In the first decade-plus following the Soviet Union’s collapse, Georgians showed themselves to be a protest-happy people. But local experts say Georgian citizens are now losing steam, with apathy taking the place of activism.
The Rose Revolution marked the high point of Georgians’ penchant for public protest. Since then there has been a gradual, but steady decline in street action. And these days, people just don’t seem to get as riled as they used to. The muted public reaction to an April 26 ruling by the European Court for Human Rights, covering the government’s handling of the investigation into the 2006 murder of 28-year-old banker Sandro Girgvliani, offers a case in point.
In the immediate aftermath of Girgvliani’s death, political activists and human rights groups organized demonstrations against the Ministry of Interior Affairs’ alleged mishandling of the case and suspected involvement in the murder. But when the European Court for Human Rights ruling essentially upheld the view that justice had not been served by the ministry’s investigation – as well as offered a healthy dose of criticism of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration, the General Prosecutor’s office and the courts – no calls to take to the streets could be heard.
Similar controversial decisions, like investment schemes in the western region of Achara, or plans to resettle villages to make way for an unpopular hydropower dam in the remote mountain region of Svaneti, have also failed to spark protests.
Political scientist Koba Turmanidze, country director for the Eurasia Partnership Foundation’s Caucasus Research Resource Centers, believes that there is little chance now that any issue can mobilize mass protests. Georgians tend to take to the streets after a build-up of problems or events, he elaborated; anger over the Girgvliani murder, a centerpiece of 2007 Tbilisi protests that disintegrated into a free-for-all with police, merged with months of anger over perceived property rights violations and policymakers’ “arrogance.”
“These types of one-off events or single events -- however badly it is conducted by the government -- do not get people angry,” said Turmanidze.
Nor are they perceived as a vehicle to bring about change, sociologists say. The last large-scale protests, in 2009, dwindled away with little fanfare. Some opposition parties have announced fresh protests for this week in Tbilisi, but the public reaction so far has been muted.
Society has not yet found another formula for promoting reform from the grassroots level, observers note.
In part, that has to do with a shift in the balance of power within Georgia, one observer believes. With the advent of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s government in 2004, commented Marina Muskhelishvili, a political scientist and co-founder of the Centre for Social Studies, the impetus for change shifted from civil society to the state.
“[The population] still needs someone to show . . . a way [to achieve change], the way that is supported by Europe, by America,” Muskhelishvili said. “Their resources are expired. They don’t have any resources -- not material, not ideological.”
Even outside of politics, she continued, people are “depressed and frustrated” -- and less likely to react to social and economic concerns.
Turmanidze agrees. “You have to be sure when you follow someone where you are going,” he said. “There is no force that tells them credibly where they are going or what they are doing. … I would say that Georgians will not get tired of protesting, but [now] they don’t see the cause.”
These days such problems as double-digit inflation, potholes, higher public transportation fares or suspicious public utility charges tend to be met with merely a shrug.
But some civic activism, at a very local level, is taking place, underlined Ketevan Vashakidze, country director for the Eurasia Partnership Foundation in Georgia, which has financed some $80 million worth of civil society projects in Georgia since 1992. Vashakidze described Georgians as “pragmatic” about what they can change. “I don’t think there is apathy. I think that people are rational and they are looking at what will work and what won’t work,” she said. With the proper training and tools, some Georgian villagers are becoming “agents of change” and tackling social issues like literacy, civic engagement, and keeping youth off the streets, she underlined.
But, on a larger scale, Georgians have difficulty creating a collective response to concerns “because they require some organization, some network based on trust” which is lacking today, Turmanidze said.
“There is a group of people who are very critical at times, but this is different,” he continued. “We all know that we are not very good at collective actions, planned and well-thought collective actions in Georgia. Any collective action in Georgia is always spontaneous and short-term.”
Unlike in neighboring Azerbaijan or Armenia, using digital tools like Facebook or Twitter to build support around political or social issues is still not common in Georgia, he added.
Sociologist Muskhelishvili puts that difference down to past experience. “Armenia and Azerbaijan … didn’t have this Rose Revolution stage, so there are still hopes that by rebelling they can change something,” she said. “Here, we already had this experience.”
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.