Virtual Politics

Numbers and Surrealism

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Post-Soviet politics is a game played with risk and manipulation. In his book Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in the Post-Soviet World (2005) Andrew Wilson asserts that the manipulation of society, i.e. voters, is the only way for the old elite equipped with a new ideology to survive. Even though such forms of manipulation, playing with symbols and performances of various types, are not uncommon in the consolidated democracies of the West – for example, the pre-election presidential campaign in the United States involves a series of TV shows in which candidates ask society to finance the next TV show – but manipulation in post-Soviet countries (save for a few lucky exceptions) takes on an especially cynical form. As Andrew Wilson notes in the introduction to the above cited book, it is symbolic that "Niccolo M" – one of the most popular political PR consultancy agencies in Moscow – chose its name in homage to Niccolò Machiavelli and even uses his portrait as its emblem. Niccolò Machiavelli, a humanist of the 15th century, was not, however, distinguished for having a very "humane" opinion about human nature. In his most famous work, The Prince, Machiavelli provides political leaders with advice on how to maintain their leadership – such as, it is better to be feared by the people than loved, if you cannot be both. Another example, especially relevant to our discussion, is that it is better for a leader to be a decent person in name alone than it is to be a decent person in reality but be appreciated for that by no one.

Wilson's Virtual Politics was published in 2005. Its main focus is Russia where, historically, impostors have been a highly popular cultural phenomenon, with one such type – the literary-inspired "great combinator" – being an object of adulation. With regard to South Caucasian countries, however, Wilson notes that they are economically so weak that their governments are unable launch influential media campaigns. Perhaps this assessment was accurate for Georgia in 2005, but since then the Georgian political scene has witnessed the appearance of an actor whose trump card is "large amounts of money."

Manipulation is like a double-edged sword – if it is not handled properly, it may render all your efforts futile. It is important to analyze to what extent your manipulation might work and to attempt to contain yourself within that limit. Messages sent to society may have the totally opposite result from what was intended. Society does not receive information passively. A positive message might soon become a source of hopelessness and apathy. Examples of this can be seen in the recent increase of pro-Russian sentiment in society, regardless of the government's tireless efforts over many years to convince us that we are no less European than the Europeans themselves. One should be careful not to constantly preach just one and the same thing, even if it is an absolute value, or else one risks reaching such a point when even mentioning those Georgian soldiers killed in the line of duty in August 2008 might be sufficient to cause an immodest chuckle caught before TV cameras, as occurred between former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and the US Ambassador to Georgia Richard Norland – two people who have nothing in common.

During the Soviet period society and the government were constantly adapting to each other: society was eventually able to decipher the instruments invented by the government (propaganda/agitation), thereby rendering those instruments counterproductive. However, after every such occurrence, the government tried to adapt to the awareness of the more advanced segments of society by condemning the outdated past and announcing new stages of development (such as Khrushchev's Ottepel, i.e. "Thaw", or Gorbachev's Glasnost) and setting new goals (for example, the Kosygin reform or Perestroika). French historian Alain Besançon asserts that Glasnost actually undermined the Soviet Union, because under conditions where the discussions of dark episodes of the past were made permissible, it became impossible to maintain a sense of surrealism among society. As the surrealism came to an end, so too did the Soviet Union.

In the "sort of democracy" we have today, it is clear that civil society is diverse and various forces compete in the political arena. If during the Soviet Union the public game had two participants and one conflicting narrative, today we have roughly four participants and two conflicting narratives. Thus, although the cynical Machiavellian methods of the Soviet variety have been retained, it has become twice as difficult to decipher them.

The focus of this article is the use of numbers in pre-election promises. These represent the building materials of a new form of post-Soviet surrealism. Let me start with an analysis of one of such promise, which, in my opinion, represents a unique example of Georgian political culture.

In the 2008 Georgian presidential election, one candidate, Davit Gamkrelidze, was the most consistent and active in using religious themes in his pre-election campaign. His slogans were "We believe in God and can find power in ourselves," and "Let us build Georgia through believing in God." Gamkrelidze promised to give the Georgian Orthodox Church 33 million GEL in compensation for the damage it sustained as a result of Bolshevism. Compensation for the material and moral damage caused by the Bolshevik party and ideology is certainly an important issue for the reinstatement of historic justice, but why 33 million GEL? Who calculated that? How was this number obtained, according to which method of estimation? How it can be substantiated that that damage amounted to 33 million GEL and not to 35 or 50 million GEL? Unfortunately, there are no answers to these questions. This was merely the number that was articulated.

Gamkrelidze mustered just four percent of the total votes in the 2008 elections. Indeed, it is not really a result worth recalling six years after that political campaign, but I want to draw attention to the number "33." This number was not chosen by accident, it was loaded with certain connotations. Some 33 million GEL must be given to the Orthodox Church. Here, the meaning lies in the number 33.

Jesus Christ performed 33 miracles.
Jesus Christ was 33 years old when he was crucified.
The numerical sum of the letters making up the word Amen is 33 (1+13+5+14=33).

The Christian symbolism of 33 does not stop there, further instances can be found on Wikipedia, for example. But why did this number become the subject of a pre-election promise? Should compensation for damages not be based on a rational estimation? Of course, there also exist symbolic forms of compensation, but in such cases the amounts tend to be symbolically small – for example, compensation of only 1 GEL. One cannot speak about symbolic compensation when it comes to 33 million GEL. That is not an amount that can be symbolically spent; it needs to be estimated.

Gamkrelidze's calculation was wrong. In our society only negative Christian symbols are of use in terms of mobilizing the masses: not Christ's miracles, which were exclusively humane (healing, the resurrection of the dead, et cetera), but the punitive act of destroying Sodom and Gomorrah: not 33 of Amen, but 666 of the Beast.

However, we must admit that against the backdrop of more recent dealings with numbers, the above example causes a form of compassionate respect. After all, 33 million GEL is not such a large amount of money – if promised, it could be delivered. Moreover, it is symbolic. Today, however, numbers have become a subject of unrestricted hyperbolizing. Not only do they fail to match any logic, but they follow faulty reasoning and fit into the laws of surrealism.

Popular wisdom of the Soviet period held that one must demand much in order to get at least a little. The thread of the same logic is seen in a quote attributed to Archduke Franz Ferdinand: "If you ask 100 women to have sex with you, at least one will say yes." The latter opinion does not work. Nor does the former, though it is deeply rooted in our conscience. What is more important is that political forces have adapted another form of logic: promise as much as possible, thus giving hope that you will at least deliver a little.

Otherwise, how can the following Georgian Dream promises be explained?

Cheapening petroleum by one lari.
Opening 100 factories.
Planting 1,000,000 trees in Tbilisi.

These three examples have increased the absurd by geometric progression. However, the most outstanding of these promises was that made in the run up to the 2012 parliamentary elections to open 100 factories. The promise initially envisaged opening 60 factories, however, once it became clear that this number was an unrealistic objective, the number 60 should have logically been decreased to, for example, 30 or 10 factories. However, in line with the realm of surrealism, the unrealistic objective of opening 60 factories was replaced with the goal of 100 factories.

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