Dispatch – February 24/25: War and Other Destructions

Russian Aggression in Ukraine: How Georgia Reacts – Different Kind of Destruction: Activists Sue Authorities for Allowing Damage of Natural Environment

Georgians have been watching in horror the deeply unsettling developments in Ukraine, showing a heartwarming unity in supporting Ukraine, but also usual dissatisfaction when it comes to domestic political discussions. Here is Nini with usual updates from Georgia.

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WAR WOUNDS Georgians, like the rest of the world, woke up today to horrifying news about the full-scale Russian military invasion of Ukraine. Hardly anyone can empathize with the friendly nation under attack like those who themselves have gone through the traumatic experience of war. So, thoughts of Georgians go out to Ukrainians struggling to defend their country or to merely survive in the face of major aggression. For many in Georgia, current developments feel like re-watching “their own war”, but from afar and at the larger scale, while fearing that soon it may come closer.

ANNIVERSARY Amid Russia’s current and past actions and imperialistic rhetoric Georgians remember that it was on February 25, 101 years ago, that the Red Army occupied Tbilisi and ended the dreams of the newborn Georgian Democratic Republic. But moving back into the current century: more than a decade has passed since the Russian aggression in Georgia, but few have felt that war had ever ended: it was always here, silently ruining any attempt to move forward, have faith, build the future and grow.

GOVERNMENT Georgian government leaders condemned Russia’s actions (and this time, had to mention “Russia”, which they previously avoided). Still, they got criticized for being a little too late for hitting Twitter. For most ruling party leaders, that was all. The happy exception was President Salome Zurabishvili who addressed the country from the garden of her presidential palace to express solidarity with Ukraine, to greenlight the extraordinary parliamentary session (as proposed by opposition parties), and to call for a National Security Council meeting. But the ruling Georgian Dream party apparently is not interested. They canceled the emergency session in Parliament: MP Givi Mikanadze said that “at this stage, there is objectively no need to hold such session.”

LESSONS (UN)LEARNED For government critics, the Russian aggression on Ukraine gave yet another proof that GD attempts “not to irritate Russia” are futile. “We should not think that if you don’t irritate Putin, he may not harm you,” Sergi Kapanadze, International Relations expert and former Deputy Foreign Minister told Civil.ge in an interview recorded on the eve of the invasion. According to Kapanadze, the Russian President made it clear in his recent address that it is not about Ukraine’s NATO membership or the country’s current government that he is unsatisfied with. “For him, it is the existence of sovereign counties in the neighborhood that is unacceptable.”

Many also believe that February 24 ended the persisting questions about whether ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili could have done more to prevent the 2008 war. The composure and restraint of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy seem to have been ultimately in vain.

WHAT TO DO When we asked former Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli on February 23 how Georgia could act in the current tense context around Ukraine, she said there are a lot of things the country can do. For example, she said there should be consultations with partners to include Russia’s ceasefire violations with Georgia in the motivation part of currently imposed sanctions. “It is very important that Russia is punished not only for Ukraine but also, among others, for the partial occupation of Georgia.”

PEOPLE In the meantime, many Georgians who wish their country did more to show proper support, hit social media to offer shelter, transportation, or other services and assistance to Ukrainians stranded in Georgia after the closure of the airspace. Many are restless to find other efficient ways to stand by those in the warzone. Several rallies were held across the country to show solidarity and to protest against Russian aggression, and large crowds marched in the streets of Tbilisi for peace in Ukraine.

ECONOMY The war added to the roller-coaster ride Georgian national currency has been on for years. After finally starting to appreciate against foreign currencies, the Georgian Lari dropped 11.7 Tetri overnight against US Dollar as Russia invaded Ukraine.

SPORTS In the meantime, the much-anticipated rugby game between Georgia and Russia in Tbilisi has been indefinitely postponed. The game that was due to take place on February 27 was a big talking point before as some saw it as a potential venue to express support for Ukraine after Putin’s Donbas recognition. But on the morning of February 24, hosting the event did not look like a good idea anymore. The decision was taken by Rugby Europe, an international governing body organizing the games, “considering the current situation and to preserve the health and safety of all players and officials.” It also canceled another rugby event planned in Moscow in the coming days.

DIFFERENT OCCUPATION But not all occupiers are belligerent foreign powers, right? In times of peace, people in various parts of Georgia often worry that domestic actors are no less potent to bring devastation to the country’s precious lands. In this case, Tbilisi is no exception: in the capital city, you may easily get a feeling that authorities and developers here literally hate untouched green public spaces. Even in rare cases when local communities were somehow able to halt the construction of yet another residence building in fields they used for recreation, the city authorities went to build parks that look a bit overwhelmed with equipment and decorations – so that jokes emerged about having to wear high heels when going for a walk there.

So what do you do in cases where the damage has been done and those decorations are not going to help anymore? Such was the story of Dighomi meadows, a natural environment stretching for 3 kilometers along the right bank of the Mtkvari River in Tbilisi. Authorities have once promised to open a huge natural park there, but all the activists and locals have seen was destruction. Now they are suing the Ministry of Environment and Tbilisi Municipality for “failing to prevent the criminal exploitation of the state land” at meadows by private parties engaged in rock mining, rock-crushing, gravel and cement production, illegal waste dumping, and the discharge of pollutants into the river. The activists and lawyers say that while they made authorities force stop some of the illegal activities, the government did not lift a finger to hold the private companies responsible.

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