So, this is a post I could never have made while a Peace Corps Volunteer, as we were not allowed to comment on local political/controversial social issues. I agreed with that prohibition – as a PCV, I represented more than myself and my own opinions. However, my PC days are long-gone, and now I am free to express myself. But … it’s complicated. How to reconcile my love for this country, where I have thoughtfully, deliberately chosen to make my home, with the hateful, aggressive political forces on the ascendancy here. I think all I can do is say what’s happening, how it affects (or may affect) me, and let people make their own judgments.
I think the rising tide of populism in Georgia can really be traced back to a number of sources. I’m not going to dive into an in-depth analysis of the why of it – minds far greater than mine have grappled with this issue, not only for Georgia, but for the whole (Western) world, where nationalism and authoritarianism are clearly on the rise, and have failed to come up with definitive answers as to why it’s happening. In many countries, immigration has been pinned with the blame, clash of cultures, strain of financial resources, etc. But here in Georgia, it’s the opposite problem – this country has lost about a third of its population to migration. Most are uneducated people who work illegally abroad in low-skilled jobs and send remittances home. According to the World Bank, over 10% of Georgia’s GDP is derived from remittances. That’s far from the highest in the world (for instance, Nepal gets over 30% of its GDP from remittances), but it has a substantial impact. In-flow of refugees from the Middle East is minuscule – from 2012-2016, only about 5,000 people from that geographic area applied for asylum, over the entire 5-year period (see, http://migration.commission.ge/files/migration_profile_2017_eng__final_.pdf, loads of information, for anyone who is interested). So, if it’s not immigration, what is it? Again, without diving deep, I can name a few things that without doubt contribute to the problem:
- Russian influence, particularly on the issue of homosexuality and “Western values.” These tendencies are not only a hold-over from the old days when Georgia was part of the Soviet Union. They are currently being actively encouraged and fomented by Russia through many of the same mechanism as they are using in the U.S.
- Religion, specifically, the Orthodox Church, which is extremely conservative and very, very influential in Georgia. The Church, aided and abetted by Russian religious authorities, is extraordinarily homophobic and highly opposed to “Western values” in every way.
- Bad education, by which I mean, in every sense of the word, substandard, from kindergarten through university. Heavily influenced by outdated Soviet methodologies, which stress obedience to teachers, extreme levels of memorization, and suppression of any sign of critical thinking, many people here do not question authority and follow the church unquestioningly. Even those who are interested and want to take a different intellectual path have no real way to do it. As a direct result, the academic and professional intelligentsia has left the country, en masse. They can earn so much more money and progress so much further in their careers abroad than at home. It’s understandable, but it leaves a huge gap. I have personally witnessed all of this, in many different contexts. It’s really alarming.
- Poverty, particularly rural poverty, and a growing gap between the affluent class in Tbilisi and everyone else. A dangerous elite is developing here – it’s not unique to Georgia, but perhaps it’s more obvious here than elsewhere, in such a small country where the mean monthly income per household in rural areas is 21% less compared to urban areas (Georgia’s Rural Strategy, 2016-2020, p.18).
Obviously, many of these factors overlap and exacerbate each other, and all of them have root causes, but I am not qualified to really delve into it, so suffice it to say – it’s complicated. Isn’t it always?
Having set out some context, and not even mentioning the pull of the West via an Association Agreement with the EU, here’s what’s been happening in Georgia that scares me, and a lot of other people. There will be some videos with disturbing content below.
I think it all started in 2013. May 17th, the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, which that year was marked by a small demonstration of anti-homophobic activists. They were attacked by a mob of over 20,000 Georgians, urged on by the Church, which the day before the rally published a call to violence, calling homosexuality an “anomaly and disease.” Their call was answered – up to 30 people were injured, and demonstrators had to be evacuated in marshutkas, which also were violently attacked.
After this incident, the Church established a “Day of Family Purity,” on, surprise, May 17th. Over the next few years, there were a lot of tensions, but no violence. I personally was out and about on May 17, 2017, in the center of Tbilisi, and while I saw plenty of demonstrations, they were separate and not violent, other than verbal assault.
But that doesn’t mean that things weren’t happening. In the four years I’ve been here, anti-foreigner sentiments have been rising. Truthfully they are mainly directed at foreigners from Africa, the Mideast and India/Pakistan. Most of these people are here as students, bringing significant revenue to Georgia in the form of very high tuition and consumer spending. They are here legally, under temporary residency permits. Yet, I began to read more and more stories about residency permit renewal denials, deportations at the airport, and other exclusionary government actions. At the same time, political movements began to grow. The Alliance of Patriots, an extreme right-wing party, gained 5 seats in Parliament in the last election. Georgian March, an even crazier manifestation of nationalist/populist sentiment, held a march in Tbilisi last year that drew somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000 supporters. http://oc-media.org/who-was-in-and-who-was-out-in-tbilisis-far-right-march-of-georgians-analysis/. Their leader, Sandro Bregadze, is not some nutty outlier – he’s a former deputy prime minister in the current government. The march was overtly racist and advanced a theory of “foreigner invasion” and “Georgia for Georgians.” Sound familiar? After the march, when Georgia’s young, female UN youth delegate spoke out against xenophobia, March followers threatened her with gang rape, among other things. https://www.rferl.org/a/opposition-xenophobic-march-earns-georgian-activist-threats-support/28629125.html.
