A Rainy Night in Georgia

If the ‘Anna Karenina principle’ could be applied to states, it would sound as follows: All the full democracies are alike, but every hybrid democracy is hybrid in its own way.

After 2004’s Rose Revolution led by Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia won the admiration of the international community as it went from the brink of a failed state to an exemplary leader of democracy and successful market reforms. Other post-Soviet nations looked with much excitement at what appeared to be a fantastic achievement in combating corruption at all levels, unthinkable in their own countries. Digitalization of government services brought online convenience to every household, placing Georgia in the world’s top countries in terms of its ease in doing business, and in fact even becoming exportable know-how.

Once a frontrunner of democracy, however, Georgia has lost its leading position. The pace of reforms has been slowing down since 2012, when the opposition took power, reconfirmed at 2018’s presidential election when Saakashvili’s party lost in the second round, but refused to recognize the election results. The outgoing president himself expressed concern about the “sharp drop of democratic standards” during the runoff. The election monitors noticed the “negative character of the campaign”.

According to the latest Democracy Index published by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) in January 2020, Georgia dropped to 89th place globally, being outperformed by neighboring Armenia. With a score of 5.42 out of a total of 10, Georgia remains in the category of ‘hybrid regimes.’ And a recent sociological poll shows that 59 percent of Georgians do not believe Georgia is a democracy at all, which is a significant increase since one year ago. According to the same poll, Georgians increasingly believe the country is moving in the wrong direction, the state of the economy is poor, and the government’s performance is worsening.

In 2019, political problems resulted in public protests in downtown Tbilisi, leaving barricades around the Parliament building. Members of the US Congress have been bombarding the current Georgian government with letters in recent months. Not to forget the economic side: the rate of national currency lari to the US dollar fell from 1.6 in 2012 to almost 3.0 in 2019, depleting by half the purchasing power in the import-dominated consumer market. Going back to Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel, “everything was in confusion”.

Surrounded mostly by non-Christian peoples, the Georgians had to nourish their Christian values, which became an indispensable part of their national identity—still very vivid and widely reflected in present life.

A Division Line between the East and West

While attempting to comprehend the facts, it may be useful to look into psychological factors. Disclaimer: This is by no means an exhaustive analysis, but just some food for thought.

Georgia is a country, which rarely leaves a foreign guest unimpressed. It is so intensely colorful in all its manifestations—including people, nature, and culture—that even a short visit makes a wow-effect. Most visitors will keep in memory the unparalleled hospitality, breathtaking natural and historical beauties, sophisticated culture and the arts, excellent and affordable food and wine (not necessarily in that order).

I would like to throw some additional colors to this palette. Georgia has a rich and long history, being one of the world’s oldest Christian countries capable of surviving through centuries under constant pressure from stronger and hostile neighbors, and preserving its identity including a unique language and ancient alphabet. Being sandwiched between Europe and Asia, Georgia has always been at the division line of East and West—geographically as well as mentally. Surrounded mostly by non-Christian peoples, the Georgians had to nourish their Christian values, which became an indispensable part of their national identity—still very vivid and widely reflected in present life. At the same time, the need for survival required perfection in negotiating skills, capabilities to understand and balance the oriental and Western ways.

In today’s Georgia, the feeling of being an integral part of Europe is vividly reflected by the fundamental public consensus regarding strategic engagement with the Western world.

Centuries-old traditions have direct implications for today’s life: from a Byzantine approach to politics to conservative LGBT attitudes. And the level of trust in the Georgian Orthodox Church is about twice as much as that of the government.

A Strictly European Self-identification

The Georgians assimilated the widest possible multiculturalism a long time before it became mainstream in the West. Tbilisi is one of few capitals which could proudly demonstrate the peaceful coexistence of Orthodox, Armenian, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, Greek, Kurd and Yazidi communities with their churches, synagogues, mosques and temples mixed comfortably in the city center. Even an ancient Zoroastrian temple can be found in the Tbilisi old city, to say nothing about a range of cathedrals from German to Russian.

