Dispatch – 22/2/22: Fighting Shadows

PM Garibashvili Faces Criticism for Tiptoeing in Munich – ‘Neutrals” Send Letters to Putin – Culture Ministry Appalled by Dutch Interpretation of Georgian Dance – Church Faces Another Violent Scandal – Super-Rich Problem Conflicts Georgians

As the world tries to digest Russia’s recent move to recognize Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states and many fear what is yet to come, the Georgian ex-President is going on hunger strike again. And this is when current rulers have been desperately trying not to get any attention at all. Here is Nini with usual updates from Georgia.

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VEIL OF IGNORANCE Invited to a party but don’t feel like socializing? Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili may be the right person to teach a course on how not to stick out during big events. After showing off a scanned version of the invitation from “Munich Security Conference Chairman Wolfgang Ischinger,” the PM arrived in Germany to hold what his critics see as less relevant meetings for the current international security context. On the sidelines of the security conference, Garibashvili met with Bulgarian counterpart Kiril Petkov, Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, and various business executives. And that was all. This is not how you make use of a great chance to be part of greater discussions about security issues that very much affect Georgia, critics from all sides argued, questioning again Georgia’s strategy to stay low-profile as Russia may be about to invade Ukraine with ongoing provocations that very much resemble the 2008 preparatory works for Russian invasion in Georgia.

DEAR PUTIN But things could be far worse: for example, one could go as far as to send Russian President Vladimir Putin a letter claiming what Georgians want is military neutrality and dialogue with Russia. This is what over 50 organizations recently did: some of the signatories, like nativist and Kremlin-friendly Alliance of Patriots or Georgian March parties, sound familiar, but the list again includes dozens of obscure names. The thing is, there were too many respects shown in the text for it to be considered neutral.

DANCING IN THE DARK Georgian national dance, with all its fire and beauty, is one of those things making the country very proud. Georgians like to show it off to foreigners, but some of them also want those foreigners to watch for some boundaries when attempting their own interpretation of choreography. A viral video in social media showing men – reportedly from a Dutch troupe – performing Svanuri, one of the Georgian folk dances, met outrage among the part of the conservative public who were not happy seeing a man dressed in a pink dress dancing along.

After those offended and concerned citizens called for some sort of reaction to insulting national treasure, the Culture Ministry weighed in.  The Ministry, led by Tea Tsulukiani who loves to come across as particularly strict in matters like these, said the video where Svanuri has been “encroached in an absolutely unacceptable form” showed the necessity to improve the legal mechanisms to protect Georgian dances. It is noteworthy that in some Georgian dances, women have long performed male parts in male clothing, and they were applauded and celebrated for it. But men apparently will have to wait till they are allowed to cross-dress like that.

HOLY NONSENSE The Georgian Orthodox Church just found itself in yet another violent (and not only) scandal. It all started when the footage went viral showing one man beating and yelling at another. Both seem to be dressed in clerical clothing, and the beater is heard accusing his victim of homosexuality (to which the latter admits) and of corrupting children (which he denies). The perpetrator also scolds his victim over suing Shalva Kekelia, a famous Tbilisi-based archpriest known for enjoying high authority in the church. Another person is filming the crime but does not intervene. The Patriarchate commented, decrying the incident and claiming none of the two in the footage are monks but rather former novices.

Father Shalva, too, made media comments, condemning the violence but recalling the troubled past with the victim whom, he says, he banned from attending his seminary lectures after learning about his “shocking” homosexual practices. According to Kekelia, the man was further restricted from wearing the clerical clothing outside the monastery after the Church over reports of his recent sexual advances to men, but the priest had to “threaten” him when the man disobeyed. Father Shalva claimed that despite threats he would never resort to violence, but the victim reported him to police (some of those claims were corroborated by the victim himself). Still, the archpriest denied having ordered the violence and even alleged it may have been staged to personally harm him.

BILLION-DOLLAR-PROBLEM Ever since the billionaire-led Georgian Dream came to power in Georgia, individual wealth has become one of the most ideologically conflicting things in the country. With many major voices here remaining in the anti-Soviet reaction since the nation regained its independence in the nineties, libertarian ideas of economic freedom have dominated intellectual discussions. The United National Movement, the former ruling party, proudly championed such ideas in their politics, while the slowly-growing criticism that such policies would boost inequality and push the poor into a bigger hardship was marginalized as “soviet” or “Bolshevik” sentiments.

NOT ALL RICH! But the cognitive dissonance came with GD’s coming to power in 2012, after which the government opponents started referring to its founder Bidzina Ivanishvili as an “oligarch,” while the government criticism eventually started to include wealthy people coming to politics to help their businesses. The allegations of vote-buying during elections by the ruling party and the general weakness of opposition in the face of large private and administrative resources of the party in power added to concerns. Still, the free market advocates rarely saw it as money vs democracy problem, attributing all the ill to bad governance and believing that there are good rich guys too. Interestingly, it was ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili himself who recognized the problem and even offered anti-oligarchic laws to ban the super-rich from meddling in politics.

COMRADE WITH NO COMRADES But the recent social-media discussion showed the dissonance is to continue for a while due to the refusal to see potential malign effects of inequality on democracy: famous Georgian feminist activist Baia Pataraia had to defend herself from cold-rational-arguments-storm after, speaking about Ukraine’s anti-oligarchic laws, she expressed concerns about the ultra-rich greed amid the pervasive poverty and even suggested 100% taxes for the income above the certain huge amount of net-worth. What she got was lots of cynical reactions which would make you think she was about to bring back the Soviet Union (well, someone else may be on that mission, but not because he worries about the poor or inequality). Pataraia’s attempts to illustrate the problem on Ivanishvili’s example turned out futile even among the fiercest government critics. So, the activist will have to wait a little till the country will be ready to discuss such issues without fighting Soviet shadows: no worries – they may not be ready for that, yet. But their kids are gonna love it.

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