Note from the LeftEast editors: We publish this piece in expression of solidarity with the Georgian NGO Identoba, whose Chair has received a number of death threats after she criticized the Christmas speech of the Patriarch of Georgia, which denigrated women. LeftEast has previously published a piece on the controversy between Identoba and the Georgian Church, in which the LGBT advocacy organization was condemned for offering help to homeless people.
Mattia Gallo interviews Anna Rekhviashvili and Lela Rekhviashvili
MG: How did the economic and financial crisis of 2008 affect Georgia? Did the government of Georgia apply austerity policies in its aftermath? What were the social sectors most affected by the crisis and austerity policies?
AR/LR: The financial crisis and the August war of 2008 between Russia and Georgia hit the Georgian economy at nearly the same time. It is hard to distinguish the effects of the two events on the economy. However, counterintuitively, despite the strongly neoliberal direction of Georgian economic policies throughout 2003-2012, the Georgian government hasn’t really pursued austerity policies as a response to economic challenges (it needs to be mentioned that there was not much space for austerity policies anyways, as prior to the war government spending particularly on social protection was extremely low). In a way the war defined the direction of Georgian response to crisis in two ways. Firstly, the Georgian government received a huge aid package from western donors for post-war recovery (around $4.5-billion USD) so the government started heavily investing money into the economy. President Saakashvili was even (half) joking that the government appeared to be doing a better than the private sector in terms of making investments.
Secondly, the war forced the Georgian government to reconsider budgetary spending, primarily to cut military spending drastically and to start investing in education, healthcare, and agriculture. However, the United National Movement (UNM) government which prior to the war supported a ‘minimal state’ model and destroyed all the institutions that could possibly serve for welfare provisioning, was unable to change course. Thus, reorientation on social provisioning didn’t really work out as resources would be spent (or rather wasted) on short term projects which were causing inflation rather than helping those in need.
MG: In the last 23 years of Georgia’s history, from the fall of the Soviet bloc and the country’s independence, what were the major changes compared to the past? Did the state pursue neo-liberal policies, and if so, what kind were they?
AR/LR: This is a very hard question to answer. To say briefly, the 1990s was a period when corruption and informality dominated the economy to the extent that it is very hard to distill any ‘direction’ of Georgian economic policy. The redistributive socialist system was gone, some market institutions were put in place, industry was dead, and in essence the country was living from extensive loans and some trade.
Neo-liberalism really reached Georgia in 2003 with the Rose Revolution, transforming the country into the most rapidly reforming as well as the most rapidly liberalizing economy in the region. On the one hand, corruption rates radically decreased, bureaucracy was reduced and transformed, and overall state administrative capacity improved. On the other hand, taxes and regulations were simplified and reduced, the labor code was completely emptied from its capacity to protect workers, all kinds of labor policies were abolished, even some regulatory institutions were simply removed (instead of being reformed), welfare spending (though an important exception was pensions) was simply absent. These policies of course lead to very predictable outcomes, the country started getting more FDI (usually FDI was related to privatization of state owned property), the economy started growing, even after the crisis growth resumed quite fast. However, Georgia became the most unequal country in the region (surpassing even Russia with GINI coefficient at 42%), also by the late-2000s Georgia became the country with the biggest share of poor and extremely poor population in the region, small and medium size enterprises shrank at the expense of big business, agriculture which employs 50 percent of the labor force was devastated, healthcare was privatized, and even relatively promising educational reforms were in stalemate. This situation of course lead to massive dissatisfaction which was contained for a while with the help of a brutal police state.
The new government lead by the ‘Georgian Dream Coalition’ certainly slowed down aggressive liberalization for a while, and even increased social spending considerably (introducing a universal basic healthcare package was certainly one of the most important reforms). However, this government didn’t come up with any alternative visions for economic policy. Hence, overtime, new strongmen started pushing for new large investment projects and started backing up big investors to push back societal resistance against destroying historical monuments, building a gigantic hydro-electric power station and so on.
Initially the government was more responsive to social dissatisfaction and social mobilization would be reflected in decision making. Currently, it has become clear that the responsiveness of the government is not really working since big economic projects are now at stake.