While tolerance for other cultures is, therefore, part of the Georgian genocode, the self-identification of Georgians has remained strictly European. In this sense, it appears quite different from the self-identification of many other post-Soviet societies, including Russian. This “I’m Georgian, and therefore I’m European” feeling (in the words of the late Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania) is also rooted deeply in the Georgian mentality, dating back perhaps to ancient times. Every Georgian is aware of the legend about the Argonauts, where part of today’s Georgia called Colchis became the destination of the mythological hero Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece.

When Georgia became part of the Russian Empire in the eighteenth century, the Georgian nobility began to merge with the Russian aristocracy in a natural way, being treated as equals throughout Europe without signs of a small nation’s inferiority complex (in contrast to arguments about Georgia being an occupied and oppressed colony). Even the royalties of Russia and Georgia—descendants of the Romanov and Bagrationi royal houses—are in fact connected by blood. Vice versa, Georgia was considered part of Europe by foreign visitors, including, for example, the writer Alexandre Dumas, who admired Tbilisi’s theatre built by the Italian Giovanni Scudieri.

In contrast to nations, whose well-being has been going from low to high, Georgia remembers the times when it was one of the richest and most prosperous regions of the Soviet Union.

In today’s Georgia, the feeling of being an integral part of Europe is vividly reflected by the fundamental public consensus regarding strategic engagement with the Western world (according to 2019’s NDI’s poll, 77% of the population approves the goal to join the European Union, while 74% support membership in NATO). It is also at the root, however, of a perhaps less realistic expectation of a quick and effortless integration into European institutions. The lack of progress in the European accession process is a constant source of public disappointment.

The Income of Georgia Depends Directly on Relations with Russia

One more factor, which I believe is important for understanding the larger picture, is people’s perception of the current economic conditions. Georgians are not used to living in a poor country. In contrast to nations, whose well-being has been going from low to high, Georgia remembers the times when it was one of the richest and most prosperous regions of the Soviet Union. To illustrate, I quote two parameters most commonly associated with wealth in a socialist world: ownership of a car, and size of dwelling space. If we look into such a vital parameter as housing, in square meters per person, we see Georgia in first place among the 15 Soviet republics.

According to the 1988 census results, before the collapse of the USSR, an average Georgian owned 20 square meters, and this was more room per person than anywhere else in the country. By a number of privately owned cars per 1000 people, Georgia in 1988 was in fourth place, being outperformed by the Baltic republics only. Therefore, the residents of Georgia felt considerably better off in comparison to the average Soviets, while the privileges of a sunny and mild climate, beautiful nature, and an abundance of luxury resorts added even more to the self-esteem of the nation, making Georgia a much desired and prestigious destination.

Today in Georgia, however, people have to adapt to a much more modest lifestyle, with a pension rate of approximately 64 EUR (200 lari), and an average monthly salary at 350 EUR (1092 lari) level; the once fashionable car fleet is now the oldest in Europe. It is not surprising therefore that such an adaptation is accompanied by deferred psychological consequences, and eventually may lead to serious stress. At the end of 2019, the illusory promise for a better life in future was cut abruptly by the leader of the ruling Georgian Dream party (and the de facto leader of the country) Bidzina Ivanishvili, who suggested to his compatriots to seek employment abroad: “It needs decades to employ everyone in our homeland… We can negotiate with the developed European countries… to fill the gap that Europeans have. Europeans have jobs, they lack a labour force, we do not have jobs”. Ironically, the Georgian Dream offered broken dreams to a nation with habits for luxury.

The fundamental problem of the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, recognized by Russia as sovereign states, is in a constant stalemate with little if any diplomatic perspective.

