Category Archives: politics

What’s going to happen? Growing populism in Georgia

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.

Long Past-Due Update

Wow, I just looked at the date of my last post … good god. Back in March. Well, there are a few reasons for this.

First, I had surgery, pretty major surgery, on my back. Fused at three levels, thanks so much. That was in April. I had the surgery here in Georgia, and they did a good job. However, the post-operative rehabilitation left a lot to be desired, as in, everything. No meaningful directions on how to take care of myself when I got home. No nursing service or referrals offered, though the doctor knew I lived by myself. No pain medication – seriously, none. One follow-up appointment, where due to severe nerve pain I literally begged for help, received none, went to another doctor, who tried but could not prescribe the drugs I needed (because they are not available in Georgia, which has draconian drug laws), prescribed other drugs that caused a reaction (body temp at below 95 degrees, nausea, chills, massive bleeding, oh yeah it was fun). Left Georgia to go to Israel and seek help and found it. But it was a long road back, actually I’m still on it, though doing much better.

So a few words about Israel. I was there about 2 weeks. My sister came to take care of me, for which I will forever be profoundly grateful. Though I really was not in shape to tour around, toward the end I did get to go out to eat at a few places, and walk around just a little. We visited Yad Vashem, me in a wheelchair, which was an interesting lesson in how to be invisible, went to Tel Aviv, ate out some more, bought some hats in Jaffa, and generally had a good time. I spent a shitload of money on doctors and drugs, none of it covered by my Georgian insurance. When I returned, I corresponded with my “personal manager” at the insurance company, who at first misunderstood me when I told her I had been in Israel, thinking I meant I had had the operation there. When I clarified, she wrote back, “oh, thanks god!” And she meant it, because the insurance covered nearly the whole surgery and all related treatment, excluding Israel. How ironic, that I have better healthcare insurance in a post-Soviet developing country than I can get in the U.S. under the Republicans.

Here’s a few pics of the trip. My sister took a photo of the incision with the stitches in it, but I will be merciful and not share that one. Some of these were taken by my sister on a few tours she took, and some of them when we were together here or there. Lots of pictures of food were taken, because 1, it was so, so delicious, and 2, that’s really all I was able to manage for most of the trip – a meal out every day or two.

So, after all that, I returned home and started the road to recovery. I’m seeing a physical therapist, and I’m taking steps forward in getting better all the time – literally. A week ago or so, I walked all the way down a very steep hill on a street nearby called Zandukeli – that was a big victory! I was able to spend a whole day exploring an old Soviet Space Factory and Tbilisi State University with my Georgian sister Salome. I can shop without being in agony. I’m off all my medication, and only taking Extra Strength Tylenol once in a while. It’s taking time, but it’s going in the right direction.

When I returned to Tbilisi, I went right back to work. Gotta get back up in the saddle. But it took a lot out of me, and at night I was so exhausted that blogging was really out of the question. I also became increasingly exhausted by the spectacle of what is happening in the U.S. What little energy I had after working I spent calling legislators and feverishly reading article after article on politics, healthcare legislation, immigration, and attending activist meetings here in Tbilisi. Given my physical and, frankly, emotional state, I couldn’t keep it up. But nor could I give it up, of course. I am so appalled at … well, everything. Right now is not the time to pontificate at length, and I’m not going to. Suffice it to say that I have developed a new slogan, expressed by the hashtag #cannotgohome. For those of you on Twitter, you can find my various expressions of outrage and links to good articles if you follow me there – sara_in_georgia. For those of you who are not, I post on Facebook fairly frequently too, though I have been pretty good at sticking to a vow I made to intersperse political posts with some other stuff.

So, as for now, well, it’s very, very hot here. I hide in my air-conditioned flat as much as possible, it’s a good thing, I love it here and it’s really very nice to just relax and hibernate out of the hellish heat outside. I’ve been keeping busy with work, very busy, writing grant after grant for good NGOs here. I had a new partnership a while ago with the City of Gori and wrote a concept note for a new street lighting system. For anyone who is interested, you can see what I do here: sfconsulting.info.

