Dispatch – April 18/19: Initiation

Bucha Reflections – UNM’s Unpopular Competitiveness – New Realities for MP Returning from Frontline – President’s Harmless Remarks Stir Linguistic Controversy

For many months now, it’s been raining initiatives from the political leadership in Tbilisi. But somehow, it is still the lack of initiative at the good time and on relevant issues that usually stirs controversy. Here is Nini with the usual updates from Georgia.

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HEALING TRIP After lots of unnecessary drama, the Georgian parliamentary delegation, headed by Speaker Shalva Papuashvili and consisting of both the ruling party and the opposition MPs, traveled to Ukraine upon the invitation of Rada Chairman Ruslan Stefanchuk. Having visited war-ravaged Bucha and Irpin, the delegation returned to Tbilisi full of good and bad emotions. While the MPs were horrified by the crimes committed by Russian troops, the visit had the potential to change some things for the better. For example, Speaker Papuashvili said the trip allowed them to sort out some of the discord in Tbilisi-Kyiv relations and to talk about sanctions on Russia – the root of most controversies between the two countries. 

USELESS Tbilisi remains reluctant to impose bilateral sanctions against Russia despite the requests from Kyiv, citing the lack of their potential impact. The Georgian Speaker reportedly assured his Ukrainian counterpart that Russia will not be able to use Georgia to sidestep the Western sanctions and that Georgia “automatically” upholds the financial measures as part of international sanctions imposed against Russia. This is more than Georgian authorities articulated before – they only implied acting in line with international sanctions when they had to defend themselves from allegations of not doing so. As for the bilateral sanctions, the topic is about to remain the focus of domestic discussion – the key opposition party, the United National Movement said it is preparing a bill.

FIRST OVER THE LINE Speaking of UNM – the party invited some backlash by going it alone and visiting Ukraine outside the parliamentary delegation. UNM leaders, flanked by ex-President Giorgi Margvelashvili, posing in Ukraine a day before the arrival of the Papuashvili-led delegation. The shameful race has disgruntled some opposition-minded Georgians, too – the usually opposition-leaning TV Pirveli did not hold the punches. In short, Georgian politicians made even this act of solidarity towards an ally in the utmost peril about their oversized egos and short memories. The only thing to hope for is that the Georgians’ memories are not quite as short.

SECOND CHANCE As the standing of GD and UNM, the country’s two major and most powerful parties, has suffered through fake drama and false posturing, others have risked big and recovered some of their wasted political capital. After a month in combat against Russian invaders as a volunteer in Ukraine, MP Aleko Elisashvili from the Citizens’ party managed to rise his political stock above the previously stable junk rating. The reports of MP Elisashvili’s bravery in combat came even from those who previously thought him soft and unreliable. So, as he gets on the plane to come back to the Georgian capital, he is better off than he was before departure in mid-March.

After the initial success when his party got two MP mandates in the contested 2020 parliamentary elections, he was one of the first to call for an opposition boycott of the Parliament, and months later first to ditch that boycott. Breaking the unity earned him no friends, and even though other opposition groups eventually joined too, the Citizens were branded as the collective Judas in the otherwise judas-rich environment. The 2021 municipal polls confirmed, that many voters shared the sentiment. Still, knowing his somewhat boyishly romantic and heroic spirits, hardly anyone thinks Elisashvili went into battle primarily driven by his ratings. His party pal, MP Ioseliani also did his part as a Vice Speaker (which the party earned as its 30 silver coins!) in coordinating the Bucha trip. Perhaps this is an unimportant sideshow, but still, we found the irony of it all befitting a little cameo…

LIGHT BEARER Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili loves initiating things. Georgians have learned this – maybe to the excess – over the past months as everything the government does, happens “on the initiative of Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili.” This intro, which you’ll see in lots and lots of contexts if you get to scroll down the Facebook page of the Government of Georgia has turned into a joke – no bird flies, no river flows, and no new day dawns without PM’s initiative. But the jokes deter Mr. Garibashvili, or make him self-conscious? Of course not. He is a man of action. So, as another Monday came (on PM’s initiative?!) PM Garibashvili unveiled new, ambitious, bright – yes, you have guessed it – INITIATIVES.

The new package includes a 3-year-plan and major infrastructure and social projects, such as subsidies to owners of smaller agricultural lands, plans to build dozens and renovate hundreds of schools and kindergartens, finally solving the water supply problems in the regions, taking care of sports and culture facilities, and providing housing to IDPs. The PM also said the government would build a “police town,” which may sound dystopic at first, but in reality, means building affordable, subsidized housing for cops in Tbilisi. These are martial times, so the plan also includes constructing a Military Museum (the promo shot features charging crusaders, for some reason) and the renovation of the special forces training base in Mukrhovani, near Tbilisi. So the part of the country apparently stepping into the promised years of prosperity is clearly wearing uniforms. We wish them well, and hope no global disaster – plague, war, famine, or pestilence – stands in the way of the INITIATIVES again. 

MAKING ENEMIES President Salome Zurabishvili has a knack for controversy. Last week she proposed to teach Mingrelian and Svan languages as optional subjects at schools, which unleashed Hobbesian state of nature wars on Georgia’s social media.

What President tried to say was that the state should be doing more to protect these two languages, locally spoken in Western Georgia and listed by UNESCO as “definitely endangered.” Many from the respective regions, particularly from Samegrelo, were happy to hear that, agreeing that fewer young people are now daily using the language, which indeed points to the danger that Mingrelian may one day disappear. Both Svan and Mingrelian, like Georgian, belong to the family of Kartvelian languages, but unlike Georgian are mostly used as regional patois, and were standardized to a very limited extent. They have evolved from the same root as unique languages so that speaking Georgian is little to no help in understanding the phrases in Svan or Mingrelian. 

The opposition media mogul Nika Gvaramia, himself from Samegrelo, attacked the President’s initiative as bearing the danger of inciting separatism. Indeed, at some point in the nineteenth century, the Russian Empire did try to promote Mingrelian as a counterweight to emerging Georgian national consciousness, without much success, and attempts at promoting the two languages were seen with utter suspicion by Georgia’s 20th-century national movement. Gvaramia’s position has upset many, who argued against narrow-minded estrangement, which subtracts from the diversity and richness of the Georgian culture. So, the President – often chided for her imperfect Georgian – opened a sort of a linguistic pandora box. What for and why now? These are the questions with no response.

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