Dispatch – January 17/18: Desperation

Strikes Strike Again – IDP Protests: Desperate Act in Times of Apathy – Medication Prices: Small Move = Big Leap? – A Story of One… Two… Three Poets and the Ministry

Those familiar with discussions on social issues in Georgia know that they are usually as unstable and short-lived as snow that has been recently falling early mornings in Tbilisi: if you are lucky enough, you get to catch the glimpse of the white-covered beauty of the surroundings because it will be a matter of minutes till everything miraculously turns grey again. So, the freshly-appointed Minister of Health (and many other things) may be pretty surprised of having to face social discontent of unusual intensity right at the start of his new career. Here is Nini with usual updates from Georgia.

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CARERS IN NEED OF CARE Up to 400 social workers, employed by the Ministry-run Social Service Agency, announced a strike of rare scale on Friday, demanding higher pay and better working conditions. It was through this strike – which kicked off on Monday – that many learned about their miserable salaries. For some, they remain frozen since 2007, despite the continuously rising cost of living. It is a sad irony that social workers, tasked with examination and provision of social assistance for others, say that they are themselves in need of similar aid. The strike is to continue despite the decision by the employer to increase the remuneration by 40-60% starting in February: the workers complain that the decision was not agreed with them, and is less than the offer made to them in November – and, crucially, still falling short of what they need to survive. Read details here.

DESPERATE ACTS The persons displaced from Georgia’s occupied territories often protest demanding dignified residence as they remain settled in often unsafe and lugubrious collective housing where they found shelters after armed conflicts of the 1990s. But the recent one, in Tbilisi, caught attention for a tragic incident when a man in his fifties, one of the IDPs, jumped to his death from one of such shelters on January 16. The neighbors say it was his attempt to get the attention of the authorities. The protests erupted as the residents felt an urgency to act after the building they were settled in turned obviously unsafe, and they felt that none of the offers made by the Health Ministry, responsible for their rights, provided them with appropriate accommodation.

Health Minister Zurab Azarashvili was quick to say this “accident” had nothing to do with protests and came under fire – since, before jumping, the man apparently said exactly the opposite. “Sadly, the voice of the displaced is only heard after tragedies,” the residents said in a collective statement the next day. They also spoke of a “narrative” to frame the suicide as an accident and circulated allegations to attribute the incident to mental health problems, substance abuse, or conflicts. “Mr. Minister, people in this country die a real and cruel death. People in this country are killed by indifference, hopelessness, and desperation,” said the protesters, recalling that their issues never became a social policy priority over the past three decades. More here.

Also Read: in a long-promised move, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili announced on January 17 that companies would be allowed to import, without further national authorization, all pharmaceutical products approved by Turkey. The authorities hope to thus combat the problem of inflated medication prices, one of the leading social problems in the country. But questions remain how much this will help, and what took the government so long to take this step. Read the article.

BETWEEN THE LINES Many in Georgia became familiar with poems by Elene Dariani, an early 20th-century poet known for their rarely open and powerful portrayal of female passion and sexuality. Her true identity has remained a mystery and a matter of discussion: Dariani’s poems were often attributed to symbolist poet Paolo Iashvili – it was thought that he used a female nom-de-plume to pursue alternative projects. But the archival research suggested that these verses belonged to Elene Bakradze – a real woman and Iashvili’s free-spirited contemporary. Some believe that it was the controversy of the topics that forced Elene Bakradze to hide her true identity. Others think that Iashvili, romantically involved with Bakradze, would edit her poetry, turning the verses into a co-creation. And there is also a suggestion to attribute the female pseudonym to Iashvili’s attempts to cover up his homoerotic takes.

But while Georgian intellectuals stay at odds over whose voice it was actually silenced, the Ministry of Culture entered with another controversy, issuing a statement which was… well, not that poetic. Here’s the story: the Museum of Literature, which published a book containing personal writings, memories, diaries, and letters of “Elene Bakradze – Dariani,” mistakenly attributed to Bakradze two poems of Ana Kalandadze – probably the most celebrated Georgian female poet. Lasha Bakradze, head of the museum, apologized for the mistake on January 2, saying that despite being aware of this a little earlier, he did not notify the broader public till now because it would interfere with New Year’s festivities. He also mentioned certain “ill-wishers” who’d want to move the discussions in the wrong direction.

The culmination came on January 17, when the Culture Ministry – now led by famously hatchet-wielding former Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani – dropped a strictly-worded statement, citing “numerous fairly concerned citizens” who approached the Ministry over the mistake and called for “necessary response.” The statement, though showing empathy towards the book editor “who sincerely regrets the mistake, which even resulted in her falling sick,” was less kind towards Mr. Bakradze who, the Ministry said, “is sick with Covid” (not a strong excuse, obviously) and with whom the Ministry plans to “seriously discuss the issue.” The statement also reads that the Ministry requested to recall the copies that have already been passed to third parties. So now, Minister Tsulukiani is facing a counterattack from people in the publishing – and not only – who sensed a whiff of Soviet-era censorship and totalitarianism. But no worries: she’s been there before.

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