After this demonstration, which at least was not physically violent, numerous incidents followed. A news-reporter roughed up because he made a joke on-air about Christ. Transsexuals demonstrating for acceptance were attacked. People who looked different were followed in the street and screamed at or assaulted; obviously foreign women were harassed at an alarming rate. A bunch of African soccer players were threatened with pipes by local Georgian guys kicking them off their turf. https://www.facebook.com/PrimeTimeMagazine/videos/2148506338499557/. Fights between political parties – like, fist-fights. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S3eJfEUmUk0. Lots of postings on expat websites and Facebook pages advocating for foreigners to “just leave if you don’t like it.” Rumors (still unresolved) about changing residency and citizenship requirements, making it much tougher for foreigners to live here.
There is more, but you get the idea. As a non-Georgian living here, I begin to feel … unwelcome. In 4 years, I’ve never felt that way before, and it’s really alarming. I begin to wonder about my future here. To be clear – I have never encountered anti-foreigner feeling directed at me, personally. But I’ve heard it directed at others, and my empathy is with them, causing me to feel similarly threatened.
Then a major event happened, just in the last few weeks. It’s a very long, complicated and byzantine story, still unwinding and developing, but in a nutshell: Georgian police raided two clubs where electronic music is played and raves happen. I know one of these clubs, and so I know this to be true – they are also havens for homosexuals. It’s also true that there are a lot of drugs consumed and sold at these clubs, and that was the ostensible reason for the raids. As far as I can tell, the police were rough but not abusive. However, there were really, really a lot of them, and they were heavily armed, and young people who see the rave scene as a safe place for freedom of expression felt highly threatened by the state.
Huge demonstrations ensued. You can get an idea here: blob:https://www.rferl.org/65174233-f1af-47fb-b6b2-0fecf0248da0, and here: https://www.georgianjournal.ge/society/34483-the-first-protest-expressed-through-massive-rave-to-electronic-music-in-tbilisi.html. Lots of colored smoke, dancing, speeches, etc. https://djmag.com/content/tbilisi-clubbing-community-hold-protest-rave-outside-parliament-response-raids.
The Georgian nationalist community responded. On May 12th, thousands of men (and it was mostly men) poured into the streets on the second day of the demonstrations. They were violent thugs, determined to break through police lines and assault the peaceful demonstrators. I want to stress that this is a statement of fact – not my opinion. They said that’s what they wanted to do, and as Salome and I watched the tv coverage, both of us sick with fear because we had friends there, that’s exactly what these guys tried to do.
They didn’t succeed, and in fact the Ministry of the Interior appeared before the demonstrators and apologized for the raid … the demonstrators were then bused out for their own safety, bringing back memories of the marshutkas from 2013. Further talks between various leaders were agreed upon. So far there’s been no definitive outcome.
The next days brought these images:
This post on the ex-pat FB page:
“Just a heads up. I work next to parliament. Was just returning to the office with a coffee in hand and some belligerent guy on the street said to me unprovoked “dedashevitsi pederasti xar” (roughly translated as “fuck your mother, you fag”, sorry but that’s what he said). Be careful out there if you are in the center, I guess these guys are still pretty angry.”
By May 17th, the scheduled gay rights demonstration was cancelled due to safety concerns. A few extraordinarily brave activists still showed up to exercise their freedom of speech. In spite of a heavy police presence, this happened:
In the meantime, many thousands of people marched for “Family Sanctity Day,” led by priests, the demonstration starting from a point two blocks from where I live. A priest was recorded on TV saying that all of Rustaveli Ave., the main street of Tbilisi, was only for “real Georgians” and no one else was allowed to be on the street that day.
OK. This is where things stand. I don’t know what will happen. I feel the tide turning, not in a good way, but it may turn yet again. There are many people with open hearts and minds in Georgia, with progressive values. But they don’t all seem to fully appreciate the danger. A few weeks ago I went out to dinner with a young Georgian friend. She’s very, very smart, very hard-working and accomplished, and very progressive. She laughed at these neo-Nazi groups, saying they could not be taken seriously. I warned her not to ignore what is happening. I referenced the early 1930s in Germany. I talked about Trump. I said that people like her had to take it seriously, because they are the hope for the future. I think she listened to me.
On May 12th, this friend was at the demonstration. We texted the whole night; I was quite worried about her. She answered me: “They will not scare us. We are a lot here. And we are not violent. March (the nationalists) is violent and they will not win. March is not the state we would like to build.” I pray for my adopted country that she is right.