Or What Is and What Is Not Our Business
What Should We or Should We Not Discuss?
One’s family or personal life is a private sphere that strangers should not poke their noses into. Even more unacceptable is the politicization of someone’s personal life. Shouldn’t this issue be debatable? This is what I intend to do in this article. When it concerns the families and private lives of political leaders, the level of public interest is absolutely legitimate – within certain boundaries, of course, we must not abandon good manners, decency and a sense of humor.
Two specific issues have made this subject topical in Georgia. The first involves Maka Chichua, the girlfriend or partner – but not the official spouse – of the newly elected president, Giorgi Margvelashvili. Will the absence of a formal (church or civil) marriage be an impediment for her becoming the fully-fledged “first lady” of Georgia?
In another development, a Moscow-based journalist, Vladimer Ivanidze, has found out that our newly-departed (but at the same time, only recently-arrived) Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili had two wives at the same time over a period of several years. After marrying Eka Khvedelidze, whom we know well, Ivanishvili registered a marriage with someone named Inga Pavlova in Paris. To support this revelation, the journalist published the marriage certificate of Ivanishvili and Pavlova as well as an interview with Ivanishvili’s former wife, Pavlova. These materials make the journalist’s findings rather trustworthy.These are two very different topics. Indeed, many may argue with me about why I have placed these two cases side by side. They do, however, have one thing in common: the convergence of private and public, and private and political spheres.
I was surprised, not that people were interested in these topics, but by the fact that attention towards them has not been greater. In fact I have more often heard disapproval about any such attention or discussion. When the issue was raised, the standard response was: “what does it matter that they are politicians? Why do we meddle in their private lives?” Or, as I read in one comment on a social network, “why do we care about the prime minister’s dirty laundry?”
Such protests could be heard from various political factions. Those sympathizing with the United National Movement (UNM) seemed to be more active in tabooing discussion of the topic of Maka Chichua. In their opinion, emphasizing that Maka Chichua is the “girlfriend” and not the wife of the newly elected president and the release of risqué photos and videos of her on social networks, which feature scenes from her career as an actress, with the aim of denigrating her status as the “first lady” would debase the UNM’s supporters, placing them at the same level as the Georgian Dream supporters. They thus tried to restrain their supporters, calling upon them to “not behave like Georgian Dream supporters.” After all, those uncompromising defenders of high moral standards who regard themselves as “political neutrals,” were waiting in ambush prepared to ridicule the UNM supporters should the latter have started elaborating on the Maka Chichua topic. As regards Ivanishvili’s bigamy, discussion of this topic was opposed mainly by his supporters and, to an extent, these same “political neutrals.”
There appears to have been a very strange public consensus on this matter. On the one hand, we are very interested in these topics, but on the other hand, we feel some unease about having such interest because any such discussion is “ignoble;” it is the job of the yellow press, i.e. that which targets an audience with base tastes. If such issues are to be mentioned at all, we must speak about them only ironically, thus hinting that we are just having fun and are not really interested in them. However, I think that both of the above cases merit serious discussion, without any sniggers.
One of the qualities that distinguishes a modern society from a traditional or feudal one is the existence of a public sphere that is separate from one’s private life. This separation is only now being formed in Georgia: in the Soviet epoch these notions only purportedly existed because neither the dominant ideology nor the social practice acknowledged private autonomy. By appearance, society seemed modern, but in many ways it was much closer to a feudal society. The absence of a fully formed public sphere gives birth to a sort of collective psychological complex that makes us feel uncomfortable to even speak seriously about the topic of the “first lady.”
The complexity of this issue is conditioned by a paradox: while modern reasoning requires that a more or less clear line be drawn between the private and public spheres, the issue of where precisely this line runs, and how and to what extent private autonomy must be protected is a subject of constant discussion. It is in through such discussion that this line is determined and we thus must not be afraid of any such debate.
Let us go back to the two above mentioned examples.
The First Lady
Who is the “first lady” and why is her identity important? A modern nation is not a rational, pragmatic union of individuals and it will never become such. It is a symbolic union, which, at the same time, needs representation. That is why holidays, flags, anthems, et cetera, are important. However, the function of representation extends to leaders too.
The ideal of liberal rationalism requires that a political leader is an individual elected on his/her merits, one who is capable of efficiently handling the functions as defined by a constitution. But, at the same time, a leader is required to be the face of the nation, its symbolic representative. In modern political systems these two functions are sometimes separated. Constitutional monarchies have royal families for the latter function. It may seem strange why the measured British, Dutch or Swedish treat their kings, queens and princesses so seriously, why each wedding of the royal family or birth of a child into it becomes such big news. But that is how it is. These nations do not like their politicians, but they do like their royal families. In parliamentary republics, the analogous function is performed by presidents. A constitution may call the president the “head of state” though he/she normally lacks sufficient levers to actually head the state. His/her main job is to represent the state.
That is exactly where the “first lady” enters the scene. Naturally, this is a formal post. According to rational logic, we should not be at all interested in her identity. Who cares with who the president has sex with after the end of working hours? But if the main function of a ceremonial president is to provide representation of the nation, the family of the president is just as much the face of the nation as a royal family is, whilst the first lady takes the role of an ersatz queen.
What a president’s family, and in particular the first lady, should be like depends on the specific nation. Some cultures are more conservative than others. In traditional societies sex is acceptable only inside family bonds, outside the sacred institution of marriage it is considered adultery. If a woman lives with a man without marriage, she is merely a “lover.” Consequently, such a woman cannot be accepted as a lady in a super-moral society. More modern societies are usually not so strict in demanding that intimate partnerships be formalized, though they still appreciate the stability and fidelity of such partnerships. In such a case, the difference between an official spouse and stable partner is less important: society respects both equally.
