Bidzina Ivanishvili, quoted by Spektri Newspaper, 4 August 2012
In the run-up to the parliamentary elections, a disturbing number of politicians, public figures and media are resorting ever more intensely to xenophobic rhetoric. That has already become a tradition in Georgia – such vitriol has been an indispensable campaigning device for opportunistic politicians and an unavoidable campaign vice of almost every election held in the country. An interesting peculiarity of electoral xenophobia is that an “image of enemy” is calculatingly constructed; a threat is invented in order to reassure voters that the fear-mongering politicians will later deal effectively with that threat. Ethnic and religious sentiments are manipulated and warnings about the “enemy” are deployed to mobilize supporters and to discredit political rivals. Typically, a political party declares the existence of some great “foreign” problem which “undermines” Georgian identity, threatens the loss of nationality, and endangers the very existence of the Georgian nation. That meta-problem relegates legitimate political, economic and social issues to the back burner. At the same time, any achievement of a political rival is pitted against that image of enemy with the rival accused offighting against faith and nationality. “Enemy” is omnipresent; it lies in wait outside the country and also exists inside the country to muddy the political waters.
The first President of independent Georgia, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, actively employed ethno-religious rhetoric to consolidate his political base. During that period, terms such as “resettled Apsua” and “separatist Ossetian” took root. In contrast to his predecessor, President Eduard Shevardnadze did not emphasize the ethnic factor much; he instead relied largely on the Georgian Orthodox Church to “legitimize” the power he had gained illegitimately. Shevardnadze turned the Patriarchate into a principal component of his power, which, in turn, led to the increase in the authority of the Church and the persecution of religious minorities. During that period, xenophobia acquired a religious hue and it was then that “Jehovah’s Witness” emerged as the pejorative used to this day to brand liberals. The Rose Revolution which swept Mikheil Saakashvili into office helped to neutralize over-the-top religious extremism and established elementary norms of religious freedom and a declared ambition to build a civil nation. Within that new climate of religious and ethnic tolerance, the political opposition chose to wield religious and xenophobic rhetoric as a weapon against the Saakashvili government. “The government ruins churches and deprives us of our national identity” has been the opposition election-cycle mantra since 2007. A video clip shot by the Georgian opposition of that time in 2007 serves to illustrate the point: Against the backdrop of the smiling and happy faces of “Chinese” dressed in Georgian national dress, “genuine” Georgians are seen suffering under the yoke of tyranny and the image of foreigners trampling upon Georgian traditions and native language. At that time, one began hearing talk that the government was breeding a new species of people completely devoid of loyalty to nationality, religion, language and manly principles. For that breed of people a special name was created – “Liberasts,” crudely conjoining liberals and pederasts.
The persistence of such acrid rhetoric during the 2008 and 2010 elections campaigns caused the ruling team to downgrade its standard of liberalism. Representatives of the government engaged in active veneration of the Georgian Orthodox Church; financing of the Patriarchate was increased, and acknowledging religious problems was taboo. Not that the government took any action against religious and ethnic minorities. Quite the reverse, since 2009 a number of very important changes have been implemented to integrate those minorities and to protect freedom of religion. Perhaps the most risky and unpopular of those changes was the introduction in 2011 of a new rule allowing religious organizations such as the Armenian Apostolic Church to register for the first time as legal entities. Adoption of that legal provision kick-started a wave of xenophobia, especially large-scale Armenophobia. Even though that particular wave soon subsided, the slogan “I do not want an Armenian President” stuck fast in the consciousness of those with oppositional attitudes.
The emergence of Bidzina Ivanishvili on the political scene last November raised the hopes of some liberals that the topic of minorities and Church would no longer be used as a tool to gain political dividends and that the main vector of criticism would be directed toward the state of democracy and social policy in the country. That expectation was probably based on the fact that, before entering politics, the Georgian oligarch had stated that he was an atheist. Besides, at his very first press conference, Bidzina Ivanishvili declared that religious, ethnic and sexual minorities were full-fledged citizens of Georgia. Moreover, he quickly named as political partners the Free Democrats and Republicans, the two political parties which were less vociferous than the others in criticizing the government for promoting tolerance.
It did not take long for the novice politician to dash the hopes of liberals. Ivanishvili instantly became a religious convert and started frequenting the Patriarchate. He then declared the fascist tabloid Asaval-Dasavali to be his beloved newspaper and appointed as his political party chairperson Manana Kobakhidze – a person who has reprimanded the government of the United States for its support of minorities, claiming that the idea of religious equality is unacceptable for the Georgian culture. In addition to Manana Kobakhidze, Ivanishvili brought into his coalition quite a number of politicians and political parties famous for their intolerance and nominated somany notorious chauvinists as single-seat candidates that he had to provide special justification for some of them. And then, most tellingly, his Georgian Dream political coalition during a rally in Batumi on 5 July exposed a new “enemy” of the country – the Aziziye mosque and the smell of chorba and doner kebab on Batumi Boulevard.
