Struggle for the Rioni Valley in between Political and Civil Society terrains

Book’s cover

The introduction of Lela Rekhviashvili’s book Struggle for the Rioni Valley in between Political and Civil Society Terrains: Contested Infrastructures and Development Politics, published in Georgian by Heinrich Böll Foundation.

Who can resist capitalism today and how? Who can resist capitalism in Georgia or in other peripheral countries of Eastern Europe and Eurasia, where the supposed central agent of the resistance — civil society — according to mainstream/liberal or critical evaluators, is weak, divided, and alienated from local social concerns (Foa and Ekiert, 2017; Howard, 2012)? 

In this book, I tell a story of the struggle over Rioni river valley in western Georgia, in particular the detailed history of the anti-dam movement that took place between November 2020 and July 2021[1]. In doing so, I engage with this broad, yet continuously politically relevant question: who resists capitalism and how do they resist it? Based on the study of this unique struggle in the history of post-independence Georgia, and drawing on the concepts of subalternity, civil and political society by Antonio Gramsci and Parta Chatterjee, I discuss how hegemonic developmental politics are produced and contested. On the one hand, this research details the strategies of political-economic elites to legitimise the existing developmental politics and exclude resistances to it from the public sphere. On the other hand, it observes the possibilities to resist (even if temporarily or partially) the irreversible destruction or severe exploitation of humans and nature, local cultures and heritages and living environments. It explores existing attempts at identifying and fighting for alternative developmental paths countering the hegemonic developmental order.

Drawing on observations about the struggle for the Rioni valley, my main point is as follows: larger share of the resistances against existing development politics in Georgia, as well as probably in many other corners of Eastern Europe and Eurasia, takes place beyond civil society, on what Patra Chatterjee calls a political society terrain. Civil society, this alleged central avatar of the politics of resistance, is a kind of a battlefield in itself. Struggle over becoming a part of civil society, part of rights-bearing legitimate citizenry, or being excluded from it, is the central characteristic of the battlefield.  This observation has a crucial importance for the existing literature, as well as, and more importantly, for ongoing political struggles in the post-socialist space and beyond. To this date, there is an ongoing debate about the reasons why civil society is so weak, elitist, and detached from the concerns of respective societies (Gagyi and Ivancheva, 2019). According to some authors working on the region, the concept of civil society should be set aside altogether. Others would rather broaden the concept of civil society so that it can include not only the actors that are recognized as civil society actors in the post-socialist public spaces — as NGOs or formal associations — but also the marginalised struggles and the forms of everyday resistance (Jacobsson, 2016; Jacobsson and Korolczuk, 2019). I argue that both approaches are theoretically and politically problematic.

Drawing on the experience of the Rioni valley struggle, I demonstrate that the exclusion of various groups from the civil society terrain, and the denial of the legitimacy of their struggle, are the main tools for the existing political and economic elites to maintain their hegemony. In other words, the subalternity of certain groups, their epistemic displacement, emphasising their non-compliance with the existing legal-institutional order, and suppressing their voices in the public space is carried out precisely by excluding them from the civil society terrain.  Subalternity therefore, is not simply related to material deprivation, but is shaped in a specific historical context through material and discursive displacement of certain groups from the legal and moral parameters set by the hegemonic order, disconnection from knowledge production, and deliberate deprivation from the opportunity to articulate one’s political voice and interests in the public space. Those kinds of excluded groups, that are denied access to conventional channels of democratic engagement and are stripped of civil rights, are left to organise on the terrain of political society, that is, on the terrain of alternative values, torn from the existing institutions and structures. Overcoming the delegitimization becomes the main challenge  for subaltern groups and determines the strength of the resistance. In other words, political society is a terrain of mobilisation for subaltern groups that are actively removed from the possibility of fighting on civil society terrain. Moving beyond the political society terrain, getting under the skin of civil society, and doing so, destabilising the very concept of civil society, instead of “strengthening” civil society or simply attaching this label to oneself, appears to be the way to confront the hegemonic order today. The two dominant academic approaches to the ‘weak’ civil society problem in post-socialist East, one rejecting the concept altogether, and the other one trying to stretch the concept to include marginalised, subaltern struggles, seem detached from current political realities. Both approaches ignore how the exclusion from civil society, or overcoming such exclusion, in itself becomes the decisive object of a struggle for many subaltern groups.

