Georgia's Government Plays Into Putin's Hands As It Moves To Suppress Art And Culture

Author: Emma Loosley Leeming

(MENAFN- The Conversation) With media coverage still dominated by the Ukraine war, you might assume that Vladimir Putin's machinations in eastern Europe are focused solely on Ukraine. And you might be right. After all, why would Russia's president need to get involved in states where homegrown politicians seem more than prepared to do his work for him?

This is the situation currently unfolding in Georgia. The country's ruling political coalition, Kartuli Otsneba (Georgian Dream), is pursuing a policy of religious nationalism and social conservatism that brings Georgia in step with the social policies of Putin and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow.

More secular Georgians, and those who favour closer relations with the EU and Nato, fear a creeping Russification of society. These fears were crystallised when the government tried to pass the so-called“foreign agents” law in March 2023, sparking widespread protest on the streets of the country's capital, Tbilisi.

The proposed legislation was modelled on a Russian law designed to limit the amount of funding that NGOs and other externally funded organisations could accept. Opposition to this measure was fuelled by a fear that its passing would enable the Georgian government to outlaw cultural and social projects deemed incompatible with“Georgian values”. This would potentially lead to increased harassment of anyone from the LGBTQ+ community to single parents to vegans and vegetarians .

It was also widely believed that other elements of Russian legislation would follow if this first law was enacted. Taken aback by the strength of public feeling, the bill was withdrawn in May 2023. But suspicions that Russia is influencing the actions of a number of Georgian politicians have remained.

The founder of Georgian Dream, Bidzina Ivanishvili. Zurab Kurtsikidze/EPA Images Cultural crackdown

The crackdown on culture began when Thea Tsukuliani was named minister of culture, sport and youth in March 2021. Previously, Tsukuliani had been the minister of justice and not shown any apparent interest in Georgian history and culture.

Upon her appointment, Tsukuliani announced that instead of being based in the usual ministry office, she was going to install herself in a suite at the Georgian National Museum in Tbilisi. She reportedly had her eye on a wing of the museum that had recently been reopened as the natural history gallery.

This collection had not been publicly available for some years, so the curatorial staff fought the suggestion that it would be closed again almost immediately. Instead, Tsukuliani took the same suite on another floor, thereby dispossessing the National Geographic team who had signed a contract for that space.

In this way, I was made aware of the situation in Georgia long before it gained wider attention. I received a message from a colleague telling me that a project I was running with the Georgian National Museum could no longer host educational events for schoolchildren, as the room we had just refurbished had become an emergency office for National Geographic staff.

Then, on May 24 2022, the cultural purge began and 22 staff members were fired. The 22 had one thing in common: they had expressed disquiet about the apparent politicisation of Georgian cultural heritage, and argued that archaeology and related disciplines should not be controlled by Georgian Dream.

The Georgian National Museum preserves an array of artefacts that reveal the history of Georgia. saiko3p/Shutterstock Punishing dissent

Those who were dismissed were followed by waves of their colleagues – administrators and accountants were targeted as well as researchers, archaeologists and curatorial staff. By September 2022, more than 70 members of staff at the Georgian National Museum had lost their positions. Anyone who dared to speak up in solidarity was informed they were failing in their work duties and dismissed with immediate effect.

This quickly began to affect international research partners. For example, archaeologists arrived in Georgia to find there were no permits for excavation, as the staff of the issuing body had also been“reorganised”. Within a few months, the threat had spread to other cultural professionals, such as those in the theatre and film industries.

The sacked museum staff unionised and captured the attention of the national media. In August 2022, when the first cases for wrongful dismissal came to court, the Ministry of Culture was deemed to have fired staff unlawfully from the Georgian National Museum and other galleries and museums.

Good news, you might think – but you would be wrong. In each case so far, the state has been told to pay the employee several months' wages in compensation. But the Ministry of Culture has not been required to reinstate the worker to their former role, meaning that generations of institutional and specialist knowledge has been lost.

Many octogenarians had stayed on long beyond retirement to bridge the gap of the“lost generations” who fled post-communist Georgia for the US or Europe. They had been working for less than £50 a month to pass on their knowledge to a new generation: the“born frees” who have never experienced communism.

The older group had, over the past decade, started to believe they could entrust their work to this new generation. But it was the oldest and youngest who appeared to be especially targeted by this purge.

Election hopes and fears

Georgians will head to the polls again in November 2024 to elect a new government. Georgian Dream, which has been leading a governing coalition since 2012, is seeking to extend its mandate.

Colleagues of mine who are still in place in the Georgian National Museum are torn between hope that their ordeal will soon be over, and despondency that Georgian Dream appears on track to remain in power. If it wins again, the feeling in Georgia is that nothing will hold back the creeping Russification of Georgian society that this cultural censorship is facilitating.

Right now, Georgian academics, writers, museum staff and filmmakers seem united in agreeing that their best hope lies in a Ukrainian victory that weakens Russia – and, as a result, dilutes its stranglehold on the Georgian ruling class.

The Conversation


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