anniversary with fear – others, with hopes – wondering whether history would repeat itself as a farce on the very day of November 23. So far, so calm, with only a modest human chain planned in Tbilisi to commemorate the event. But the sparks of quite a different revolution are glowing in embers: the leaders of Alt-info media outlet, known for its hardline anti-liberal, anti-LGBT, and anti-Muslim stance as well as Russia-friendliness, inaugurated on November 20 a new political party named “Conservative Movement.” There was some usual fuss about the launch of yet another Russia-outfit, but also more credible fears of legitimizing this unsavory gang: after all, Alt-Info led the anti-Pride violence on July 5, only to go unpunished. Suspicions plane over the head of the ruling party, since the policemen were few and far between – and we know how they come out in force whenever the ruling party is worried.

THINK TWICE So shall the Conservative Movement be refused registration? Some lively discussion emerged in Georgia’s liberal circles, which so easily transform into… well… semi-circles. Some suggested the authorities shall deny the alt-right party registration, based on the constitutional provisions prohibiting a political party that “aims to overthrow or forcibly change the constitutional order of Georgia, infringe on the independence or violate the territorial integrity of the country, or that propagates war or violence or incites national, ethnic, provincial, religious or social strife.“ But the opponents, notably including Giga Bokeria, leader of the European Georgia party, warned that inviting a broad definition of this provision may set a dangerous precedent, which would allow the government to seek to outlaw undesirable parties. Shall outrageous speech be protected? For once, it is useful for the liberal community to ponder this question when the cutting edge of the law is suspended not over the heads of its friends, but of its sworn enemies.

TAKE PRIDE (& DO WHATEVER U LIKE WITH IT) We are not yet finished with July 5. Did you see Saakashvili’s Politico letter, where he appeals to U.S. President Joe Biden to speak out and “support our young democracy, which is in grave danger?” It is in that letter that, listing some of the biggest flaws of the Georgian Dream democracy record (of which, admittedly, are many) Saakashvili recalls anti-LGBT demonstrators targeting activists and journalists on July 5 “forcing the cancellation of a Pride march and eventually resulting in the death of a cameraman.” While the events indeed mark one of the darkest episodes of the GD rule, the ex-President cannot really take pride in having conquered moral heights back then either. At the time, Saakashvili claimed that both the violent mobs and LGBTQ+ activists were manipulated by the State Security Service, forcing some of his UNM party comrades to distance themselves in disgust. Funnily, the GD officials saw the specter of UNM and Saakashvili behind the Pride. Yes, being queer in Georgia is linked with more identity struggles than one can imagine…

BLURRY VISIONS Georgians have coined an alternative term of utopia – Heavenly Georgia (ზეციური საქართველო) to denote dream visions of Georgian Arcadia. The social and political initiatives that came raining down on November 22 may mark the attempts to get to that imaginary land where Chokha-clad and Khinkali-popping Unicorns graze. First was For Georgia party, led by ex-Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia, which emerged as a kingmaker in six out of seven non-GD dominated local councils (Sakrebulos). To avoid the usual GD-vs-UNM crisis, the party offered to cooperate with both at the same time – a sort of polyamorous triangle with For Georgia member as its pivotal ax, flanked by UNM and GD nominated Sakrebulo Chair + Vice-Chairs. Honestly, to us, that sounds like a sure way to end in couples therapy, not like a crisis resolution method. But we readily salute For Georgia for having bravely sought a creative third way in a situation when smaller parties usually bend the knee or die.

ACTIVATE! The ruling party promised it wanted to talk business – and so it did. Kind of. PM Garibashvili unveiled a set of policies, including toughening regulations on online casinos and the selling of psychopharmaceuticals. Populist? Perhaps, but overall possible. Now, there was another thing: something about employment, which sounded vaguely relevant, yet, as any utopia, covered in a pinkish haze of good intentions. We have discerned some sort of so-called “activation policies”, implying an attempt at pushing those unemployed on social assistance to instead enter the workforce and earn that money. Yet, the numbers did not add up. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili said half of some 600,000 socially vulnerable Georgians make a labor force, and they are not motivated to seek employment “due to existing social policy”. Observers quickly pointed out that the number was sketchy and that the government’s own statistics differ. And that the “existing social policy” is barely sufficient for staying fed, thus most of those so-called “unemployed on benefits” are working several jobs (over thirty percent of non-agricultural work is estimated by the World Bank to be in the shadow economy, half of the employed persons are self-employed).

Still, the authorities hinted at a range of projects – from training opportunities to creating workplaces with some degree of optionality for those eligible. The degree of conditionality with receiving the welfare assistance remains unclear – some of the remarks of the PM sounded threatening enough to suggest that the welfare-receivers are simply forced into the labor, remarks from his cabinet members were more soothing. PM promised a specific program in a few weeks. The Parliament is due to see the draft budget by the end of November. We’ll be seeing, how these announcements are reflected into numbers. What is sure, is that the alteration of social policy was apparently discussed – assuming it was seriously discussed – behind closed doors, without external input or public discussion.

NOT GUILTY In present-day Georgia, one can become a hero by simply doing your job. Especially if you judge fairly. Such was the case of Irma Togonidze, Batumi City Court judge, who acquitted Tamar Kuratashvili, Batumi-based Shame Movement activist whom the police detained mid-November while shooting during protests at a State Security Service building. The footage was unequivocal in showing the activist doing nothing prejudicial, and the judge refused to close her eyes to it. Hurrah to that…

That’s the full lid for today. Join us every Tuesday and Friday for the tongue-in-cheek coverage of Georgia’s political life.