In what follows I attempt to summarise the chronology of the struggle for the Rioni valley, and flesh out the empirical base for these conceptual claims.

Observing the efforts of the government and the lobbyists to discredit the fight for Rioni valley clearly shows how hegemony and subalternity are produced; how the state and, more generally, political and economic elites operating within the liberal consensus, handle resistances against existing developmental politics.

Liberal consensus is a concept developed in this study as it helps to explain how various political forces which seem to be at odds with each other, remain in complete agreement when it comes to their views on developmental politics. Current political elites in Georgia, including the government and the opposition, as well as mainstream media and economic elites associated with them, univocally support an unregulated and (largely foreign) capital-driven market economy, alongside the brutal exploitation of labor and the environment that comes with such politics of development. Despite seeming political competition within such elites, they are firmly organised around the liberal consensus and consistently join forces to hamper and unroot any real opposition to the hegemonic socio-economic order.  

For many years, the government bluntly ignored local populations’ concerns and mobilisation against  the construction of the Namakhvani Hydroelectric Power Plant (HHP) in the peripheralised region of Lechkhumi. The state’s strategy of ignoring the discontentbenefited from the marginality and invisibility of the struggle for the public and political sphere. Even though the locals had been protesting against the planned HHP project for more than a decade, the fact that the media started paying attention to the anti-dam mobilisation only since November 2020, by the time when the protest leaders put up tents at the protest site physically hampering the construction process, and faced repeated police raids, only attests to the marginality of the struggle.  Peripheralization of regions and marginalisation and disempowering of the populations of such regions, is a result of the state’s active, purposeful and continuous actions. The peripheralization of Rioni valley in Lechkhumi was based on the one hand, on the deprivation of the region from basic social infrastructures for decades, and on the other hand, the active denial of democratic participation and civil rights to the local population[2]. Until the moment when the population’s concerns reach the public sphere and gain public support, the government prefers to simply ignore the protest, and in extreme cases, to deal with it locally – in a context devoid of public visibility, using police force. While the state (re)produces subalternity of certain groups and their struggles by making it impossible for such struggles to use civil and political rights, hence to operate as civil society, such struggles take place in the political society terrain, and start relying on extreme or sometimes extra-legal means of mobilisation, for example physically hampering the construction process, or resorting to violence.

The struggle for Rioni valley is interesting and paradigmatic because it managed to grow out of the political society terrain, and importantly avoided becoming violent, despite the multifaceted and multiple usages of the above-mentioned strategy of the state. Once the resistance manages to mobilise public support and attention of leading media, and thus leaves the political society terrain, the state, existing political-economic elites, and mainstream media resort to strategies of discrediting the protest.

Although the movement for saving the Rioni valley was mostly successful in fending off such accusations, the mechanisms of discreditation, detailed in this book, are crucial for the production of hegemony and subalternity. The leading and most resonant message of the various accusations was to portray the groups involved in the protest as being against the extremely powerful imaginaries of development, progress, and modernization. Once the state deprives subaltern groups of their legitimacy by framing them as pre/or-anti-modern, and thus declares them as ineligible to civil and political rights, the expectation is that the repression of such groups won’t cause much public anger. The state’s expectation that they would succeed in demonising the movement, hence were free to use repressive means against it, didn’t materialise in the case of the Rioni valley struggle for a long time. On the contrary, all manifestations of repression were followed by more powerful waves of protest and solidarity,  which grew into a wide, diverse movement. However, the government continued relying on its’ strategy of discreditation followed by repression with extreme effort and persistence. Before each wave of repressions, the state pretended to ask for negotiation.  However, negotiations were played out to discredit the movement, to show the public the “disobedience and/or incivility” of the guardians of the Rioni valley.

