Dispatch – April 14/15: Language Barriers

Bucha Trip’s All-In Controversy – GD Faces Questions about EU Questionnaire – Big Money Wasted in Gori – Georgia Marks Mother Tongue Day

On April 14, Tbilisi marked the day of the Georgian language, commemorating a hard-won battle (back in 1978) against Soviet cultural and linguistic imperialism. But however well-protected or well-spoken, finding a common language in Georgian politics gets harder every day. Here is Nini with the usual updates from Georgia.

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Peace Train

HOW IT STARTED It all started when days ago Parliamentary Speaker Shalva Papuashvili turned down the invitation from his Ukrainian counterpart Ruslan Stefanchuk to arrive in Bucha, a place near Kyiv that drew the world’s attention due to horrific atrocities committed by Russian troops. The Speaker cited the poor state of Tbilisi-Kyiv relations as the reason. The ruling party Chair Irakli Kobakhidze went even further, and was far more clear by listing preconditions for Georgian Dream’s high-profile Ukraine visit, which included Kyiv sacking the government officials linked to United National Movement (if you are confused, please catch up here). If thought things could not get any more controversial? Well, they did.

HOW IT’S GOING After the initial refusal, Tbilisi got slammed by Speaker Stefanchuk. Yet the two speakers made up during the phone conversation on April 13, and Papuashvili changed his mind. Since Papuashvili was now going, he first proposed to form a delegation of three representatives from GD and three more from the parliamentary opposition. Three seats were not enough for the multi-striped parliamentary opposition (obviously) so on April 13, it was reported that opposition MPs and GD deputies would form two separate delegations – you get everything in double in Tbilisi these days, including the facts and realities. How very forward-looking in our quantum era.

(UN)HAPPY ENDING Turns out, in a rare compromise, GD offered more seats for opposition parties and most agreed. The United National Movement, however, is now sulking and not going, citing the initial refusal of Papuashvili to go to Bucha. Other opposition parties were not happy with the UNM decision, arguing such petulance is improper when the country that went through a horror invites you over to express condolences. At least the Georgian Dream leadership looks joyful, after being the key villain for a while in the Bucha trip story. This kindergarten politics is getting quite exasperating.

Fights to Watch

QUESTIONS ABOUT QUESTIONS If you go to visit a family of two or more small children, never come with only one toy as a gift, however valuable it is: instead of joy and thankyous, you get to see tantrums as one of the kids claims it and refuses to share with others, and the evening is ruined. Of course, there are exceptions if the little ones are miraculously well-disciplined, but Georgian political elites are not that exception. After the EU handed Georgia a questionnaire as part of the membership application process, Parliamentary opposition and civil society groups called for transparency and publicity of the questions and answers, citing the need for broader inclusion and engagement in the EU integration process. The ruling party does not look very enthusiastic to agree to demands but probably is not willing to make much drama out of it either: GD Chair Irakli Kobakhidze said it should be agreed with the EU first before making the questions and answers public, but added that those “not undermining the state” will be engaged in filling out the questionnaire (yes, some more drama).

SEARCH RESULTS So, according to some googling we did here, there is a practice of discussing questions and answers in the legislative bodies and relevant committees before submitting it back to the EU, and there were initiatives in other applicant countries to involve civil society groups/regular citizens by recording the answers to some of those questions too. This means broader engagement and participation, and we can expect some of this publicity in Georgia too. But we also saw that the questionnaire – if the EU did not reduce its size for the special geopolitical context which made it possible in the first place – may amount to hundreds of pages and thousands of questions about the country’s legislation, economy, institutions, etc. But if THEY are going to start separate crises and fights about how to answer each of those questions, we are not sure we want that publicity, participation, or whatever democracy thing it is they are offering.

Gori’s Rich Culture

HUSTLER CULTURE The State Security Service detained the chief accountant of the Gori Municipal Hall-run Agency for Promoting Development of Culture and Tourism over misappropriating at least GEL 144 thousand (USD 47 thousand) in public funds. The accountant allegedly systematically transferred the money to personal accounts at two commercial banks and spent them on online betting services. The media was quick to allege it was the same woman who won a luxurious Range Rover that was raffled by one of the gambling companies. So, is this another Anna Delvey plot for the next based-on-true-events Netflix drama? Less likely as few believe this is a one-person thing.

LONGER STORY Media interviewed former staffers of the Gori mayor’s office who said they’d been forced into unpaid leaves due to potentially related budget cuts. Also, the money looks like a huge sum for a local municipality, and SSG expects the amount to drastically rise after further inspections. The total losses from the budget are far bigger, according to findings by the state audit. Local opposition also alleged that the municipal audit service failed to inspect the agency’s spending and suspects a larger corruption scheme.

It was in the same Gori municipality where media earlier reported that SSG was also investigating tens of thousands of public money wasted on the electricity that was used for bitcoin mining in the Gori Culture Centre, also a public agency (and, according to RFE/RL reports, the key suspect in Bitcoin case was the one to help the investigation into the gambling case). Too much of corruption allegations for the agencies of a single municipality? They better check it until it turns into a local governance culture.

დედაენის დღე (Dedaenis Dghe)

OTD On April 14, Georgia marks the day of the Georgian language. The day marks the same date in 1978 when protests against Soviet attempts to deprive the Georgian language of the status of state language culminated in a massive rally. Scores of young people – and not only – were brave enough to express their discontents against the decision by a non-democratic regime in the streets, and those who were there often recall the accompanying tension and fears of a violent crackdown. But the courage apparently paid off and Soviet authorities abstained from implementing the change, marking a rare concession towards the public protest.

Now, for over three decades, Georgians have been marking the date, often viewing it in the context of the fight against what they call “Russification” (denoting Russian cultural/language assimilation policies) and an important milestone in a fight against Soviet occupation. But this day usually activates discussions not only about protecting the state language-s (aside from Georgian, Abkhazian is recognized as a state language in the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia), but also about taking care of other locally spoken endangered languages. In addition, the insufficient efforts to provide better access for ethnic minorities to learn the state language are also discussed, serving as a reminder that many struggles are still ahead.

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