Painting Russia in dark colors does not require any special mastery. For the past two centuries, it has “objectively” been a hostile state. Its occupant government includes Georgia on its list of external threats, second only to the United States. Russia has openly declared its goals of blocking Georgia’s road to NATO integration and replacing its Western-oriented government. For those reasons, the Georgian government justifiably sees Russia and the strengthening of “Russian” political forces in Georgia as its main external and internal threats.
In that context, it is not surprising that the Georgian government speaks with concern about the Russian roots of a segment of the political opposition, especially when opposition politicians themselves do not hide that association. For instance, Bidzina Ivanishvili refuses to refer to Russia as an “occupier” of Georgian territory; declares commitment to restoring comprehensive trade and political communication with Russia; blames Georgia for starting the August 2008 war with its Northern neighbor with even greater zeal than Vladimir Putin himself, and believes that control over the South Caucasus is a natural historical aspiration of Russia.
Given all of that, Russia as an image of enemy is useless for the Georgian Dream and, say, for the For Free Georgia political party. Yet, they have to overcome negative sentiments about Russia if they hope to achieve any success in Georgia. To that end, these political groups, as it seems, decided to expose an alternative transcending threat as the new image of enemy. Clearly, the fulfillment of that operation required them to come up with such an “enemy” that would be connected with history, religion, modern times and some emotions too. Their plan: Divert attention from the North to the South.
With a few brushstrokes, certain opposition politicians have painted Turkey as the new image of enemy. A combination of factors has contributed to creation of this latest object of xenophobia: Difficult past negotiation with Turkey on reconstruction of the Aziziye mosque in exchange for the restoration of Georgia’s historical Oshki and Ishkhani monasteries; mutual economic openness; a multitude of Turkish tourists; stereotypes of “everything Turkish” being of poor quality and tasteless. There is also a point to be made that the Turkish topic, in contrast to Armenophobia and religious intolerance, cannot have a negative electoral effect – Georgian citizens of Turkish origin are too few in number for that. In addition, the “enemy” Turkey is the only real alternative to the “enemy” Russia because the “treacherous” Georgian government calls Turkey a reliable political and economic partner.
In light of that low political risk and the potentially high political return, Russia-oriented politicians, their political advisors, intelligentsia, media and clergy have lately engaged in portraying Turkey as even more of a religious, political, geopolitical and overall national threat to Georgia than “Jehovah’s Witnesses,” “Armenians” and “liberasts.” As a rule, they juxtaposition their Turkophobic rhetoric with statements about Russia. So if the government says that Russia is the enemy and an occupier, then Turkey is also the enemy and occupier; if there is to be a museum of Russian occupation, then there should be established a museum of Turkish occupation; if Russia freed Adjara from Turkey, Turkey is now re-occupying Adjara; if Russia helped to preserve Orthodox Christianity, Turkey has been and is busy Islamizing Adjara; American-Turkish influence must be counterbalanced with Russian influence, etcetera.New notions have been introduced into the speechifying: “Neo-Ottoman Imperialism” aims to put Georgia under its influence or, in the worst case scenario, to occupy it; “Turkish economic claws” pave the way for seizure by Turkish political claws; “Enhancement of geography of Turkish Islam and creeping annexation” will end by, or start with, reconstruction of the Aziziye mosque in Batumi; “Citizenship granted to thousands of Turks” will open the door to Turkish military intervention in Batumi in the future, and many others.
“The Great Turkish Invasion has begun,” “The revelry of Turks,” “Batumi has turned into Hopa,” “Aziziye-sation of Adjara is underway”… Against such statements, the Turkophobic rhetoric aims to drive home the impression that it is because of Turks that Georgian citizens work under discriminatory conditions; that Turks abuse Georgian women; that Turks commit numerous crimes while Georgian law enforcers treat them gingerly.
Above all, the main message of Turkophobes is that the Saakashvili government is selling out the Georgian nation, religion, lands and women in return for Turkish investments and that Turkish expansion can only be stopped by the Georgian Dream and Orthodox Russia. That message is delivered with vitriolic clarity by Georgian Dream single-seat candidates from Adjara.
What is the reality? Turkey is not a geopolitical enemy; it is an outstandingly strong ally and partner of Georgia today, in economic and political as well as military terms. It is the only country which, after the August 2008 war, strengthened rather than weakened its military cooperation with Georgia. It is also the only bordering NATO member-state.
It is not true either that Turkey carries out a major economic expansion in Georgia. Turkey trails international organizations, Norway, Denmark and Azerbaijan in investments in Georgia. Even if the data were different, describing economic relations of partner countries as expansionism would still be a very serious mistake.