When the failure of the state’s tried-and-tested strategy became clear, on the one hand, the state continued its attempts to discredit the movement, and on the other hand, at the same time, it chose to step back publicly. High-level officials, including the prime minister of Georgia, began admitting to their mistakes and relatively limited the use of direct repressive force.  This was not the first time Georgian state backed away in the face of popular resistances, but it’s clearly unprecedented in response to the protest of subaltern groups in a peripheral region[3]. The government also deployed yet another unprecedented strategy by inviting the representatives of European Energy Community to mediate the conflict with the movement[4].

The tide turned in favour of the government in early July 2021. The movement’s local leaders’ written statement against Tbilisi Pride and their appearance in Tbilisi in proximity to the violent anti-pride demonstration on the 5th of July 2021 caused divides in the wider movement, and played an important role in the theoretical considerations presented in this book. The internal division allowed the government and all liberal consensus-producing forces to reapply the discreditation strategies, this time more successfully. The government and lobbyists failed to achieve the central short-term goal: the execution of the problematic project of Namakhvani HPP by the company EnkaRenewables. Yet, they were able to substantially delegitimise the movement and to partially silence and downplay the criticism that the Rioni valley movement had articulated against the existing developmental politics. In other words, the state had deployed the discrediting mechanisms prepared long before the 5th of July, namely, bringing the movement to a liberal-conservative dead end.

The liberal-conservative dead end is another concept developed in this book to show the false liberal-conservative cleavage of the current political sphere. I call this a “dead end”, and call the liberal-conservative confrontation “false”, because far-right groups mobilised in the name of conservative values don’t represent an alternative to liberal hegemony, but its own uglier and more authoritarian alter ego. Neither in Georgia nor in other European contexts, are far-right/fascist groups fundamentally opposed to neoliberal hegemony. The existing political establishment is much more afraid of relatively weak left-wing forces than of easily mobilised far-right groups. In the case of the Rioni valley movement, the state tried to discredit it on one hand — by emphasising the conservatism of the movement, while on the other hand, with the help of far-right groups close to the church, to tarnish the movement as a liberal force. Discreditation for being a liberal is quite effective locally (and is often utilised by far-right groups), given a strongly negative public sentiment towards the anti-social liberal developmental politics. In turn, being labeled as conservative, and in this case primarily as homophobic, deprives the movement from the media and civil society support. 

The fact that having been driven into the liberal-conservative dead end has, to a significant degree, damaged the Rioni valley movement is not surprising since this strategy tends to stall or fully stop many movements and social protests in Georgia (and not only). But what is interesting and even more surprising in this process is how the local leaders of the movement, together with the wider movement, managed to avoid the damage of the state’s discreditation strategies prior to the 5th of July event. How did a small, subaltern local protest, excluded from the civil society terrain, grow into a large popular movement, how did it mobilise unprecedented support and solidarity, how did it manage to insert itself on the agenda of the mainstream media for many months? To go back to the broader questions of this research: how can the liberal hegemony and capitalism be opposed, even if tenuously and temporarily, and what lessons do we learn by analysing the successes and the limits of the Rioni valley struggle?

To begin answering this question, it must be said that the unprecedented success of the Rioni valley movement was shaped by similarly unprecedented close cooperation between two types of actors, the subaltern local population and the critical and (at least partially) counter-hegemonic parts of civil society or the media.  This cooperation, based on mutual respect of each other’s autonomy[5], enabled the movement to maintain its wide and popular appeal, to gain support of other subaltern groups and individuals (the unprecedented mobilisation of immigrants, otherwise systematically deprived of political voice in Georgian political landscape, is especially noteworthy here). At the same time, it also enabled the movement to enter the public sphere dominated by the liberal consensus, to gain wide media coverage and legitimacy.

To maintain this dual success, to persevere in the face of government’s discreditation mechanisms, including the above-mentioned liberal-conservative dead end, the guardians of the Rioni valley (or the movement’s local leaders) and all the other actors involved (including various civil society organisations, critical media, small informal collectives) — an alliance that came to be known as the broad movement to save the Rioni valley — relied heavily on politics of double distancing.

