Civil society

Revolution or Reform: Dilemma of Activism in Georgia

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The weakness of interest groups and a correspondingly low degree of civil engagement are often discussed in Georgia. Such assessments are not unfounded: one can easily sense estrangement between civil society and important institutions – the political establishment, business sector, media.

Reasons for that estrangement are diverse. Georgian political, business and media institutions lack any history of accountability. The political spectrum, for its part, lacks a culture of listening which, in turn, affects its level of communication. The business sector still bears the legacy of a corrupt system and is not given to philanthropy – it invests its resources in societal causes only in exceptional cases. Civil society and the Church are alienated as well: The vector of the Georgian Patriarchate is directed toward the North whereas a large segment of the nongovernmental sector is tied to Western donors and, consequently, espouses Western values, at least in words. The NGO sector is a source of irrational fears on the part of the Patriarchate with attacks on NGOs by Church hierarchs not at all a rare occurrence. Another facet of the problem is media, which collectively operate as a reactive regime. Media tend to report material taken directly from the political establishment with little, if any, attention paid to public concerns.

In such a setting, civil society and interest groups consistently fail to exert any influence on government. They often blame their own failure on government imperviousness to the aims of private initiatives. This can be traced to the experience of the past decade. Ten years ago, civil society was much stronger in Georgia than it is today. The example of the Liberty Institute and its associated groups illustrates the point. Their success back then even leads some to believe that, in certain ways, the previous government was more open and democratic than the present one. In reality, the strength of civil society before the Rose Revolution is not attributable to policies of the past government, but to something else: Through their strategies and tactical actions, those interest groups left no possibility for the government to ignore them. Their success was also determined by the fact that Liberty Institute sought allies in the authority itself – the executive and legislative branches of government. Consequently, Liberty Institute held more powerful levers of influence than other interest groups hold today.

Back then, civil activity, for a number of reasons, ended in the revolution. A significant force moved from the civil sector to government. Those who stayed on and those who emerged later have found it difficult to break free of the formulaic stereotype – revolutionary finality is still perceived by many as the logical inevitability of civil activity.

It is that unrealistic attitude that has led to the current situation in which civil society, under the new government, finds itself constantly disappointed – it has lost hope for change and engages in self-victimization. Rather than adjust to the reality, many civil activists succumb to utopian and revolutionary sentiments.

Those infused with such revolutionary utopianism view compromise and cooperation as immoral in essence. Compromise is not considered a tactical decision but rather a moral question. For them, it is all or nothing. The aim determines the tactic. Communication is “unmarketable” – their language of ultimatums prevents them from selling their ideas to the government. The deafer the government, the more ecstatic they become. In a stable political climate, such revolutionary utopian groups are marginalized and disregarded. The end result they seek to achieve is simply too “great” to be accommodated within existing reality. Any chance for such groups to establish any type of cooperation with the existing political establishment is virtually nil.

At the other end of the spectrum are the reformist groups. In contrast to the revolutionaries, the reformists’ strategy is actually marketable. In reality, any radical group with the right strategy could ultimately prove successful. Toward that end, a reformist group must succeed in persuading another party (the government) that accommodation of its position favors both parties. Reformist groups prefer to proceed step-by-step, which implies achieving compromise. “Right strategy” is also an objective pursued to create as broad a coalition as possible. The main trump card is the very establishment of these coalitions. Irrespective of diverse interests, building relations and creating trust inside the coalition holds open the promise that, at some point in the future, an issue that is a priority for one will be supported by all the rest.

Setting abstract goals diminishes the result that an interest group may attain at a certain stage. An example of that is the fuss kicked up about Gudiashvili Square. More definitive explanations offered by the Mayor’s Office post factum were not considered an achievement by the interest group involved. In such a case, the protest becomes an end unto itself.

Society is a complex union of members with different interests, aims and objectives. Sometimes those interests are in conflict. Government is not able to consider and accommodate the interests of every group, even if it wished to do so. A political force makes a choice – it has to decide which interests are worth pursuing and which are not. That creates competition among interest groups. They have to sell their own ideas, initiatives and interests “profitably” on the political market. The calculation for politicians is which of the offered products will produce the best rate of return. For example, the protection of the environment or cultural heritage may be a priority for a certain interest group, but the overwhelming majority of voters demand economic growth and employment from the government. If the price of accommodating concerns of defenders of the environment and cultural heritage is at the cost of economic growth, a politician naturally will not pay that price because it will not win elections. Winning elections is the best return for a politician.

Government is always interested in increasing the number of its supporters. It wants to make decisions that appeal to the largest possible circle of people. Groups adopting a constructive approach have a far better chance of achieving their desired results than those groups that do not. Compromising with constructive groups usually “costs” the government much less than the benefit it stands to gain. For example, religious minorities used systematic advocacy of their rights and took consistent steps to find a point of convergence of their interests with those of the government. The recent legislative amendment allowing religious minority groups to register as legal entities of public law – a status long-sought by religious groups – brought about a significant international benefit for the state and a desirable outcome for the religious groups.

Even smaller interest groups with the right strategy can have an influence. That influence is associated with some risk when an active minority can impose its will on a passive majority. Many times the interests of a minority exceed the interests of the majority. For example, school teachers are far outnumbered by students and their parents but teachers were more highly motivated to play an active role in educational reform. Parents and students realize the benefit of public education ten or more years later whereas teachers feel the effect monthly. In this regard, teachers even gained the upper hand in Georgia. That does not mean, of course, that any minority victory represents a favorable outcome; it simply shows that a minority with the right strategy can sometimes gain an advantage compared to the majority.

Wrong tactical action is the main cause of the failure of most non-governmental organizations to achieve their mission. According to a 2011 survey of Policy, Advocacy and Civil Society Development in Georgia (G-PAC), there is a tenuous link between NGO activity and the real concerns of the population. Only eighteen percent of the Georgian population trusts these organizations. On the other hand, public trust toward state agencies and the President is very high. The majority of NGOs represent no one but themselves and their donors. To the extent they receive any feedback from their target audiences, it is weak. Cooperation with the government is perceived by NGOs as a loss of independence or tarnishing their reputation. A large segment of NGOs view their mission in absolute antagonism with the political establishment. Given all these circumstances, it is little wonder that interest groups are having little success in Georgia today.

This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 87, published 13 February 2012.

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