MG: What is the role of the church in society and what is the situation of the rights of the LGBT population in Georgian society? What is the role of religion in other former Sovietic Bloc states?
AR/LR: The Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC) is an extremely powerful institution, disposing of some considerable wealth in Georgia as it is funded by the Georgian budget. According to recent sociological surveys more that 95% of Georgian citizens express their full trust in the institution. The church has gained its power over last 5-7 years, as it defined itself as the main basis of negotiating and proclaiming nationhood after the collapse of Soviet Union and Georgia’s establishment as a democratic state. The church became a key player in defining values, norms and attitudes and speaks “in the name of Georgian people.” This is evident in its relation to LGBT rights, where it seems for the last two years the church has defined its struggle against LGBT rights as its main goal for “maintaining traditional values and culture.” Georgia is a homophobic country where issues of sexuality and gender were never publicly discussed/negotiated until very recently. Any attempt to bring visibility to the LGBT struggle is strongly opposed by the church. The best illustration of this was on May 17, the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT) last year, when LGBT activists planned a peaceful rally in Tbilisi, and were violently attacked by tens of thousands of other citizens who were lead and mobilized by GOC priests. The name of the counter-protest to the rally was “Georgian nation against perversion,” and is symbolic of the politics of the church as defining itself as an authentic voice of the nation and viewing the LGBT rights struggle or activists associated with the movement as imposed from outside, that is mainly by the “evil west.”
This process of the church’s consistent fight against advancement of the LGBT movement in Georgia and strong articulation of “traditional values” also implicitly shows its very strong ties with Russian politics. The key argument for violating the IDAHOT rally last year for the church was opposition to so called “Gay Propaganda” – a term borrowed from Russia’s recent anti-LGBT laws and policies. LGBT rights are usually discussed in light of “European values” as opposed to “traditional values.” However, the arguments for “traditional Georgian values” coincide exactly with “values” that have become key for Russia lately to define itself against “the west.”
More recently, the Georgian church has started to explicitly propose anti-LGBT laws to parliament, becoming involved in “real politics” by opposing some of the new laws and reforms that the government initiates: a good example of this is the church’s opposition to the recently adopted anti-discrimination law that explicitly mentions sexual orientation and gender identity as a basis of discrimination. The law was banded as going against Georgian traditions/morals and as a tool of the “evil West” to “sodomize Georgia.” Priests would attend all the parliamentary hearings of the law and openly threaten parliamentarians with acts of civil disobedience if the law passed. Several street actions and protests were organized, that lasted until 17 May 2014, when Georgia’s patriarch established a national day for traditional families, exactly on IDAHOT, asking the public to celebrate in the streets. However, unlike 17 May 2013, the church was unable to mobilize thousands against the law. Despite clear attempts of create hysteria against the law, it passed. Since adoption of the anti-discrimination law was a mandatory requirement for Georgia’s association agreement with the EU, signed in June, it is very clear that the role of the church in this process was more in opposition to Georgia’s pro-EU foreign policy than anything else.
It is also symptomatic, that discourses of or against so called “gay propaganda,” against civil society organizations working for human rights being “agents of the west” is becoming stronger and stronger not only in Georgia, but in all neighboring or nearby countries such as Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, Kirgizstan etc. The actors who promote Russian-origin laws, or “traditional values ideology” in different countries can be different: it is the church in Georgia, it is newly established rightist political groups in Ukraine, but the arguments, legal initiatives and the strategies for “maintaining national values” by these actors are suspiciously similar with each other.
MG: What is “Identoba”? When was it founded, and by whom? What are its perspectives?
AR/LR: Identoba was established on 8 November 2010 following the dissolution of the Inclusive Foundation, the country’s first LGBT organization in 2006-2010. Identoba was founded by a group of Gender Studies specialists and LGBT activists. Identoba started up as a smaller community organization creating a space for discussion, information sharing, and activism. Throughout the three years of its existence Identoba became a larger scale organization that operates an LGBT Community Center in Tbilisi and is involved in advocating for legal and policy change for the human rights of LGBT individuals, does research, media work, public campaigning etc. Identoba was one of the key organizers of IDAHOT rallies in 2012 and 2013. Identoba’s views it as crucial to its work to be aware of complexity in the mechanisms of oppression that relate to gender, sexuality, social class, ability, age, ethnicity, race, or religion, therefore its work mandate is broad and includes close cooperation with other “minority groups” or human rights organizations in the country or outside.
