The incident at the Kiwi Cafe in Tbilisi in which protesters brandishing, and later tossing, grilled meats wrought havoc on the vegan cafe briefly became international news as the story was picked up by media outlets all over the world and was a favorite on social media for a few days. it is not hard to see why. The image of protestors choosing to express themselves that way was unusual and even funny, particularly to people for whom Tbilisi is just a name on the map, and who were sitting in front of their computers or looking at their phones thousands of miles away. A similar incident a few days later when Orthodox Christian protestors forced organizers to cancel a music festival in Tbilisi received less international attention but was the product of similar themes and conflicts.
In Georgia, however, thes events have a greater significance and fit into what might more broadly be called Georgia’s culture wars. The meat throwers saw the Kiwi Cafe, with its vegan philosophy and internationally oriented staff and clientele, as a symbol of Europe and the west, and correspondingly a threat to what they viewed as their Georgian Orthodox faith and traditional Georgian values. The music festival was viewed similarly by protestors as well The people who participated in these protests are the same people, or at least share most of the same views, as those who threaten, and commit, acts of violence against LGBT citizens of Georgia, who are wary of European values disrupting their vision of Georgia’s traditional values or who do not want to see full equality for women in the workplace and political life. The event at the Kiwi stands out primarily because of the clever street theatre which was employed by the demonstrators, as if the demonstration was the product of a political marriage between a conservative Georgian Orthodox priest and the late Abbie Hoffman.
The people who threw the grilled meat products or who protested at the Tbilisi JAM festival, and the much larger number of quiet, and sometimes not so quiet, sympathizers they have in the Georgian population are not a phenomena that is unique to Georgia. They are the spiritual kin of those in my country who don “Make America Great Again” baseball caps and believe that we can make our country strong by building a wall on the Mexican border, of some of those in the UK who believe that their country can reclaim its greatness by leaving the EU, and by many in countries all over the world who have not enjoyed the fruits of modernity and who believe that by taking their country and culture backwards they can reclaim earlier, if sometimes imaginary, glories.
Georgia’s future stability and democracy depend very substantially on whether or not the people who feel left behind or wary of a Georgia that they increasingly find unfamiliar, can be fully and respectfully incorporated into the political institutions that, in a democratic state, exist for the purpose of interest representation, aggregating preferences and crafting laws and policy. If political parties, legislatures and civil society organizations cannot effectively represent these people, Georgia will confront growing instability in coming years.
A major challenge for democracy everywhere is not simply to find a way to give a political voice and representation to the tolerant, liberal or relatively calm elements in society, but to find ways for institutions to meet the needs of those who are intolerant, illiberal and angry. Unfortunately, people who feel that way exist in all democratic societies, but the democracies that function best are those in which the angry, intolerant and illiberal continue to operate, at least to a large extent, within more formal democratic institutions. This should be an important goal in Georgia, but it will not be easy.
While this is a task that can be achieved, it is essential to begin by recognizing just how large the chasm is between the internationally oriented, usually English speaking, modernity embracing group of Georgians and those who want to see Georgia on a more traditional path and who are less excited about the west. There are thousands of Georgians who have traveled throughout Europe, have friends in Washington, New York, Brussels, Paris and other western cities, speak English and possibly French, German or Spanish, are comfortable with LGBT people and see being vegan, heavily tattooed or having body piercings as lifestyle choices that barely merit comment. There are, however, many more Georgians who do not share these experiences, skills and attitudes. Importantly, this chasm is no less profound among younger Georgians. Too frequently there is little dialogue between these two groups of Georgians. Of equal concern is that many in the west who care about Georgia, the kind of Americans or Europeans who might, for example, be reading this essay, have contact primarily with the former group of Georgians.
Bridging this gap is essential for Georgia’s future; and it is a responsibility that lies primarily with the Georgian people, but also with those foreigners and western institutions that seek to help Georgia’s democratic development. It goes without saying that the protesters at the Kiwi cafe, the Tbilisi JAM Festival, or those who have attacked LGBT marches in Tbilisi in the past have not received grants from the USAID, the NED or European democracy organizations to pursue these activities. Obviously, western governments should not be funding groups that use violence and discriminate. However, democracy is better served when all views that have public support act, as much as possible, within existing institutions like political parties and interest groups and when they all employ similar approaches and share an understanding of how governance works and how decisions are made.
Although it is difficult, the west would benefit with more contact, and therefore better understanding, of the people who have these illiberal views. This means recognizing that Georgian civil society is diverse and is misdefined when viewed as simply higher profile NGOs that receive western funding. The civil society organizations (CSOs) that contribute to making demonstrations at the Kiwi Cafe, Tbilisi JAM and elsewhere possible are a reflection of a Georgian civil society that is often overlooked, particularly by westerners who often have a narrower vision of what civil society should look like.
While those advocating more traditional, even anti-modern, views are well organized and have their voices heard within various political parties, they do not have the skills and capacity that other interest groups in Georgia possess. For example, they do not have trained staff who understand how advocacy or communications work in democratic states and who have the ability to skillfully explain their views to western journalists, politicians or academics. Nor do those who would like to see Georgia chart a more traditional course have the skills to build and operate a democratically oriented political party committed to these ideals. One of the reasons for this is that these groups are suspicious of the west so are much less likely to take advantage of the opportunities provided by western organizations whether in the forms of workshops, sub-grants or other tools of the democracy promotion community. Moreover, because many in the democracy promotion world are not comfortable with those policy goals, it ends up that there is much less contact between, for example, USAID and an organization committed to traditional values than between USAID and an LGBT advocacy group.
Unfortunately, for the future of Georgian democracy and stability, the former group is at least as important as the latter. Pluralism can only work when all interests, even those that might seem repugnant to me or you, are represented and have the ability to compete in the policy arena. To paraphrase President Lyndon Johnson, it is better to have all the groups inside the tent looking out than outside the tent looking in.
There is something both frightening and clownish about people who throw meat around in a vegan restaurant or who protest a heavy metal concert. It is easy for Georgia’s more modern and European citizens, and their allies in the west, to dismiss these people or to view them as dangerous and outside of the reach of democratic institutions. It is even easier to understand this segment of the Georgian population as innocents hoodwinked by cleverly disguised Russian propaganda, but anybody with a reasonable understanding of Georgia should recognize that these negative feelings about some perceived western influences are genuine, and that the power of the Georgian Orthodox Church, while often oversimplified, is quite significant.
Democracy, in Georgia and elsewhere, is largely about finding ways for interests to compete through functioning institutions rather than through violence, stifling creative outlets or flinging meat. In the coming elections if conservative social values are an election issue that are understood to be within pale of electoral debate, Georgian democracy will be strengthened. If this discussion does not occur, Georgian democracy will have am ore difficult time escaping the mire of personality based politics and parties that all claim the same goals and platforms.
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.