Dispatch – January 27/28: Missing

Fury as Ruling Party Eschews Name of…. Neighbor – Eternal Mystery of the Georgian “People” – Police Incident Spurs Discussions

Mysteries continue to plague Georgia’s political thought as things go missing anywhere you look: inside the key political texts a sudden void, and outside the texts and in the real world, the link between party discourse and people’s needs is fading still. Here is Nini with usual updates from Georgia.

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CALL ME BY NO NAME You may hear the word “Russia” everywhere these days except, it seems, where you most need it. The ruling Georgian Dream consultations with parliamentary opposition over the text of a joint resolution in support of Ukraine – quite unsurprisingly – led nowhere. And – again quite unsurprisingly – the draft tabled by the ruling party includes not a single mention of “Russia.” The opposition wants to suggest amendments to the draft during sessions, to attract public scrutiny to GD’s arguments or ponders presenting an alternative text.

Avoiding calling the neighbor by its name is nothing new for GD leaders (and also President Salome Zurabishvili). Their texts, even if critical of Russia, usually fail to explicitly mention it. The Foreign Ministry statements often do – but these are relatively lower key. The ruling politicians are famously reluctant to irk the northern neighbor – partly out of marking the difference with their arch-rivals, the UNM. But is the GD misinterpreting the public expectations? The latest NDI poll showed that wide consensus stands: Georgians overwhelmingly favor NATO (77%) and EU (83%) membership.

WHO, THE PEOPLE?! The latest NDI poll fielded between December 7 and 13, 2021, and released yesterday, brought back the eternal question – who are the voters, and what is that they want? Exactly – in a country of fewer than 4 million people, where ‘everyone knows everybody’, the frequently-cited concept of “people” has so far remained the biggest mystery for the politicians, researchers, or commentators. And so far, neither opinion polls (however accurate) nor the sporadic countryside trips of opposition parties helped to crack the code. No wonder those field trips usually look more like anthropological expeditions to exotic lands rather than the party leadership meeting the folks it is supposed to represent.

STOP CITING US, PLEASE Here, some interesting data: according to survey results, 51% of respondents said they do not agree that GD acts in their interest, and the same number stood at 53% about opposition elected in representative bodies. Also, asked what party is closest to them, 24% named GD, 9% – UNM, and 8% – others, with the majority – 58% staying undecided. As of Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili’s performance, 27% rate it as good. His predecessor Giorgi Gakharia held a 46% approval rate before he quit and burn the bridges in 2020. Other “news” is that 80% of Georgians are overwhelmingly in support of cross-party collaboration, 92% of the respondents believe that democracy is either very important or important, while over half think Georgia is not a democracy now. (Read more here).

Why do these numbers matter? They come as a stark reminder that the Georgian Dream rhetoric, claiming they represent and act in the interests of the “majority,” is just so much hot air. Also, the “West” that the GD has started to publicly admonish has more public support than the government does. And yes, PM Garibashvili – the one most frequently posing as a man of people – is not that much liked by those people. Could it be that the ruling party draws the will of the people from the Facebook comments of the trolls on its own payroll? Now, that would be quite shortsighted.

LOSE-LOSE Judging by the polls, neither the mainstream opposition parties can take pride: their absence of steady vision or articulated policies and the lack of sincere engagement with public concerns continues to backfire. For example, you cannot refuse to campaign for municipal issues in the first round of elections, then suddenly decide that hungry children indeed is the problem that demands attention, but forget it again in a week to make a single leader the center of all attention (UNM, we are talking about you). And it is also doubtful how much the recent heartwarming images of party chair Nika Melia pushing somebody’s car out of the snow during one of those countryside trips are going to help turn things around – isn’t this what people do every day to survive anyways?

SYSTEM FAILURE The court sent yesterday the two officers detained over the beating of a disabled minor in one of Tbilisi’s subway stations to pretrial custody. Earlier, a couple of separate rallies took place in Tbilisi to protest what is believed to be a decade-long systemic problem of police violence. The issue has remained on the public agenda: the Georgian authorities now face a sort of a test to mete out proper justice in this case against the background of what critics believe to be a common practice of improper investigation in the abuses committed by law enforcers – or perceptions of sparing the perpetrators once they are convicted. 

Other discussions have again centered on the need to have an independent agency such as the State Inspector’s Service, which currently probes the incident, but will be dismantled by March thanks to the ruling party’s rush legislative effort. While GD claims that the two separate agencies that will emerge instead will do the job more efficiently, critics fear that the ruling party wants to tame the critical independent body (and to punish Inspector Londa Toloraia for her principled stance on recent official abuses).

Last but not least, the incident illuminated an issue that otherwise failed to get due attention in public discussions: the rights of persons with disabilities. Having now come into the spotlight, the representatives and activists belonging to this group attributed the failure of the police officers to recognize a hearing-impaired minor and treat him with the dignity to broader general invisibility of PWDs, including them not being welcome – or expected to be present – in Georgian public spaces such as the subways.

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