Dispatch – April 21-22: Stranger Things

Cat-Shaped Graffiti Fuels Bombing Fears – Prominent Writer Suspects Finding a Spy – Gov’t Keeps Safety Guidelines Top Secret – GD Marks Party Anniversary – Slow Comeback of Student Protests

It should have been relatively calm these days in Georgia, which prepares to go into the finally normal Orthodox Easter holidays after two virus-plagued years. But small things and suspicious minds are all it takes to disrupt a good night’s sleep in Tbilisi. Here is Nini with the usual updates from Georgia. 

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CAT CHASE Not much is happening in Georgian politics these days. But the Georgian twittering masses, understandably shaken by horrors Russia committed in Ukraine got spooked by cat-shaped spray paintings on the walls and buildings in the capital city. Vigilant citizens have tracked (and even mapped!) dozens. They come in various colors and are coupled with something that looks like either a signature or an unintelligible scribble. Tbilisi is well-familiar with street art, but the cat tag dropped at the wrong moment.

Some assumed that Russian saboteurs have infiltrated with the wave of the recent migrants and are tagging the buildings for attacks (most tags are at crucial infrastructure junctures, they claim). Others seem to have recalled that tags – mainly in the shapes of crosses – were made by saboteurs in Ukraine prior to the Russian invasion. The fear spread quickly, and some concerned citizens also informed the State Security Service which told Publika newspaper that they are not seeing anything suspicious.

PARANOIA? Not everyone ran scaredy-cat. Gagosha, probably the best-known street artist in Georgia, chipped in saying the tags are for capturing public attention (boy, they achieved their aim!) not a sabotage operation. The artist says other similar tags have appeared before, but the wonders of social dynamics and subconscious have this one stand out. Others warn not to look for too much logic and consistency in Russian military planning.

Moscow apparently does not need to mass tens of thousands of troops at the Georgian border to be taken seriously. Simple cat drawings would do the job.

SPY FICTION Tbilisi’s social media bubble was still in the midst of this bomb-(cat)-tag agony when Lasha Bugadze posted the spy encounter of the third kind. Mr. Bugadze is a prominent Georgian writer and has been writing fiction for years. But now, it seems, the story came knocking on his door… or rather his window. The author apparently overheard a suspicious phone conversation of a “Russian-tourist-looking” (yes, Tbilisites are jittery about Russian arrivals) man under the window of his house, which the man apparently thought to be a good place for an intimate phone call. The man reportedly advised someone on the line in Russan to take precautions and maintain confidentiality, and wait for the “signal”. He said to have been a “contractor” and implied there are many like him. Bugadze said he took photos of the man and notified the security services who, media later reported, have already dug out the security camera footage. We do not yet know who this man is and what he wants – but we are curious how a loud phone conversation in the afternoon hours under the famous writer’s house fits the confidentiality tactics. Or did they “come to see the famous belltower“?

TOP SECRET People getting anxious about the Russian threat and wanting to take the matters into their own hands may have one good reason: few hope the government will do it for them. Some 52% of Georgians expect Russian military aggression against the country, according to the recent NDI poll. But you don’t have to look at the polls to know this – anywhere you go, people try to figure out how to protect themselves if Russian bombs start falling. The authorities, who like to remind the public that Russia can take Georgia in a matter of minutes, when they want to justify their own caution, somehow manage to negate the responsibility to defend citizens. Consider this: watching media reports about Ukraine bomb shelters, Netgazeti, a major Georgian e-media outlet, tried to learn more about Georgia’s civil defense system. Netgazeti reported the responsible emergency service ignored their inquiries, while the Ministry of Defense said information about bomb shelters constitutes a “state secret.” Very well, we will make sure there is a double secrecy wall between us and the Russian missiles.

10 YEARS OF BOREDOM April 21 came in Georgia with a cheerful message from the ruling Georgian Dream party, which congratulated itself on ten year anniversary with a lengthy social media post. Time flies, and this is particularly true for the GD rule, which is like the pandemic – makes you think it started weeks ago until you look at the calendar.

The online tap on GDs own back came with a long list of accomplishments, outlined – of course – against the dark and bloody background of the sins of its predecessors. The list included, curiously, bringing back “freedom and democracy” to people, ending practices of human rights abuses or vote fraud, better treatment of inmates and fewer people in jail, media freedom, not misusing judiciary and law enforcement for repressive purposes, ever-growing economy, curbing elite corruption, improved demographics and mitigated poverty, and universal healthcare program. As for the foreign affairs, the GD took pride (again) in being “the first government in Georgia under which there was no war in the country,” and attributed this accomplishment to “pragmatic foreign policy”.

Ironically, this is the same list of areas where the GD government usually faces criticism, and many critics have pointed out that however often its leaders recall UNM sins, the ruling party has eventually lost all moral advantage over its predecessor during the decade-long rule. See, for example, the latest Nations in Transit report that shows Georgia’s democracy score taking a nosedive.

GET BACK Tbilisi State University, the country’s oldest and most prominent higher education institution, has often come into the spotlight for vibrant student protests, be it about the inner workings of the university, quality of teaching, or even the national political affairs. Then the pandemic came, throwing the young people into the routine of remote learning and killing that spirit. Now, as the daily infection numbers have been steadily going down (with no COVID deaths in two days, by the way), the university suddenly wants its students back in the lecture rooms. But what it got back instead was the protest: the students who come from the provinces and have been attending the zoom classes from their homes all this time, now are suddenly, mid-Spring Semester, pushed to find housing in the capital city, while the rents shot up as some Tbilisi homeowners try to milk the manna from Heaven in form of the (still feared) “Russian tourists”.

The students regularly gather on University grounds requesting “hybrid” (part online, part in-person) schooling. They also demand affordable housing. Tbilisi – despite being a university city – has very few proper dormitories to offer.

AWAKENING? So far, things look calm, but since it goes further than a mere technical problem-solving, can we expect a sort of an awakening of student protests in Georgia? Students often were the driving force of nationwide changes in Georgia. Think of 2012: it was the students-led protests – first against the attempts of political control of the universities and then against reports of inmate abuse – that marked the biggest crack in the UNM rule. After the change of government, many of the old problems remained, and student movements took many different forms. But aside from being powerful, the students are also one of the most vulnerable groups in the country, and the group’s concerns seem to be always last on the list when it comes to election campaigns or political agendas. The thing is, however, the activism and street protests over the past, though youth-dominated, still felt the absence of leadership from the students. 

That’s the full lid for today. The Dispatch will take a short Easter break, and will be back on Wednesday morning, April 27.