Georgia’s way leads to Europe

In the summer of 2019, the governing party Georgian Dream had promised to introduce full proportional representation for the parliamentary elections in November 2020 instead of the previous mixed system. In November 2019, however, the reform had failed in parliament. This was followed by renewed strong protests nationwide. Since the end of November, the German Ambassador, the head of the EU delegation, the representative of the Council of Europe as well as the business manager of the US Embassy had been mediators in a dialogue process with the aim of reaching a compromise on the voting rights for the parliamentary elections that was accepted by all sides (OC-Media 2020, Lomsadze 2020).

So Georgia’s way leads further into Europe – for a significant number of people in the country this is undoubtedly clear, and the number of political statements in this direction is high in most social groups. In his speech for the UN’s 75th anniversary, Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia stated that Georgia had always been and remained to this day a nation committed to Western values (cf. 2020).

Our main value is the people, for whom tolerance—the core Western value—is an integral part of their identity.

Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia in 2020

Nevertheless, internal tensions over the question of the ‚right national values‘ are high. And some Georgians, out of a necessary pragmatism towards such a militarily overpowering neighbour, are undecided about the present and future relations with Russia (cf. Dalton 2020). This, in turn, raises questions of values. As everywhere else in Eastern Europe, the Russian narrative of the loss of religion, the disorientation of youth, the decay of the family and the spread of same-sex marriage in Europe also finds an audience in Georgia.

The question of how to live in Georgia is drawing an increasing line of tension through Georgian society. At the same time, it is generating a great deal of motivation for political work, which is expressed above all in a rich and often painful culture of protest (OC-Media 2019, 1). Last but not least, it is the questions of personal freedom to choose an individual culture of life which are under discussion and which also divide generations, families, circles of friends and ideas of ethnicity (cf. OC-Media 2019, 2).

In the following, I will reflect such lines of tension using the example of the celebrations of Independence Day.

Independence Day celebrations and different views on the Democratic Republic of Georgia

From 26 May 1918, an emerging national elite attempted to bring their country closer to the post-war ideal of a social-democratic Europe. With the declaration of independence from Russia and the founding of the First Georgian Republic, they opposed Bolshevik Soviet Russia, which was resurgent after the end of the Second World War. This attempt, however, ended in 1921 with the intervention of the Red Army and the forced integration of Georgia, so that Georgia finally remained in the Soviet Union for 70 years (cf. Brisku 2018, p. 24). Since 2004, Mikheil Saakashvili, who succeeded the first presidents after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Sviad Gamsakhurdia and Eduard Shevardnadze, resorted to the idea of a European national identity but failed after many successful reform efforts due to his anti-democratic tendencies in his politics.

“We made the European choice centuries ago. This is the choice of a people who has statehood, friends, but is still occupied by a strong neighbor.”

Giorgi Margvelashvili, 4th President of Georgia in 2018
The article series "Georgian Perspectives" provides weekly insights (via Twitter: @doinggeography) and analyses of contemporary Georgian social life from a geographical viewpoint. This means that all articles examine the social space and the practices taking place within it. This includes both the built space and the non-built space and all communications about places and spaces. It is important to underline that the insights given here must always include views from the outside, as the author is neither a native speaker nor permanently living in Georgia.

The 26 May, which was the first day of a free presidential election, together with independence from the Soviet system, was declared a bank holiday under President Gamsakhurdia. During Shevardnadze’s presidency, Independence Day was celebrated more as a civil holiday. In contrast, President Saakashvili had the first military parades held on 26 May 2004 as a new tradition. This should be understood as a signal to Putin’s Russia in the form of a display of weapons. It still has a high symbolic value for many Georgians today because of the painful past of the wars of secession and the last Russian intervention in 2008.

While 26 May is widely recognised as the holiday of independence, the First Georgian Republic itself, with the social and political model it propagated, is today largely rejected by some as a „betrayal of the Georgian people“ or a model close to the socialist system as a result of the propaganda that was only socialist and nationalist after the Soviet era (cf. Iremadze 2018, pp. 64 f.). For the neo-liberal presidents since Mikheil Saakashvili, the rejection of the social-democratic core of the First Georgian Republic, which had the highest recognition among the working class, is above all a matter of fighting the longing in society for a socialist system protected by the state.

