Dispatch – March 10/11: Don’t Panic

Panic-Buying: Why Georgians Hoard Sugar – Gov’t Absent as Fears and Confusion Grow – Bad Times after Good Start: Regions Protest against Alt-Info Offices Another ‘Neutrality’ Letter Sent from Georgia

Georgians, who fear that – after Ukraine – Russia may also again come for their country, feel left alone from the authorities while searching for solutions. Here is Nini with usual updates from Georgia.

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SUGAR CRASH! Emptied supermarket shelves are what got everybody talking these days as reports and images of panic-buying virally spread. This time, it is not toilet paper, but rather grains, flour, pasta, beans, and, most importantly, sugar. The latter was the most puzzling: why would Georgians suddenly hoard sugar unless this is how they want to want to compensate for bitter times – or prepare special sugar bombs to slowly ruin the health of potential occupiers (who, rumors have it, are not well supplied with food). Turns out, there was some fast-spreading misconception about potential shortages after Ukraine banned the export of food staples. But those familiar with real data tried calming the public down since only a tiny part of imported sugar comes from Ukraine or Russia, and Georgia has enough supplies of those goods for another month and a half.

DO IT YOURSELF As the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues, sugar shortages are not the only thing that got people panicking. Fears persist about the mass influx of visitors from Russia, and these fears are exacerbated by the absence of reliable data about how many are coming or who these visitors are: are they comfort-seekers or asylum seekers, are they ignorant part of the society who may even ponder dodging sanctions by moving their businesses overseas, or are they Kremlin critics for whom the life has become unbearable due to further crackdown on freedom of expression. Social media is full of confusion as users try to figure out potential threats and ways to collectively deal with them. But however correct such perceptions are, or however right the intentions, it can be the last reasonable thing to leave it on crowds to come up with solutions in times like these: the situation can get out of hand quite easily. So where is the government?

ANARCHY According to a new public opinion poll conducted by the Tbilisi-based Analysis and Consulting Team (ACT), 87% of Georgians say “Ukraine’s war is our war too,” while 72% believe that “if Russia wins in Ukraine, Georgia will be the next in line.” Amid such perceptions, no wonder that fear and worry dominate social processes in the country. But watching how Georgian authorities handle the situation, one may think that either there is no crisis, or there is no government.

There has been little strategic communication from the leadership: for example, ruling party chairman Irakli Kobakhidze said in one sentence that the government would address any risks associated with Russian influx, but the large part of his address was focused on threatening Georgians with police response if any sort of discrimination on the basis of nationality takes place. And when it comes to coping with potential military threats, the government rhetoric either focuses on how Russia can turn the country to dust in a moment, or on how the right policies of this government keep the country safe. But it is those right policies that make people suspicious that something is not quite right.

NOTHING LASTS FOREVER And finally some good news: jailed ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili ended his second hunger strike, which was supposed to be permanent. As the motives behind the decision, he cited the current international context and a need for “common sense, health, and full mobilization, strength instead of weakness.” Saakashvili made the decision after almost three weeks on the strike which was very unlike what we’ve seen when he did it for the first time: no alarms about his deteriorating health and almost imminent death, no camera recordings released by authorities, no counting his calories, no TV rows, and many did not even remember he was on a strike. Most likely, the lack of attention was because the whole country had wasted all their nerve cells on turbulence that accompanied the initial crisis. Thinking about the global challenges that have emerged over the past years, and then again about all the artificial, unnecessary crises Georgian political elites were dragging their people into at the same time, one has all reasons to get angry. Except that that anger has probably been wasted too.

BAD TIMING After going largely unpunished for organizing anti-Pride mass violence in July, Alt-info – Georgia’s Kremlin-friendly right-wing media group – seemed like stepping into the best years of its life: first, they formed their own political party – “Conservative Movement.” Then they went opening dozens of local offices across the country, despite questions about the sources of funding. Sadly, they forgot to warn Moscow that it was not the best time to invade a sovereign country and show the world its ruthlessness: the latest developments apparently made it much harder for Georgians to tolerate any ambitious force sympathizing with Putin’s regime. Over the past weeks, the party offices saw protests in different parts of the country, particularly in western Georgia, and landlords in at least three municipalities reconsidered renting their premises to the group. And this may not be the end yet.

QUOTE BIG On the other hand, the Alliance of Patriots party, similarly suspected of Kremlin links (or at least sympathies), is not giving up on their dreams after the sudden awakening from a long hibernation. Again teaming up with up to 50 obscure organizations, they drafted another letter – this time addressed at UN Security Council – begging it to support and contribute to the “neutrality” of Georgia and Ukraine, which, the letter reads, should be guaranteed by West and Russia. The letter written in English quotes some big names, including U.S. President Joe Biden, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the legendary Henry Kissinger. It’s good they believe Russia can tolerate neutral democratic countries at its borders. But we are not sure the self-proclaimed Patriots really care about the democracy part.

Fresh story: The prosecutor of The Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC), Karim Khan today filed an application for warrants of arrest of three South Ossetian officials with reasonable grounds to believe that they bear criminal responsibility for the war crimes committed in and around S. Ossetia, between 8 and 27 August 2008. Read more here.

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