Georgians must not allow debates between liberals and conservatives on social issues, important and vital as they are, to become new fault-lines within their society, argues Dennis Sammut in this week's Monday Commentary
Georgia's ethnic mix was for a long time considered as being a possible existential threat to the country's future. The nationalist rhetoric, that immediately preceded and followed, the collapse of the USSR created a backlash among other ethnic groups within the newly independent Georgian state. The fact that Soviet Georgia had three entities within it which had a high degree of autonomy - Adjara and Abkhazia were autonomous republics, South Ossetia an autonomous oblast - created a context which at least in the case of the latter two finally resulted in their secession. Adjara nearly went the same way. In all three cases the determining factor in the end was Russia.
Georgia's largest ethnic minorities - Armenian and Azerbaijani speaking, are more numerous, and are also compactly settled, though many live in Tbilisi and other large cities too. The Georgian authorities, and also the Georgian people in general, have become increasingly aware of the sensibilities surrounding relations with these communities. The nationalist rhetoric has been toned down; the concept of equal citizen, regardless of one's ethnic roots, has been promoted; and Georgia does its best to maintain good relations with both Yerevan and Baku. Furthermore, Georgia's successful process of state-building, democratisation, and engagement with Europe has given all national minorities a sense of better well-being, and of opportunity. The fact that an Armenian-speaking Georgian from Akhalkalaki and an Azerbaijani speaking Georgian from Marneuli can now visit Europe visa-free has not gone unnoticed, and indeed is a source of envy among many other Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Small steps, but very significant.
The danger that Georgia will fall apart because of its ethnic fault-lines is now practically non-existent. Even the issues of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, regardless of their original roots, are now recognised as being more obviously the subject of geo-political factors than inter-ethnic relations.
The new Georgia - more modern, more developed, and more European, has helped eliminate the fault-lines of the past. There are some concerns however that the process may have created a new set of fault-lines, this time based on social values. Events in Tbilisi over the last few days can be interpreted in this way - except that this is only part of the story.
Early on Saturday morning the Georgian police conducted several raids at various nightclubs in a drug busting operation, ostensibly targeting traffickers. Drug abuse is a serious issue, especially among the Georgian youth, and the problem, everyone agrees, is getting more serious. Clamping down on drug dealers has wide-spread support among the Georgian public. However, several groups have been lobbying in recent years for the legalisation of soft drugs for recreational use. These groups have attracted the sympathy of a wider community of liberal minded people, especially young people, who are involved in campaigns on a wide range of issues - from religious tolerance to gay rights, from racial tolerance to women's rights. The police raids on Friday night were according to many, conducted with an unnecessary degree of force, with police in balaclavas yielding weapons and making widespread arrests, targeting the clubbers at random, rather than only the drug dealers.
Within hours the issue turned into one of civil liberties; protestors took to the streets and closed traffic on Rustaveli Avenue. The protest of the liberals attracted the reaction of ultra conservatives. They are also by and large a disparate group - often appearing in protests against gay rights or migrants. They have sympathy within the conservative wing of the Georgian Orthodox Church and among some older intellectuals; they use the language of the hard right, including some Nazi and fascist symbolisms; but more relevantly they articulate their arguments in a fashion similar to some groups in Russia: traditional values; anti-western rhetoric and family life. They also took to the streets on Sunday, threatening to break up the first group, by force if necessary. The police intervened and after a few hours of tense stand off they managed to diffuse the situation. Everyone went home for a good night's sleep.
The incident however put the spotlight on bigger issues. The debate on social values is deeply rooted in Georgia and goes right up to the government and to the ruling party, that by co-incidence - or maybe it wasn't a co-incidence - held its 5th congress also this weekend.
Despite its claims to tolerance Georgian society is highly conservative. The Georgian nation over centuries protected itself from one wave of invaders and occupiers after another by clinging to core ideas, rooted in Georgian Orthodoxy and a sentimental reading of history. Communism, ironically, here as in other countries, re-enforced these conservative views as it sought to replace religion with a totalitarian ideology. The new Georgia challenges all this in many ways.
This debate in Georgian society is not going away soon. In fact, it is likely that it will play itself out again and again on different issues and in different contexts - in parliament, in government, within the political spectrum, in the Church and elsewhere. What happened on Rustaveli Avenue on Saturday was simply one episode of the two sides seeking to carve their space.
In many ways there is nothing extraordinary about this. Abortion issues bitterly divide Americans; Women's rights create huge polemics right across the western world, and beyond; gay rights, now well enshrined in Europe, were similarly divisive until recently, and create divisions within even such august bodies as the British Commonwealth of Nations. But Georgians must not allow these debates, important and vital as they are, to become new fault-lines within their society. Liberals need to win the argument through education, information and persuasion. Fake news, of which there was aplenty this weekend surrounding the protests, needs to be combatted. Conservatives who are genuinely concerned with modern trends need to make and win the argument, not smash the heads of their opponents. In all cases their needs to be zero tolerance to violence as part of this debate.
Those who are trying to use these polemics to harm Georgia, to harm its relations with Europe, and to return Georgia to the bosom of Putin's Russia, need to be exposed for what they are: not the protectors of Georgian traditions but the tools of Russian imperialism.
It is up to the Georgian people to find a balance between the liberal and the conservative approach to social values. As long as basic human rights are respected, each side's sensibilities should be recognised. In many cases these often become generational issues, with the young being more adaptable to change and open to new ideas. If conducted properly this debate will contribute to Georgia's political maturity and not turn into a new dangerous faultline.
Source: Dennis Sammut is the Executive Director of LINKS (Dialogue, Analysis and research). His Monday commentary is published weekly on commonspace.eu
The views expressed in opinion pieces and commentaries do not necessarily reflect the position of commonspace.eu or its partners
photo: Demonstrators protesting against the closing of nightclubs in Tbilisi (Picture courtesy of US News.com)
Bakhtadze later tweeted that talks centred on Georgia's new wave of reforms and the EU's continued support for Georgia's European path.