The Georgian historiography is full of the claim that the Georgian social democrats […] did not ‚love‘ the Georgian people enough, did not protect the rights of the people and used all their strength for the class question.

Iremadze 2018

The negotiation of what is at the heart of Georgia, what is the ‚Georgian national‘, is also expressed in the numerous traditional costumes. Mostly children are clothed that way using our example of Kutaisi in 2018. As mentioned above, many nationalist circles do not take an opening towards Europe for granted, as they see the danger of losing the ‚Georgian identity‘, as the European idea, in their opinion, promotes a morally ambiguous multinationalism.

Against the complicated background of the Georgian state and the fragmentation of political views, the presentation of the Independence Day celebrations of recent years was difficult for an outside observer to grasp. This was especially true for the 100th anniversary in 2018. They seem like an elusive, amorphous mixture of a kind of nationalist folk festival, martial display of arms and expression of the manifold terms of will for political, social, religious and economic independence and security against any new Russian incursion into Georgian territory.

A brief outlook

Because of the non-decreasing territorial tensions with Russia, especially in the Georgian-South Ossetian conflict, the desire of many Georgians for a representation of military strength is quite understandable. And the longing for Georgia to be linked to the European defence alliance and NATO is great. At the same time, however, the debates in the country are very controversial about the future of dealing with the de facto Russian-occupied territories and their claim to self-rule (cf. OC-Media 2019, 2, Kincha 2020, Bursulaia 2020).

In the end, the manifold overlaps between tradition, modernity and late modernity are also the cause of social tensions in Georgia. The opposing groups do not understand each other and separate themselves from each other. Anyone who is one of the more than 50% Georgians who depend on horticulture and micro-farming for their livelihood and therefore need reliable family relationships will find it difficult to understand the young city dweller who strives for internationalism and multiculturalism. And vice versa, the same applies in each case. Anyone who has been living as an internally displaced person in Georgia for 30 years and has not received any compensation will inevitably have a different attitude towards the question of whether the state invests enough in providing for its citizens than someone who, under better conditions, has managed over the years to rise to the new middle class. Many such contradictions could be mentioned here. They characterise today’s Georgia, where many people are searching in many different ways for a place and a future in a still vulnerable society.

Nevertheless, it is the young people in Georgia who will ultimately decide the country’s political future, and it can at least be said that they are remarkably involved in the debates. And they are by a large majority in favour of a path to Europe – even against conservative tendencies in their changing governments.

Text: © Stefan Applis (2020)

Photos: © Stefan Applis (2019)

References (Ed.) (2020). PM Gakharia to UN: ‘Georgia has always been, remains a nation committed to Western values’. (26 September 2020) (Ed.) (2019). New campaign dedicated to Georgia’s 100th independence anniversary kicks off. (26 September 2020) (Ed.) (2018). Georgia celebrates Independence Day, 463 recruits take an oath. (26 September 2020)

Bursulaia, G. (2020). Opinion | Reflections on Abkhazia — the land of my soul. OC-Media. (27 September 2020)

Dalton, D. (2020). Can Georgia ensure fair elections when the rule of law is ignored and questions over Russian influence won’t go away? (26 September 2020)

Kincha, S. (2020). As Abkhazia calls for dialogue, will Tbilisi answer? OC-Media. (27 September 2020)

Lomsadze, G. (2020). Georgian parties reach agreement to resolve crisis. Eurasianet. (27 September 2020)

Nakhutsrishvili, L. & Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung (Hrsg.) (2018). Georgien, neu buchstabiert. Politik und Kultur eines Landes auf dem Weg nach Europa. [Georgia, re-spelled. Politics and culture of a country on the road to Europe] (26 September 2020)

OC-Media (2020). Georgia transforms electoral system ahead of October parliamentary elections. (27 September 2020)

OC-Media (2019, 1). Georgian Dream’s seven ‘bloody years’. (27 September 2020)

OC-Media (2019, 2). Georgian ultraconservative groups vow to prevent queer romance film premiere. (27 September 2020)

OC-Media (2019, 3). Georgia debates NATO membership excluding defence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. (27 September 2020)