The fundamental problem of the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, recognized by Russia as sovereign states, is in a constant stalemate with little if any diplomatic perspective. What makes the problem even more sensitive is the fact that Russia still remains the major trade partner of Georgia—as the largest source of tourists and the main export destination for Georgian wine. The income of a large part of Georgian families, therefore, depends directly on the state of relations with its northern neighbour, and this leverage tool was also put to use in 2019, when Russia banned all passenger flights to and from Georgia (the ban is still in force at the time of writing), cutting the tourist influx and leaving many small and medium business owners without clients.

Russia’s move was provoked by a scandal with a member of Russian Duma member during an inter-parliamentary event hosted by Georgia, when he was offered a chairman’s seat in the Parliament building in Tbilisi. The scandal was the last drop for street protests to start spilling over. The government reacted by the unexpectedly brutal use of rubber bullets, which resulted in the blinding of two people.

Economic Slowdown and the Worsening of the Business Atmosphere

In the wake of street protests in the summer, the government promised to enact the constitutional amendments demanded by the opposition, which were about moving Georgia to fully proportional representation from the current mixed system, with almost half of the MPs coming from single-mandate majoritarian districts. The reform was scheduled for 2024, but the activists wanted to bring it forward by four years, to come in force before the upcoming parliamentary elections in October 2020. The bill on reform failed to pass at the first hearing, however, in November 2019.This caused serious doubts about the perspectives of democracy in Georgia, raising many brows even among Georgia’s friends and partners, and infuriating its citizens, who felt deceived and resumed street protests in Tbilisi.

As a result, the number of Georgians who evaluate the current government’s performance as ‘bad’ has increased from 49% in March 2018 to 64% in November 2019; only 37% trust the parliament. According to EIU’s ‘Functioning of government’ Index, the score of Georgia is just 3.21 out of 10, while the score of neighboring Armenia is 5.36. As mentioned above, this resulted in sliding Georgia’s overall position in Democracy Index from the region’s highest to second place after Armenia.

A Georgian paradox became visible: the centuries-old European aspiration of the nation came into contradiction with equally old Byzantine political traditions.

These developments coincided with an economic slowdown and the worsening of the business atmosphere, making Georgia less attractive to foreign investors. “Unfortunately, American and European companies have suffered harassment, causing many to reconsider their business ventures,” reads a recent letter from a U.S. congressman to the Georgian Prime Minister. A major Black Sea deep port project in Anaklia was recently suspended.

A number of factors therefore overlapped in 2019. Fundamental economic and political problems were aggravated by the shortsighted behaviour of politicians, and sparkled public protests against a background of general dissatisfaction, accumulated over several years. A Georgian paradox became visible: the centuries-old European aspiration of the nation came into contradiction with equally old Byzantine political traditions.

To put things in a correct global context, it should be noted that Georgia’s situation is to some extent a reflection of a global tendency, something that the EIU called “a year of democratic setbacks”: ”Eastern Europe’s democratic malaise persists amid a weak political culture, difficulties in safeguarding the rule of law, endemic corruption, a rejection by some countries of ‘liberal’ democratic values, and a preference for ‘strongmen’ who bypass political institutions, all of which creates a weak foundation for democracy.”

It is not my intention to criticize and attach labels, which would be easy to do if I was a cold-blooded outsider, but it is not my case. Georgia is my native country, I love it, and I came back here several years ago to contribute my professional experiences to its success. I am only attempting to put the latest developments in a broader cultural and political context.

It has become commonplace for the authors of articles on Georgia to play with the jazz song Georgia on My Mind. Keeping up the tradition, for this article I used the name of another jazz standard, which seems to better reflect a turbulent and difficult moment. I keep Georgia, however, on my mind and hope for sunny and democratic dawn, long expected and very much deserved by the nation.

Alexander Kaffka

is editor-in-chief of Caucasian Journal, doctor of political science. Previously he was
publisher of Avenue art magazine, and contributed extensively to international art
magazines such as Wallpaper*. As a conceptual artist, he had a personal exhibition at
National Centre for Contemporary Arts, Moscow, in 2006.

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