Tuesday

27th Feb 2024

Opinion

Georgia needs EU membership — despite its government

  • Georgia's new culture minister, Thea Tsulukiani, immediately began implementing measures to suppress free expression and curb cultural independence (Photo: Lia Ukleba/Pen America)
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There is widespread public support in Georgia for joining the European Union, as evidenced again this weekend when hundreds turned out in Tbilisi to unfurl what might well be the world's largest EU flag.

Yet, while the government professes an interest in joining the EU, it has done little to advance membership. It even tried to sabotage the entire process by failing to meet two of the 12 requirements set out for it by the EU — de-oligarchization and media freedom.

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Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, civil society flourished. Artists, writers, filmmakers, poets, and other cultural workers staged exhibitions and residencies, founded independent literary awards and film festivals, and played a pivotal role in promoting a vibrant, democratic society. During my two years living in Tbilisi, I repeatedly witnessed poets and writers stopped on the street by star-struck Georgians keen for a brief chat.

This lively cultural scene and a growing economy, followed by the country's non-violent 'Rose Revolution' in 2003, made Georgia a symbol of freedom and democracy in an otherwise turbulent region.

Initially, this reputation was a blessing, attracting substantial international assistance and investment. Today, however, it is more of a burden as the global community struggles to acknowledge democratic backsliding and growing authoritarianism in Georgia.

At the forefront of the crackdown is Georgian Dream, founded in 2012 by billionaire oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, who amassed his wealth as part of Vladimir Putin's inner circle in the 1990s. Ivanishvili is widely recognised as the party's éminence grise, and Ivanishvili's businesses formerly employed many current government ministers.

In March 2021, Thea Tsulukiani, a former Justice minister and devoted Georgian Dream supporter, was appointed minister of culture, sport, and youth. This was a critical appointment considering the crucial importance of culture in Georgia.

Yet, instead of supporting culture workers, Tsulukiani immediately began implementing measures to suppress free expression and curb cultural independence.

She soon implemented "audit" and "reorganisation" initiatives, which invariably led to a cancellation of research funding for staff whose political opinions diverged from the party line. Staff at esteemed cultural institutions were required to reapply for their positions.

Hostile 'interviews'

This included often hostile interviews where they were grilled on their affiliations with opposition politicians or former government officials. One museum employee likened this experience to an "interrogation in a penal colony." Even their social media accounts were scrutinized for signs of political differences.

Given Georgia's relatively small size, those who lost their jobs often found themselves with limited alternatives for new employment within their areas of expertise.

A culture of fear and intimidation soon took hold. When I conducted the interviews for my report, Taming Culture in Georgia: Georgian Government Clamps Down on Freedom of Speech and Cultural Expression, released early last month, I often heard comparisons between Tsulukiani's ministry and Soviet-era Georgia.

Award-winning film director Salome Jashi, whose movie Taming the Garden about a billionaire who orchestrates the transplantation of centuries-old trees to his personal estate (as Bidzina Ivanishvili did in real life), inspired the title of our report, told me that "the ministry of culture has a campaign against culture because arts and culture are among those mediums that define the way people think."

She believes that after the Georgian Film Academy canceled several screenings of her film, likely due to the new director's pro-government sympathies, "coming to watch the movie became an act of courage."

Georgia's current suppression of free speech and cultural independence extends well beyond the culture ministry. For instance, in September, the Georgian government summoned several cultural figures for taking part in a four-day USAID-funded training program on nonviolent, creative, civic activism.

The State Security Service (SSG) alleged that these workshops were covert attempts to prepare youth for a "revolutionary scenario." Programme leaders reject the accusation as "absurd," noting that all the training materials are publicly available.

Another example of the Georgian government's intimidation of free speech occurred a few days ago in America. Rusa Sheila, a US-based correspondent for Georgia's private Imedi TV, resigned, citing the broadcaster's increased efforts to dictate the content of her reporting to align it more closely with the political stance of Georgian Dream.

Of course, EU membership does not guarantee free expression or lasting democratic progress. It is a sad irony that one of Georgia's most vigorous supporters for EU membership is Hungary, a country that has experienced significant democratic backsliding and the erosion of precious, hard-won freedoms, including free speech and artistic expression.

However, if the crucial resources and networks that come with EU membership, coupled with support from other donor countries and private investors, were invested directly in civil society, this could go a long way to restoring free speech and human rights to the Georgian people.

There can be little doubt of the growing divide between the Georgian people, who have made clear their desire for a vibrant, open, and democratic Georgia, and their political leaders, currently pursuing Russian-style authoritarianism. EU leaders meeting on Thursday (14 December) will have to decide which side to support; I hope they will choose the side of the people.

Author bio

Polina Sadovskaya is director of Eurasia and advocacy for PEN America.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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