MG: The territories bordering on the Black Sea have a lot of geopolitical importance: for example, it is understood by the recent conflict in Crimea between local populations and foreign powers, after the turbulent events that took place in Ukraine. Another reason of this importance, and also the relationship of the former countries of the Soviet Union and Russia today, can also be understood looking at the war between Russia and Georgia in 2008. What happened? What were the reasons for the war, such as the effects, and what are the critical considerations to consider about that event?
AR/LR: Two regions separated from Georgia in early 90’s after the collapse of Soviet Union. These were Abkhazia and South Ossetia. These regions announced their independence after the war with Georgia in the early 90s and the conflict never settled after this. The political influence of Russia in both places is huge: Russia provides Russian passports to their citizens, the key media available in the country is Russian and political and military support of Russia for these territories is unconditional. The conflicts were frozen until 2008. In fact, in early 2008 the Georgian government already started an alert saying that Russian troops were mobilizing in South Ossetia and asked the OSCE and the UN to establish observatory missions in the region. The alert was not taken seriously then. The shootings over the border started in early summer by South Ossetians, very close to where Russian ‘peace forces’ were located. The Georgians got involved in the war that resulted in Russia legitimizing itself to openly get involved in the military conflict and resulted in the bombing of the strategic territories of Georgia: the bordering city of Gori, Tbilisi airport etc.
The results of the war in Georgia were severe, like any other war, starting from deaths and chaos, ending up with around 25,000 internally displaced persons who had to flee their houses and cannot return. Other effects of the war included: a harsher economic crisis in Georgia, a significant increase in Russian military forces along Georgia’s borders, depriving any possibility of Georgia to take any peaceful step in the conflict. This means, that Georgia is under everyday risk of war with Russia again, in case shooting begins from any side of the border.
What Russia’s war in Georgia also signifies is Russia trying out smaller-scale attacks on peripheries of the countries it wants to gain political influence on and observing the reaction of the ‘west’ about it. I think Russia’s current strategy in Crimea is very similar to what was happening in Georgia before. Russia seems to be careful, not starting a direct attack on a country or its capital. It goes around, by using techniques of information war in the “conflict areas” through Russian media; making sure that the places have enough Russian citizens, and usually ends up in military attacks on these places. Through such a careful and seemingly not direct occupation strategy Russia can control the reaction of the so called ‘international community’ against its military actions and carefully check where the limits of its occupation attempts are.
Anna Rekhviashvili is a PhD candidate at in Gender Studies at Tbilisi State University. Anna is also an invited lecturer and teaches gender courses to MA and BA students in the same university. For last two years she has worked as a Community Center Director at Identoba, an LGBT rights organization in Georgia. Her research interests lie in recent increase of nationalism in Eastern European context and the ways new nationalistic project relate to and construct sexualities. More specifically her doctoral research is focused on examining the intersection between nationalistic discourses and sexualities on the example of contemporary Georgia.
Lela Rekhviashvili is a PhD candidate at the Doctoral School of Political Science, Public Policy and International Relations, Central European University. Throughout last two years, she was a research fellow at the Centre for Social Sciences (CSS) and blogger for the critical online publications in Georgia. Her broad research interests include transformation in central and Eastern Europe, political economy of development, formal and informal practices and institutions. Her doctoral research examines the impact of institutional change for the coping tactics of the vulnerable groups in Post-Revolutionary (2003) Georgia, focusing on the case of informal street vendors.
Mattia Gallo is an Italian journalist and media activist. He is from Cosenza, a city in a region of Calabria in South Italy. He wrote, and in some cases continues to write, for newspaper and alternative media of his region (Ciroma.org, Mmmasciata.it, Tamtamesegnalidifumo, Il Quotidiano della Calabria, Fatti al Cubo, Esodoweb). He has published several articles on Italian alternative media of extra-parliamentary movements as Dinamo Press. At present he works with an Italian alternative sports media (Sportallarovescia) and collaborates with Global Project, an Italian platform of extraparliamentary movement of the radical Left in Italy.