It is natural to assume that a more conservative nation requires that its “first family” has a relationship formalized according to proper rules, whilst a more liberal society pays less attention to that. Does our case prove this assumption? As with many other spheres, the situation here is also paradoxical. We generally consider ourselves to be a traditional society, as compared to, for example, America; in particular, the Georgian Dream coalition pays great attention to social and religious traditionalism in order to draw a clear line between themselves and those who they claim condemn national culture and the Church – the UNM and its supporters. Nevertheless, it was the Georgian Dream that offered – and its followers that supported – a personage whose pre-election appearance and family behavior hardly fits the traditional matrix.
At the end of the day, we have an undeniable fact: the Georgian nation elected Maka Chichua as the first lady, thereby proving that the institution of a girlfriend or an unregistered intimate partnership is an absolutely legitimate phenomenon in Georgia. If this is acceptable for the president it is consequently acceptable for everyone. True, the Georgian nation did not reflect on that issue (and this is where we lack public discussion), but this is the fact and that is what is important.Perhaps the outgoing prime minister was making a belated attempt to rectify this situation when he offered an alternative “first family” and “first lady” in the face of the wife of his successor, Irakli Garibashvili. Many perceived the prime minister’s emphasis on the traditional relationship of this couple as a latent assault on the “bohemian” values of Margvelashvili-Chichua couple. I cannot categorically claim that this is precisely what Mr. Ivanishvili had in mind, but he indeed put himself in an embarrassing situation. In parliamentary systems the prime minister holds the reins of real power and is required to tackle real problems too, but the function of symbolic representation lies with the president. Even Bidzina Ivanishvili himself cannot grant the status of the first lady to the prime minister’s wife.
What does this story teach us? Are we becoming less traditional? Maybe. But still, my conclusion is that in reality our society is neither traditional nor liberal, but is rather immature and not fully formed. It shuns discussing topics important for itself and leaves those issues to be decided to a yet another wise man. Traditionalists even have no guts to protect their own values if, at a given moment, doing so does not politically play into their hands (I can only imagine how American conservatives would have railed against their political partners in such a case), whereas social liberals are content with only making a few moralist statements or sarcastic remarks.
Fraud and Adultery
Does the exposure of Prime Minister Ivanishvili’s bigamy represent undue interference in his private life? Agreeing with such an assessment would be absurd from two standpoints. First, this is the same very Ivanishvili who constantly promoted his private life for political reasons: demonstrative allegiance to family values was part of his PR strategy. In so doing, he thus opened up his private life to political speculation: where there is PR there is counter-PR – this is a political variation of Newton’s third law of motion.
Moreover, we cannot assess the registration of his second marriage as being “just” adultery (how can we know whether or not this step was agreed with his first wife?). This is a fraud, i.e. an act punishable by the law, and we must consider it in this light.
In regard to this issue, I read an interesting argument on Facebook: “Instead of talking so much about the bigamy of Ivanishvili [meaning that references to his bigamy may come from UNM supporters alone], you’d better take care of your adulterous president. How is Ivanishvili’s fraud worse than Saakashvili’s adultery?”
Let’s leave alone the weakness of this logic: how can Saakashvili’s adultery justify Ivanishvili’s fraud? Moreover, even though I have heard lots of rumors, I do not have any reliable information about Saakashvili’s behavior in his personal life and cannot therefore talk about that. Here, the key thing is the raising of the question itself. Fraud is a criminal offence and therefore, by definition, such an accusation does not belong to the private sphere alone. We do not know for sure whether Bidzina Ivanishvili lied to his wife, but if the journalist’s investigation proves true then he cheated a state (in this case, France). Consequently, this means that he may be fraudulent towards the state in other matters too.
As regards the sexual adventures of leaders, should these be tolerated? This is another matter of culture. Americans, for example, are considered to be conservative people: the career of the prospective presidential candidate Gary Hart stopped as soon as the story of his adultery transpired. The law had nothing to do with that case: Gary Hart merely knew that America would not elect an adulterous husband. Adultery and an attempt to hide it almost cost an already elected president, Bill Clinton, his office. But the rest of the world often sneers at Americans for being excessively puritanical. The French pay much less attention to such issues: for example, they knew full well about Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s almost pathological inclination for adultery, but that did not seem to be a serious impediment to his political career until he was accused of rape on the territory of the USA. That accusation proved unfounded, but it still ruined his political career. As Strauss-Kahn later explained to a CNN journalist, he had hoped he would manage to separate his private life from his public activity, but that proved to be the wrong assumption.
To sum up, in the majority of countries politicians, especially male politicians, are forgiven for their sexual adventures because it is often considered that they do not affect their political activities. It is especially hard to imagine the Georgian “macho” culture not forgiving male politicians: quite the contrary, adultery will be regarded as a form of manly behavior. Whether or not such attitude is fair is a matter of separate discussion; but when a politician makes his allegiance to family values an element of his PR, his sexual (mis)adventures also become a legitimate issue in the political fight.
The key problem with the case of Bidzina Ivanishvili’s possible bigamy is that his supporters do not question the accusation itself, but instead place emphasis on its unimportance: “not a big deal, this is his private business, why we should talk about that?” This means that we cannot figure out what is private and what is public and hence, forgive a priori the leader of the country for his possible criminal offence. This is a very serious problem.