Dispatch – April 7/8: Journey

New FM’s Awkward Handshake – Unpatriotic Trip of ‘Patriots’ – Busy Weekend Ahead – Covid: Good News Comes with Bad News

Many trips are planned from Tbilisi these days: some go West, some go North – and all of them say they go where they go only to save their country’s interests. Here is Nini with the usual updates from Georgia.

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HANDSHAKE First thing as a freshly appointed Foreign Minister, Ilia Darchiashvili headed to Brussels to attend NATO Foreign Ministerial. In Brussels, he held meetings, among others, with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, top diplomats of some of the NATO countries, and Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. While there is little hope that Minister Darchiashvili will pursue a line different from the declared foreign policy positions of Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, he’s been still in the spotlight as Georgians want their country to be on the right side in difficult times. Georgian media outlets thus quickly noticed Darchiashvili’s handshake and short interaction with Dmytro Kuleba, his Ukrainian counterpart: we do not want to lose hope that the two manage to find some common ground amidst the ever-worsening Tbilisi-Kyiv relations as the Russian invasion in Ukraine continues. Whatever the political skirmishes, the Georgian diplomats are at least steadfast: Georgian Mission to the UN has co-sponsored the resolution to kick Russia out of the UN Human Rights Council and – of course – voted alongside 93 members who endorsed that decision. Let’s hope the Minister backs his diplomats up.

Also Read: NATO Allies Agree to Help Strengthen Georgia’s Resilience

SNEAKING OUT Leaders of the nativist and conservative Alliance of Patriots party visited Moscow, holding meetings in the Federation Council about settling relations between Georgia and Russia. The party has long called for Georgia’s “neutral” status and been suspected of Kremlin sympathies or even links and funding from Russia, so their not-first Moscow visit should not have been a surprise. But now it came as Moscow’s reputation hits the lowest point and images of war crimes in Bucha, Ukraine, shocks the world.

So no wonder that it attracted heavy backlash at home: describing it as “unacceptable” or even “treason,” some in the opposition alleged that the Russia visits of the AoP and similar forces, such as the Conservative Movement, as well as raising the issue of neutral status may be in the interest of the Georgian Dream government, which they say does little to prevent this from happening and may even be backing it. Tbilisi Mayor Kakha Kaladze, however, also said such visits are “categorically unacceptable” while there is a war going on in a “friendly country” and people are dying.

Busy Weekend

DATE 1 Save two important dates on the weekend: Saturday falls on April 9, a very loaded date for Georgia as the country commemorates the 1989 massacre on the same day when the Soviet troops attacked a crowd of anti-Soviet peaceful protesters in front of the present-day Parliament building, leaving at least 21 dead and hundreds injured. The day also marks the restoration of Georgia’s independence, as the Supreme Council of Georgia passed a declaration on restoration of independence on this date in 1991 based on the results of the referendum nine days earlier, in which an overwhelming majority of Georgians voted to leave the Soviet Union. Expect the discussions about the current position of the country to heat up.

SAME PLACE By the way, at the place where the massacre happened 33 years ago (and April 9 monument stands to commemorate the victims), activists gathered on April 6 to stage a performance to show solidarity with the Bucha tragedy. Dozens of people were lying on the ground in front of the Parliament building, with their hands tied, to mimic the gruesome fates of Ukrainian civilians, demonstrate the horror of the war crimes, and send the message in and outside the country.

DATE 2 On Sunday, April 10, “presidential elections” are held in Georgia’s Russian-held Tskhinvali/South Ossetia region. While Tbilisi and most of the international community do not recognize the legitimacy of the vote, talks of a “referendum” about joining Russia have accompanied the campaign and attracted attention from the outside. Our fresh explainer leads through the basic facts and context ahead of the polls. Read it here.

Good News, Bad News

LIFE WINS Finally some good news: for the first time in about a year and a half, no Covid-related death was recorded in Georgia over the 24 hour period, National Center for Disease Control reported on April 7. The country is slowly bidding farewell to the major health crisis, which so far has taken the lives of more than 16,700 people. While many countries in the world have been seeing peaks in recent weeks, numbers of daily cases were coming down for a while, and with all eyes now on Ukraine, people are slowly forgetting the years spent in fear and restrictions. However, mask mandates indoors are still here, and many still struggle with health problems or economic hardships the pandemic left, and this is not going to be an easy fight.

STRUGGLE AHEAD The pandemic nearing its end means that the university students will be slowly back to lecture halls. The past years might have been particularly unlucky for freshmen who were deprived of the spiritual experience of hanging out at the university yards and interacting with peers or professors in person. But things probably are not getting any easier now for a part of them either, particularly those who come from regions and have no steady shelter in the capital city of Tbilisi, where major higher education institutions are concentrated. In a country like Georgia, simply having somewhere to sleep may be a huge privilege for students, who also lack access to part-time work opportunities with working conditions that allow making ends meet while also giving enough time and energy to their studies.

The spatial disparities created by such conditions may only be getting worse due to reports of peaking rent prices: the raised accommodation fees, which many blame on the influx of Russian citizens since the start of the Ukraine invasion, reportedly make the living for students further unaffordable. The high rent prices and reported evictions by landlords who wanted to secure more expensive deals with foreigners have been heatedly discussed in Georgia for a while, and activists have been trying to inform those evicted about their rights. However, the problem of lack of housing for non-local students has been there for a longer time, and it may be the best time for authorities or universities to take some responsibility and deal with it.

That’s the full lid for today. May the next issue come out in a more peaceful world. Join us every Tuesday and Friday for the incisive coverage of Georgia’s political life.