The politics of double distancing was an extension and a culmination of the movements’ local leaders’ continuous efforts to maintain their autonomy and distance themselves from any prominent political power. Unsurprisingly, over time, only those media and civil actors, that had no intention of having an avant-garde position in this struggle and who didn’t try to subordinate it to their own, often narrow political interests, remained to be the supporters of the guardians and became an inseparable part of the struggle. The approach shaped protest spaces for months.On the one hand, it addressed the far-right groups, or more broadly, the share of the movement’s supporters advocating for aggressive and/or violent solutions to the struggle, by demanding self-discipline and commitment to the peaceful character of the fight. On the other hand, it addressed the forms of self-expression locally associated with liberalism, particularly the groups supporting non-normative gender and sexual identities. The movement leaders asked from the latter to limit the visibility of their identity, in particular, to put aside the relevant symbolism (e.g not show LGBTQI flags) when participating in the protest.

The politics of double distancing became particularly sharp and articulate in response to especially heightened tensions around the liberal-conservative dead-end during protests in Tbilisi on May-23-25,2021. At this point Rioni valley guardians imposed a restriction upon themselves to show their commitment to the strategy. One of the key leaders of the movement, Maka Suladze, declared she would no longer show up at protests carrying her large vine cross. By refraining from displaying dominant  (Orthodox) symbols as a counterweight to the limitation of non-dominant symbols, guardians of the valley clearly managed not only to distance themselves from the conservative groups, but also to stay away from the dominant liberal strategy for queer struggles, that is the visibility politics. Although this approach was more demanding on the counter-hegemonic media and civil society actors, the most intense opposition to the politics of double distancing was expressed not by these groups, but by the far-right ones. Over time, particularly since the 5th of July, the politics of double distancing faced its limits. Yet, for some time, the politics of dual distancing enabled an interesting precedent of cooperation between the subaltern struggle and counter-hegemonic civil society and media and allowed for the peaceful coexistence of very diverse supporters in protest spaces.

As we talk about this cooperation between the local leaders and the critical part of the civil society or the media, it should be emphasised that the local leaders of the protest remained the leading strategists and were shaping the philosophy of the struggle. But, what’s more important, quite unusual, and memorable for the Georgian political sphere, is that the political philosophy of the Rioni valley guardians did not stop at avoiding discreditation. The movement made sure to popularise well-researched and substantiated arguments against the Namakhvani HPP project, and frame those arguments in an accessible manner. Beyond naming injustices surrounding the power plant project,  the guardians of the valley, on the one hand, developed critical tools for analysing and criticising state power, and on the other hand, elaborated decolonial ethical and normative alternative approaches to development, statehood, human social existence and coexistence with nature. Criticising the coloniality of the modern Georgian state, exposing its subordination to the interests of international capital, talking about public or common goods, resources, and values, and mainstreaming such discussions is not only unique, but, I argue, completely changes the space of political possibilities by bringing up previously tabooed critical positions and gaining public legitimacy for voicing them in the public sphere.

Based on the examination of the events leading up to July 2021, I argue that the combination of the resources of the counter-hegemonic civil society and subaltern groups, the capacity of such an alliance to speak to other subaltern groups as well as to shake up mainstream-liberal media space, in the given context created the possibility of not a pseudo, but a fundamental confrontation with peripheral capitalism and opened the space to discuss decolonial alternatives.  In turn,  the events of July 5 at Tbilisi Pride revealed the limits of the double distancing strategy of the guardians, as well as broader and one could say more systemic fragility and malleability of an alliance between the subaltern struggle and a critical part of civil society.

After the events of July 5, the Rioni valley movement became much more vulnerable to the discreditation machine that at any time in the history of its own struggle. Even though, the Georgian government itself regularly enables the violence coming from the far-right groups, the guardian’s proximity to these groups on 5th of July allowed the same government to reinforce the narrative of the movement’s ‘backwardness’ and ‘uncivility’. This way the government drew the public attention away from all the social, environmental, technical and fiscal problems of the “Namakhvani HPP project” and placed the blame for the failure of the project solely on the anti-dam movement. The local movement leaders’ decision to appear in the proximity of the violent anti-pride rally severely damaged the spirit of unity and trust that previously sustained the broad alliance against the dam project. The representatives of the media and civil society, who previously publicly and fiercely defended every move of the guardians, would not legitimise the guardian’s decision during the anti-Pride events. In turn, as the guardians’ legitimacy in liberal/mainstream media got compromised, the guardians’ capacity to reach out to other subaltern struggles and mobilise a wide solidarity base had also largely declined. 