It is a myth that thousands of Turks have obtained Georgian citizenship, just as it was a patent lie in the recent past that “Chinese” had bought up everything in Georgia. According to official data of the National Service for Statistics of Georgia for 2009-2011, dual citizenship was obtained by 25,314 foreign citizens and only 583 of them were citizens of Turkey; the rest were citizens of Russia, Ukraine, Iran, USA, Greece, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Israel.
It is also a lie that law enforcement bodies do not respond to crimes committed by Turks. It is not anything of which to be proud, but one can name a number of Turkish citizens convicted of crimes in Georgia.
Turkish-Georgian relations should not be a basis for intolerance; it should be the basis of cultural and economic enrichment. Reconstruction of the Aziziye mosque in Batumi in exchange for the restoration of Oshki and Ishkhani monasteries should serve as a symbol of good-neighborly and peaceful relations between the two countries.
The real threat to Georgia is xenophobia. Disintegration of the territorial integrity of Georgia in the 1990s was facilitated by ethnic intolerance. For the governments of Gamsakhurdia and Shevardnadze, xenophobia led directly to their international de-legitimization.
Xenophobia inflicts serious harm on nations which, in the name of nationalism, demonstrate hatred toward foreigners. Intolerancedisplayed by political organizations seeking to solidify power often backfires and leads to their international ostracization.
In the most recent local elections in 2010, the National Council outstripped everyone in xenophobic rhetoric and, at the end of the day, still proved unsuccessful. Today, most of the political opposition may have rallied around Bidzina Ivanishvili and his financial resources, but it is also clear that their xenophobic rhetoric will hurt the Georgian Dream most where the oligarch lavishly spends to build his personal PR – in the West.
Xenophobia, of course, also poses a threat to those Turks who are somehow connected with Georgia, as well as to those Georgians who live and work in Turkey. Ethnic and religious intolerance makes the investment environment in Georgia less attractive; creates barriers in the Georgian-Turkish political partnership, and constrains the culture of liberal relationships in our country.
Irrespective of these threats, any expectation that the Georgian Dream will say “no” to xenophobia seems futile. What seems clear here and now is that the Georgian Dream coalition is unable, even if it tries very hard, to work such a miracle.“Batumi, I miss your boulevard, not that boulevard which is permeated with the smell of chorba and doner kebab.”
Painter Kako Dzneladze, speaking at a Georgian Dream rally in Batumi
“Turkey has claims not only on Adjara but the whole of Georgia and we must be a dignified nation to nip such claims in the bud.”
Murman Dumbadze, a Georgian Dream single-seat candidate for the Batumi constituency
“For an ordinary Turk, Adjara has become part of Turkish spiritual and economic space. For Turks, Batumi and Hopa is the same; they cannot tell the difference any longer. I have personally witnessed wrongdoings by Turks in the streets of Adjara, but no one can seize them. I saw with my eyes how the patrol police interfered in a fist fighting between Georgians and Turks and detained innocent Georgians instead of offensive Turks.”
Mamuka Areshidze, a Georgian Dream single-seat candidate for the Gardabani constituency
“Even though the ruling party is called the ‘National Movement,’ it has nothing in common with nationhood. If we allow them to stay for long, we will lose our nationality.”
Manana Kobakhidze, Chairperson of the Georgian Dream political party
“I would like to remind the reader that we are losing Adjara because of unreasonable politics of Saakashvili. It is since his coming to power that the Turkish ideological and economic expansion has strengthened in Adjara.”
Shota Zoidze, a Georgian Dream single-seat candidate for the Shuakhevi constituency
“Stirring up Georgian-Laz gravitation and declaring, directly or indirectly, Georgia as the homeland of Laz people living in Turkey is in full harmony with the spirit of Neo-Ottoman doctrine because ’lazikization’ is preparing the ground for awarding Georgian citizenship to citizens of Turkey and resettlement of Meskhetian Turks, which will significantly alter the political and demographic situation in Georgia.”
Vasil Maglaperidze, 9th Channel TV anchor
“[Saakashvili] has brainwashed almost the entire Georgia regarding Batumi. That gave rise to some doubts. You must have seen the parade held in Kutaisi on 26 October where, along with the Georgian flag, a Turkish flag was hoisted.”
Shalva Khachapuridze, political party Erovnulebi [the Nationals], Georgian Dream coalition
“Turkey does not hide a negative attitude toward the conversion of Adjara’s population to Christianity. It sees that as a prerequisite to weakening its influence and therefore facilitates the putting in place of mosques and madrassas which have the function of spreading Islam and raising youth with Neo-Ottoman spirit.”
Vasil Maglaperidze, 9th Channel TV anchor
This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 112, published 3 September, 2012.