I do try to get out from time to time. For my very first foray out after returning to Israel, while still using a cane, I went to a supra at my former boss’s house (who is married to my current boss), to celebrate the birth of her new daughter – quite a surprise, given that she has two sons age 10 and 11. Elizabeti is her name, and it was great to enjoy the company of my colleagues and friends and eat great food. I couldn’t drink- still on medication at that time – well I might have had a few sips of wine, I mean, come on. I actually made a short and very pathetic toast at this supra, in Georgian, but it seemed to please everyone very much. Here’s the scene:

Marta and I, and her daughter Salli, spent a great weekend here in in Tbilisi, cane and all. First we got all dressed up and went to see the 110th anniversary of the Sukhishvili National Ballet Company, which performs traditional Georgian dances, but sometimes with a slightly modern twist. I’ve seen them before and love their performances. We went to the Philharmonic, which I had not been inside before – it was quite nice, not as fancy as the renovated Opera House, which is spectacular, but modern and with great sightlines. We loved the dance, and afterwards went to Burger Bar in Vake, which Salli told me in breathless tones was better than McDonalds. But her friends in Gori would never believe it. The next day we went to a carpet store and I bought two rugs, which I adore. We bargained hard, but not too hard, because the owner’s son went to ISET, and I know people there, naturally, and … etc. At the end of this explanation, Marta said I had become Georgian.

I went to the swearing-in of the G17 Peace Corps group, mainly to say hi to the Peace Corps staff. I walked over there, after a big rain, but I didn’t really have a good sense of how far it was and overdid it. Took some Tylenol that night. I saw my host mother from Khashuri, didn’t know she would be there and we had a very happy reunion. Chemi gogo, my girl, she said to me. So funny when you consider she’s 20 years younger than I am – more – but that’s how it is. There was really outstanding dancing, some good speeches, and a strong sense of relief that I will never have to be standing there, scared out of my mind, wondering what the hell I’ve gotten into, again. Well at least not as a PCV, anyway. Here’s a few photos.

As I mentioned above, Salome and I took a little jaunt to an art exhibit in Saguramo, a village about half an hour outside Tbilisi. Once we arrived in the village, we started asking where to get off the marshutka and two guys were laughing at us and telling us, this is the village, we don’t have taxis here! You will have to walk, it’s 5 kilometers, you Tbilisi-dwellers! HAHAHAH! While they were amusing themselves, a taxi drove by, and we ran in front of a giant truck to flag it down, got in and drove off to the Soviet Space Factory, which was indeed a good 5 km away. Unfortunately, though both the website for the exhibit and the printed material we had said it ran through that day, in fact they had packed up most of the art and left the week before. Nonetheless, some interesting stuff was still there, the buildings were amazing, and we explored the whole site thoroughly, then drove back to Tbilisi with the driver for an exorbitant price which I was happy to pay, walked all around the University where Salome will be going in the fall, and then went to dinner at a nice restaurant with a bright young colleague and another PC volunteer, who is Ukrainian by birth, U.S. citizen by choice, and a very interesting person. Here’s a few photos of our little adventure:

Last but not least, I experienced my 4th birthday in Georgia – unbelievable. I had my 60th birthday during training in Khashuri, my 61st and 62nd in Gori, and now my 63rd here in Tbilisi. A group of friends and I went out to dinner at a restaurant that has a great reputation for authentic Georgian food. I will say that while the atmosphere and service were great, and the company could not have been better, the food was only so-so. I think I have been spoiled by attending too many supras.

It’s getting really late here, and I’m tired, so I’ll end on that note – I feel that my legion of followers are all caught up! I will try to post more often – got some fun trips and things planned, and of course, there’s always Trump, McConnell and Ryan.