Outlook | Damage protests demonstrate bankruptcy of Georgian politics

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This year, Georgia’s Independence Day, May 26, saw two competing visions of what “independence” means for the country. The mainstream media discussed the foreign messages of congratulations, the broadcast of flyovers of fighter jets and the usual festivities.

But on the Square of the First Republic in Tbilisi, the charismatic son of a village priest, Varlam Goletiani, offered a different vision. Thousands of supporters of his Rioni Valley Defenders movement gathered there, in what may be the biggest protest to date against a multinational that received overly favorable terms from the Georgian government. Goletiani called on his supporters “to say that this country belongs to us, to finally feel the value of real freedom and independence”.

Defenders of the Rioni Valley had arrived in Tbilisi four days earlier and were camping in tents in the square. They came from western Georgia, the center of the months-old movement, where Turkish construction company ENKA tried, against the will of locals, to build an $ 800 million building, 433 MW hydroelectric cascade in the village of Namakhvani. Locals are overwhelmingly opposed to the two roadblocks and, despite their lack of political party affiliation, have managed to organize a number of rallies that rival anything the Georgian opposition has recently staged in the capital, but with a fraction of media coverage – especially positive coverage. They came to Tbilisi to raise the visibility of the issue nationwide, but found its leaders very unwelcoming.

Tbilisi’s media and political elites, both government and opposition, despise the movement. Its leaders are from the valley and the protesters include many rural women whose long skirts, long sleeves and crosses stand out in the urban city of Tbilisi. One of the reasons for their success so far is that they speak clearly and clearly, not in the NGOs-ese of the political class in the capital. Their request is simple: our land is not for sale.

In a political spectrum where all parties are just different shades of free market fundamentalism, it is impossible to accept such blatant disrespect for a contract. Although the ruling Georgian Dream party and the opposition have fought bitterly over the past decade, their battles are not ideological. Each shares a commitment to the sanctity of private property above all else.

While opposition protests generally receive favorable coverage from Georgian non-state media, government-affiliated and opposition media are now united against Rioni defenders, with their respective smear campaigns complementing each other. each other.

The pro-government media associated the protesters with far-right and cultural proto-fascists, and accused them of being supported by Russia – the ultimate insult in Georgia. Irakli Kobakhidze, chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream party, said he intended to investigate the sources of funding for defenders in the Rioni Valley. Much of the money actually comes from migrant workers working overseas, which Kobakhidze says is suspect. He does not seem to know that this is how millions of Georgian families have been fed and clothed while the Georgian government and private sector have failed to build a viable economy since independence.

Opposition media have also been thwarted in their efforts to portray the protests as part of a culture war pitting progressive pro-Westerners against ignorant Russophiles. The protests in Tbilisi drew a diverse group of feminists, progressive liberals, leftists and gay activists who stood alongside defenders of the Rioni Valley, united in their opposition to economic and ecological exploitation.

LGBT rights are frequently used as a marker of this so-called culture war. In an illustrative episode this week, liberal magazine Tabula urged Goletiani to his position on LGBT issues. The relevance of this was unclear in his efforts to save his home, and opposition politicians are rarely pressed on similar issues despite their often backward views on gay rights. Goletiani nevertheless dodged the trap and replied that everyone was welcome to the protests.

The movement was put to the test on the first day of the protests when a popular The far-right father-son duo participating in the protests assaulted other protesters wearing rainbows indicating their support for LGBT rights. The attack was widely reported and widely condemned and once again the leaders of the movement were obliged to address the LGBT issue. Organizers responded by asking everyone to come to the protests without any symbol other than Georgian flags, and one of the leaders of the defenders, Maka Suladze, announced that she would put aside the cross she was carrying, explaining that ‘after all, Tbilisi is a multi-religious city and the most important thing is to save the Rioni Valley. She also criticized the far-right father and son for distorting the true essence of Christianity. His simple moral stance won the protesters even more support.

While much of the talk of the protests on social media focused on these cultural war issues and the skillful response of defenders, the mainstream media tried to distort the economic and environmental issues at stake.

The government presented the need for the dam – believed to be the largest built in post-Soviet Georgia – primarily as a matter of “energy independence”. Opponents of defenders describe them as unreasonably opposed to any development. The leader of the Lelo party, banker Mamuka Khazaradze, said: “When the ‘build’ rallies are more important than the ‘no build’ rallies, then the country will start to revive.”

Defenders of the Rioni Valley, via Facebook
Defenders of the Rioni Valley, via Facebook

Defenders of the Rioni Valley are the first major mass movement in Georgia to fight not only to protect the environment, but also to question the economic logic of development, challenging the government’s authority to lease land to individuals. foreign investors and opposing the terms of the contract. The government had tried to keep the agreement and assessments with ENKA secret. But the day before the rallies began, the independent media outlet Mtis Ambebi, the only publication in the country to systematically provide quality reports on Namakhvani, published a leaked report from the Department of Justice. This confirmed what many opponents of the dam have argued: that most of the obligations of the contract apply to the government, and that the company enjoys almost complete protection and little liability. The contract even allows the company to be indemnified in the event of protests and disruptions.

These types of one-sided and confidential contracts are not unusual in Georgia; another is with the American energy company Frontera. Unusual is an effort to question the good they bring to average Georgians. In Tbilisi, Goletiani said his movement wants people to be included in decision-making, in building a State respectful of men and the earth. Besides the cancellation of the current ENKA contract and all associated legal procedures, his movement unveiled a new demand: a moratorium on all current energy projects and the creation of a new national energy plan with public participation.

The government and the opposition, meanwhile, cling to their version of “independence,” which generally refers to political independence from Russia, which at the same time is falsely associated with Russia. socialism in public discourse – in other words, the opposite of the buzzword. just libertarianism. This political class is eager to sell Georgian lands or let foreign investors exploit them while demanding little in return, all in the name of “attracting investment” and securing high marks in the facility’s global rankings. to do business. This is the same reason Georgia has no minimum wage, a business-friendly tax regime, weak labor laws, and a weaker social safety net. Despite the fact that these abusive investments have produced little development in the true sense of the word, the authorities continue to be more concerned with the deterioration of the investment climate than with the degradation of the environment. It is therefore unlikely that they will go back on a contract of this magnitude.

After Independence Day, the defenders of the Rioni Valley returned to their valley. They were greeted in Kutaisi, the largest city in the region, by masses of people honking their horns and waving their flags to welcome them. The police, meanwhile, had erected iron fences in Rioni to restrict the ability of protesters to disrupt construction and even cut off access to some of the defenders’ homes. Protesters spent the rest of the night banging on the fence in an attempt to remove the fence.

Defenders of the Rioni Valley, via Facebook

But Their stay in the capital was short and icy, the defenders’ vision for Georgia captured the imaginations of many Tbilisians, questioning the way people view foreign investment and the way decisions are made in Georgia. They drew attention to the idea that some things should not be in private hands for private profit when the public pays the price. Even if they fail to prevent the dam from being built, they are changing Georgians’ ideas about what they should agree to from their leaders.

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