Dispatch | June 18-21: Anger Management

It was clear that some Georgians were very angry seeing their chance of the EU candidacy slipping away, as the Commission singled the country out to stay in detention after classes, while giving Ukraine and Moldova a pass. Just how many were angry and how much, was unclear. Until yesterday evening. This is the Dispatch, from Georgia where the division lines get reconfigured – and not to the ruling party’s advantage.

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DUCK AND COVER As the EC verdict fell, the ruling Georgian Dream changed its tack from shifting the blame to the opposition to acting as if nothing bad has happened. PM Garibashvili held back four days, until triumphantly announcing yesterday that getting the “European perspective” (Brussels jargon for admitting the validity of potential membership) was his party’s – and its patron Bidzina Ivanishvili’s – “historic achievement”. Seemingly toned down compared to the party chief Irakli Kobakhidze’s angrier riposte on June 17, Garibashvili’s statement still sounded the dog whistle, hitting the supporters with familiar adage – Ukraine (and Moldova) got more because they are at war. We don’t want war and get punished. The same message was streaming ad nauseam from the pro-government channels, Imedi TV being in the lead.

HEAVY CLOUD BUT…NO RAIN Speaking of Imedi TV, its editorial line has been suggesting all along that the June 20 rally was the deed of the United National Movement (UNM), the ruling party’s arch-rival-cum-scarecrow. This flies in the face of the fact that the Youth Movement “Shame!” has consistently eschewed affiliation with UNM figures and, also, that the rally was the fruit of multi-striped collaboration. As the rally evening neared, Imedi TV broadcast a – seemingly fake – weather forecast of heavy rain, even though there was not even a cloud in sight. Many protesters though this was a ploy to disrupt the gathering. The Georgian Rugby Federation’s social media post “Plan Nothing Else for This Evening” was also seen with suspicion, since the federation is dominated by the ruling party loyalists (the post was later edited out). And while we reserve our judgement on this being a coordinated ploy, the two stories point to the toxicity of atmosphere and the considerable lack of trust.

VULTURES EVERYWHERE On of the major preventive media campaign salvos was launched by the ruling party officials against Helen Khoshtaria, a relatively minor opposition figure, but the one known for uncompromising ethics. The ruling party pundits dug out the pay-slips of his father, art historian Gogi Khoshtaria (who once served as Georgia’s Foreign minister in 1990-91) that they say originate from Russia. The allegation was presented first by the ruling party mouthpiece, TV Imedi. Then Mamuka Mdinaradze, one of Georgian Dream’s key mud-hose operators, briefed the press, wondering aloud whether those “millions from Russia” were financing Helen Khoshtaria’s anti-Russian political activism (to irritate Russia and drag Georgia to war, remember?!) and – perhaps, Mdinaradze mused – was even funneled into an impending protest rally on June 20. It was quickly clarified, that Mr. Khoshtaria receives royalties from his famous ancestor, Soliko Virsaladze, whose designs still grace the shows of the Bolshoi. But the allegation surely stuck with some. “Russian money is financing anti-Russian actions to get rid of the patriotic government”? This MAGA-style conspiracy-peddling is apparently here to stay.

DADDY’S WORKING The EU Council is scheduled to meet June 23-24, and while some may have through the government would do everything to change the European leaders’ mind, the Georgian Dream was making the show of caring little. PM Garibashvili hobnobbed with his Armenian counterpart and then set of to Qatar, where – the Foreign Ministry reported proudly – a meeting was held with the company focused on renewable energy. Just how renewable would PM Garibashvili’s energy would be, largely depended on events unfolding on Georgia’s central square.

HERE WE ARE NOW And what was happening out there was quite exceptional in scale. Veteran political analyst, Ghia Nodia even coined the phrase “Rustaveli avenue politics” in reference to the periodic momentous shifts triggered by massive rallies on the capital’s main throughfare. On June 20, protesters in their upper tens of thousands (some estimates say closer to 100 thousand) have gathered carrying EU flags and changing the Ode to Joy, the European anthem. As the night fell, social media exploded with exhilarated posts of the people who have grasped that fleeting moment of unity, the moment that reignited the hope for pro-European progress, trampled by the months of petulant anti-EU diatribes of the ruling party mandarins.

REMAINS OF THE DAY The rally ended peacefully and on a high note. But what now? Several good things have happened: the scale of the event pulled the rug from under the ruling party argument that the even was only orchestrated by UNM. Indeed, party agendas were not apparent at all. Secondly, civil society groupings showed their mettle in holding the large gathering without habitual corralling of attendees from the provinces. Thirdly, the lines of political contests have shifted for at least one day – it was no longer UNM vs. GD, but pro-European versus apparently counter-European political streams. And finally, the pro-European forces saw their force is also in numbers. Now to the downsides: there is no obvious outcome. The organizers promised to hold a follow up rally on June 24 (the day EU Council will make final decision on Georgia’s candidacy) and to present a “National Council” for the new popular movement. It is quite obvious, that there is no consensus on that matter from the political parties, and some other civic groups. Showing disunity may sap the momentum from the process. Yet, the movement may evade the temptation of unity at all costs and try for the multi-vector pro-European movement, where the different approaches are tested and the successful ones scaled up.

All in all, a new glimmer of hope for Georgia, but the one tempered by doubt. Is Georgia’s political system, often characterized as captured state, or even as “new feudalism” still reactive to the need for popular legitimacy? The coming months will show, and we will tell you in graphic detail. We will give you the updates on Thursday.