Dispatch – April 28/29: Estranged
New IRI Poll Confuses and Shocks – Ruling Party’s Fearmongering about UNM’s Warmongering – Gov’t Slammed as Filled EU Questionnaire Pending – Cenzorship Suspected Behind Cancelling of Famous Documentary Screenings – Unease in Tbilisi as Authorities Miss Ramstein Concert
April 27 was one of those days when the results of a new poll drop, reminding Georgians how badly they all misunderstand each other. Here is Nini with the usual updates from Georgia.
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Good & Worrying Trends
WHO DO THEY LIKE The survey poll by International Republican Institute, fielded between March 4 and March 2, revealed some usual trends but also things that surprised and unsettled government critics. One of the highlights was approval ratings: Georgian Orthodox Church Patriarch Ilia II continues to enjoy solid and unshaken over-90% approval: rarely a Supra (Georgian traditional festive dinner) goes these days without offering Patriarch’s toast told with particular respect. Tbilisi Mayor Kakha Kaladze follows with also stable over-50 (53%) approval, making him the most popular politician.
Third came President Salome Zurabishvili with 52% – the starkest rise, but also the most unsurprising one after she gained popularity through her principled stance about Ukraine (and as we are writing this, she is busy shaking hands with U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi while not forgetting to make a phone call from Congress to Moldova’s Maia Sandu showing support for potential unrests over Transnistria. Let’s see how much constitutional drama the ruling party will make out of this).
Mr. NEGATIVES Next, quite surprisingly, comes previously widely disfavored Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili with 47% (though those with an unfavorable opinion about him make 48%). Public Defender Nino Lomjaria and Politician Anna Dolidze follow with 46 and 44%, respectively, but the share of those favoring the two ladies noticeably exceeds the share of those negatively viewing them. Former PM Giorgi Gakharia lost once enjoyed love, landing at 40% (that’s what standing too long in shadows does), while GD Chair Irakli Kobakhidze got his once-boasted “double-digit” approval of 38%. The most symbolic data came about GD founder Bidzina Ivanishvili and ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili believed to be the two most influential persons to define the country’s politics: both “enjoy” 31% approval, while also both are viewed unfavorably by 60% of respondents.
STILL NOT MAKING IT As for parties, of those who made a choice, 39% in total support (23) or sympathize (16) with the ruling party more than with the opposition, while 34% in total support (20) or sympathize (14%) with the opposition more than the ruling party. Further 24% support none of them and a further 4% didn’t know/didn’t answer. So this is basically yet another poll telling the opposition parties to go big or go home.
WHATEVER But the most concerning data to some was the share of those who find the government’s response in support of Ukraine sufficient (28%) or somewhat sufficient (25%) (the share is from those familiar with the respective policies of Georgian authorities). Even if the Georgian public grew increasingly critical of Moscow’s actions, the above numbers worried the social media bubble which had a different picture in mind. Is the Georgian Dream, after all, convincing the wider public with its “peace” rhetoric, or did people just stop caring about asking for more? The war discussions came in Georgia after the country was exhausted with years of senseless crises and hysteria. So the “whatever” attitude can be a sort of defense mechanism that the people developed at the wrong time.
WARFEAR While people seem happy (or somewhat happy) with the government’s support for Ukraine, Kyiv does not seem to share the spirit, with concerns about Ivanishvili’s potential Russia links coming from more high-ranking Ukrainian officials. GD leaders, of course, are ready to strike back and offer conspiracies about the United National Movement (to which they now eagerly refer as a Party of War) plotting to move the frontline to Georgia. The party chairman Irakli Kobakhidze even went as far as to argue that Ombudsperson Nino Lomjaria – whom he loves to link with the UNM for unclear reasons – is also involved in that plot.
However, some of the recent statements from Kyiv only help the ruling party’s narrative: the last such remarks, for example, came from Ukrainian Presidential advisor Oleksiy Arestovych, who was quoted by Voice of America as describing current developments as a “historic opportunity” for Georgia to retake Abkhazia and South Ossetia after Russian troops withdrew the occupied regions to join combat in Ukraine. Arestovych was not the first Ukrainian to suggest such things, and probably won’t be the last. But such ideas, unsurprisingly coming from leaders who find themselves in a desperate position under attack, have been similarly unpopular both among the ruling party and opposition elites. Still, this does not stand in the way of the GD’s fearmongering rhetorics: after all, it does appear to bring political success.
DEADLINES The government has come under fire for not rushing to submit the answers to the EU-handed membership questionnaire, unlike Moldova and Ukraine, two other countries that received the form in the same period. The deadline expires on May 9, and GD Chair Irakli Kobakhidze says the authorities are in no rush and are taking the time needed to give “quality” answers while pledging to meet the deadline.
UPROOTED Award-winning director Salome Jashi said the Georgian Film Academy, a non-profit aiming to promote the national film industry, canceled screenings of her prominent documentary Taming the Garden. The Head of Academy Mindia Esadze justified the decision arguing the film “triggers diversity of opinion and politically divides the public,” Jashi said, and Esadze later confirmed his views to RFE/RL. The film features both captivating and intimidating images of the process of big trees being uprooted and transferred to the private (but publicly accessible) garden of GD founder and patron Bidzina Ivanishvili, but the director argues the film does not even mention Georgian politics (more about the film). Evil voices have long-rumored that Culture Minister Thea Tsulukiani was not fond of the film for the same reasons and many see the decision of the Film Academy as a continuation of Tsulukiani’s controversial censorship attempts (while the Academy is not a public institution, it may still rely on the Ministry’s resources in projects).
FEUER FREI! The reports about the U.S. convening the representatives from up to 40 countries at Ramstein Air Force base in Germany to talk a global alliance to tame Russia on April 26 sparked in Georgia (you guessed it right) another controversy. Government critics saw Georgia’s absence there as a bad omen since other non-NATO countries were there and nobody knows whether Georgia was not invited or denied the invitation, be it for not upsetting Russia or for mistaking the event for a concert by a German industrial metal band (even if one ‘m’ was missing in the name). Or it could simply be because Georgian presence there was less relevant this time.
With this issue, Nini bids farewell to Dispatch and Civil Georgia. On this very emotional day, I would like to say a big Thank You to my dear editors, the entire Civil.ge team and, of course, the readers for allowing me to regularly update the world about the highs and lows of Georgian political life and let me grow in the process. The newsletters will continue and I wish my successors all the luck and joy of writing. May good news dominate the next issues!