Despite the severity of the damage, the alliance between the local leaders of the movement and the critical parts of the civil society was not completely destroyed by the events of July 5. Even if some of closely cooperating NGOs distanced themselves from close collaboration with the guardians, even they, as well other involved actors managed to coordinate collectively on various crucial issues, including coordinating their positions in the scope of the Energy Community led mediation process. This process of partial reconciliation, shows the possibilities of overcoming the fragility of the alliance between subaltern groups and critical civil society actors. It also demonstrates a need for sustaining such alliances against all odds.  While the government and the political-economic elites more broadly, were more successful in discrediting the movement since the July events, they still didn’t manage to entirely displace the movement from operating on civil society terrain, or to return the subaltern local resistance to the terrain of political society. The visibility and legitimacy of the movement substantially decreased, but it was not entirely lost. Importantly, even under these conditions, the movement achieved its central aim: Enka Renewables asked for a cancellation of the deal in Autumn 2021 and the Namakhvani HPP project was put on halt by early 2022.

Overall, the experience of the struggle over Rioni valley created an example of the unprecedented success of cooperation between subaltern groups and counter-hegemonic civil society. The central result of this cooperation was the growth of a subaltern movement from the political society terrain to the civil society terrain. This shift enabled mobilisation of broad solidarities and visibilised subaltern voices. Despite risks, challenges, and experiences of failures, this struggle as a whole, in the context of Georgia and beyond it, visibilised the power of collective mobilisation and developed the most systematic criticism of coloniality and injustices of peripheral capitalism in the recent history of Georgia.

Finally, I don’t believe that all subaltern struggles either can or should necessarily grow into civil society struggles. This is not easily achieved in socially and spatially polarised places like Georgia. However, the more the struggles succeed in breaking through the layers of discreditation and delegitimization, the more they will destabilise existing narrow conceptions and boundaries of civil society, and allow the subaltern voices shake up the liberal consensus. I would hope that the experiences of the successes or failures of the broad movement for saving the Rioni valley against the liberal-conservative dead end will be useful for subaltern struggles, as well as for critical and counter-hegemonic parts of civil society,  as we have many important, urgent, and inevitable struggles ahead of us.

Lela Rekhviashvili is a post-doctoral researcher at Leibniz Institute for Regional Geography, Leipzig. Her research interests include the political economy of transition, informal economic practices, social movements, everyday resistance, and urban mobility. Her academic publications discuss post-soviet shared taxies in a comparative perspective with ride-sharing and informal transport, the role of everyday resistance in production of public space, and the impact of institutional change, particularly of marketization policies on informal economic practices.

[1] The struggle was directed against the construction of the “Namakhvani  Hydroelectric Power Plant. (HPP)” .  The project was supposed to be one of the largest energy projects in the country,  with proposed investment valued at up to 800 Million USD. For more information in English about the project see “A Louder Periphery: Guardians of the Rioni Valley against the ‘Namakhvani Hydroelectric Power Plant (HPP)'”

[2] The latter is well demonstrated by the exclusion of the critically disposed population from mandatory public hearings of the project in 2019-2020, leaving their questions unanswered, and the secrecy of the documentation related to the project.

[3] There may be examples when the groups from the field of political society have stopped specific projects in such regions, but we haven’t seen a public stepping back from the state before the Rioni valley struggle. 

[4] The government’s goal in the mediation process for sure was to slow down the protests and restore the construction process of the HPP,  but the initiation of this process clearly showed that the government perceived the limits of the existing strategies.

[5]  It should be mentioned that these or other groups of critical civil society have repeatedly supported groups fighting in the field of subaltern and political society (Qeburia and Chubabria, 2017) although, in the case of the Rioni valley movement, the decisions of the leaders themselves and, probably, the experiences of previous subaltern struggles gave a much larger scale to this cooperation than we have seen before.