Seeking to humiliate politicians, as was recently done in Georgia, by leaking videos of them engaged in sexual activity is destructive to democracy and civic life in so many ways. First, it blurs the line between the private and the public, suggesting that politicians are not entitled to their private lives. The jump from that to believing that nobody is entitled to their private life is frighteningly small. Second, it is a profound and ugly example of somebody, either in media, politics, or government, intruding on the life of the individual in question, indicating that everybody can, and might, be watched at any time. Third, it can reinforce bigoted views regarding what kind of sexual behavior is acceptable or appropriate. Fourth, it is a clumsy attempt to refocus political discourse away from substantive issues and towards prurient and irrelevant ones.
The reaction of the Georgian government to this sex video was strong and on target. Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikishvili referred to this incident as “blackmail of the entire society” while vowing that “protecting each individual is a matter of dignity of the state.” Again, as with the shooting of Aleksei Petriashvili a few weeks ago, the Prime Minister made the right statement, but must deliver on that promise. Specifically, if the video was leaked by people outside the government, there should be, within the context of the law, as extensive prosecutions as possible. If it was leaked by somebody in the government, that person should be fired and prosecuted. In either case, determining the identity of those involved must be a top priority. Some arrests have already been made, but the full story of how these videos were leaked and what role people within the government or others may have played is not yet known.
While this recent leak occurred while the Georgian Dream (GD) has been in office, it would require a particularly confused and willfully ignorant view of recent Georgian history to view this as a problem that has evolved since the GD came to power. There is evidence that the previous United National Movement (UNM) led government had made recordings of Georgian politicians, gay men and others involved in sexual activities as fodder for, most likely, future blackmail. The GD government claimed to have destroyed all of those videos, but there is now reason to think this was not done as thoroughly as it might have been.
The sentiments of shock and indignation from the UNM,
“Use of dirty methods in political struggle should be over in Georgia. Releasing videos of private lives has become the main weapon against opponents under the governance of Bidzina Ivanishvili and the Georgian Dream. Failure to investigate dozens of such cases and to hold culprits accountable is contributing (to the existing situation,)”
demonstrate a degree of chutzpah that, even in the world of Georgian politics, is extraordinary. The UNM is not wrong in referring to tactics such as leaking sex videos as “dirty methods” or as “weapon against opponents” that have no place in a functioning democracy, or a country aspiring to be one. However, their position amounts to essentially criticizing the current government for destroying most, but not all of the recording that they themselves created while in power. The UNM is right that the GD should ensure that no more tapes are leaked and prosecute those responsible to the fullest extent of the law, but they are a deeply flawed messenger on that point.
Importantly, the provenance of the videos in question remains disputed. Some, including Justice Minister Thea Tsulukiani have claimed that the leaked videos were made before the 2012 election that brought the GD to power. Regardless of when the video was made, the persistence of these kind of tactics, more than three years into the GD’s time in office, is a reminder of how difficult it is to fundamentally change a political system and indeed a political culture, but it may also be evidence that the GD has not sought to make this change as diligently and enthusiastically as they should have. While it is appropriate to criticize them for this, it is surreal for that criticism to come from the UNM.
This is also a reminder that continuity, between governments, within bureaucracies and over time, remains a powerful, if often overlooked, force driving political life in Georgia. When seeking to understand the last several years, the decisive and high profile election of 2012, the differences in style and rhetoric between the UNM and the GD, and the different political climate in Georgia compared to a few years ago are hard to miss. There are, however, less dramatic, but equally important areas of significant continuity. Chronic unemployment and underemployment and Moscow’s control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are the among the big picture areas of policy continuity. There are, however, areas related to governance, like the lingering use of this type of video blackmail, but also, for example, the tendency to concentrate power in one person’s hands with a high degree of informal rule, that have proven difficult to dismantle and where there has been continuity between the UNM and GD governments.
Although the government has a responsibility to find out what happened and prosecute those involved with leaking this video, it may be somewhat premature to assume that they were behind this occurrence. It is a possibility that most certainly cannot be ruled out, but also should not be assumed without further evidence. In addition to the absence, to date, of anything more than circumstantial evidence and accusations, it is also true that the GD has very little to gain from these kind of tactics. There is no opposition figure who is popular enough that, even if ethics and morality were suspended, it would be worth the effort, and risk, for the GD to try to destroy or weaken this way. Already, the contretemps surrounding the videos has been damaging for the GD and may get worse in the next days or weeks. Obviously, making these videos and leaking them to the media or posting them on YouTube is wrong not simply because it not a smart political tactic, but this context should not be ignored.
Partisan politics notwithstanding, it is appropriate for Georgian citizens to be outraged by this video and to demand that this not happen again. This is particularly frustrating because these kinds of tactics, and this kind of response, are not new in Georgian political life. Georgia, and observers of Georgian society have, if you will forgive the pun, been through this movie before. When the GD came to power, it was the hope of many, even some who did not vote for them, that their victory would signal the end of some of the more disreputable and abusive practices of the previous regime. Nobody will continue to have those hope unless, at the very least, the current government succeeds in identifying and prosecuting the person or people responsible for this, and preventing it from happening again.
Leaking videos of the personal lives of public figures has a nefarious impact on civic and political life because its damage cuts across political, social and personal life in a particularly destructive way. It creates a situation where political suspicion, limited views of human sexuality and insufficient protections of privacy all reinforce each other in a deeply negative way. For these videos to be politically damaging, ordinary Georgians must be more interested in the private lives of their leaders, than they are disgusted with the violations of privacy involved in making the videos. This can only happen with prodding from the media and, in some cases, government. Additionally, sex between consenting adults occurs in all kinds of ways and not always within the state sanctified structure of marriage. This should be apparent to any adult. Therefore, whoever sought to publicize these videos is encouraging a very narrow and conservative view that some forms of sexual behavior should be sanctioned, and some stigmatized, by society.
It is equal parts impressive and disheartening that even something like a sex video of an opposition political figure takes Georgia so quickly back to the same political dispute in which it has been mired for over four years. One side claims that this is evidence of the disastrous rule of the current government while pinning most of the blame on Mr. Ivanishvili while the other seeks to remind voters that this all started under the UNM when things were even worse. Georgia needs its political development, and political discourse, to move forward but the partisan discussion around this most recent development indicates that neither side may have the language to do that.
The Georgia Analysis is a twice monthly analysis of political and other major developments in Georgia. Lincoln Mitchell is a political development, research and strategic consultant who has worked extensively in the post-Soviet space. If you would like to be on the Georgia analysis mailing list or are interested in more research, analysis or consulting for your business, government, campaign or other organization, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.