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Politics of identity in Georgia

keywords-cloudIn the contemporary dynamic reality, globalisation is paradoxically accompanied by strengthening and restructuring of regionalisation processes, demonstrating competing integration and fragmentation trends, of alternately strengthening democracy and authoritarianism, influencing the flow of on-going changes. While the forces of globalisation drive the world towards more uniformity and homogeneity, often the same intricate forces fuel the struggles to maintain or reconstitute historically specific group identities vis-á-vis the processes of de-individuation and fading of these identities. The conflict unfolding between traditional, waning and new, rising identities constitutes one of the most spectacular dramas of the contemporary world, with subsequent acts still obscure and unknown. At the same time in many transitional societies politicians have learned to imitate, although with different skills, the formal aspects of democratic institutions, while political leaders love to talk about democracy and the rule of law, most probably interpreting these in their own surreptitious way, in reality pursuing the most populist varieties of identity politics. ((A good and brief description of Post-Soviet imitation style can be found in: Dmitri Furman. 2008. “Imitation Democracies: The Post-Soviet Penumbra”. New Left Review # 54, November-December. pp. 29-47. )) 

Political identity plays a central role in political processes in Georgia, like elsewhere in the world. Identity politics can be indeed found everywhere, and it can serve the objectives of cultural and political pluralism, defending minority rights and preserving cultural heritage, but deliberately and carelessly pursuing identity politics can also be dangerous. The issues around which political identities are organised in Georgia show different profile and structure than in much of the Western world. Of course, it is just natural that in the essentially mono-racial society the issues of race (whatever the scientific value of this term) bear just a secondary significance, while stable social movements are still in embryonic form, and the issues of gay rights and sexual freedom, while sensitive and disturbing for essentially traditionalist societies, have not yet acquired any direct political importance, although indirectly influence identity politics through their relationship with religious beliefs and institutions, which in their turn are much more important. On the other hand, political identities are often organized around one or another leader, and frequently in opposition to any such personality or political grouping, with loyalties and attitudes shifting in repetitive cycles, as the recent history of political processes in Georgia have demonstrated.

Georgian society, like other societies of post-Soviet south, has undergone a complex history of living under Russian and then Soviet empires, and later experienced the difficult two decades of transitional existence, without any clear understanding where this transition may eventually lead. This complexity has created the situation of confusion in both self–perception and the perception bigger societal groups, including that of the Georgian nation. While some patriarchal traditions, paradoxically preserved under the Soviet regime, are undergoing degradation under the pressures of globalisation, some other traditions, such as e.g. religious tradition of belonging to the Georgian Orthodox church demonstrated overall revival in the country, after bouncing back from the decades of suppression by the Soviet authorities. The same can be said about the strong feeling of ‘Georgianness’, ethnic belonging to the Georgian nation, as ethnic nationalism appeared to be the only ideology that on one hand was rooted in the ‘primordial’ (Stalin’s) definition of a nation as advocated by the Soviet ideologists, on the other – served as a survival instrument helping to preserve the nation against the pressures of Russification and Communist pseudo-cosmopolitanism.

The overall ethnic and national identity is commonly shared by many ethnic Georgians ((Tarkhan-Mouravi, G. 2012. Some Characteristics of Identity among Ethnic Groups in Georgia and the Caucasus. Ostrog Academy, Naukovi Zapiski, Kulturologia, Issue 9. pp. 217-234. )) . Other identities are to great extent organized around this central, primary collective identity (i.e. an identity that frames the others), which is self-sustaining across time and even transcends geographic borders, as in case of émigré Georgians. Ethnic identities are strong as well in the case of the majority of ethnic minorities living in Georgia, including the biggest such groups – Azeris and Armenians – who demonstrate mixed allegiance, keep strong ethnic identity, maintain close emotional link and frequently remain loyal to the lands of their ethnic kin that live just across the border. In case of some smaller minorities, especially those without kin state or autonomy ethnic identity is gradually weakening, under risk of assimilation, and the very existence of such small groups as ethnic entities is under risk.

Religious identity is also quite strong in Georgia, even if religious feeling is in most cases not equally deep. ((Robia Charles. 2010. “Religiosity in Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan”. Caucasus Analytical Digest, No. 20, 11 October. pp. 2-6.; Luis Navarro, Ian T. Woodward. 2012. Public attitudes in Georgia: Results of a November 2012 survey. Carried out for NDI by CRRC. Tbilisi: NDI Georgia. ))This is true both for ethnic Georgians, whether Eastern Orthodox (absolute majority of Georgians), Sunni Muslims (mainly in the Ajara autonomy in the Southwest of the country), or Catholics (mainly in the Southern Georgia), but also for ethnic minorities. While most of Georgians, Eastern Orthodox by self-definition, do not demonstrate great zeal in observing religious practices, religious affiliation is an important dimension of their identity, and it is still believed by many to be the sole ‘true’ religion ((Tatia Kekelia, Elene Gavashelishvili, Kote Ladaria, Irene Sulkhanishvili. 2013. The Role of the Orthodox Church in the Formation of the Georgian National Identity. (in Georgian) Tbilisi: ASCN )) . 

Belonging to Eastern Orthodox church constitutes an important part of the Georgian identity, and many Georgians from other traditional religious denominations (Muslims or Catholics) tend to convert into the Orthodox confession, although at the same time the numbers of adherents to religions considered here as non-traditional do not show decrease in numbers.

At the same time, religious practices of other confessional denominations is one of the areas where public tolerance is rather limited, particularlymap-unscaled with regards to so called non-traditional confessions. Still, in general tolerance to denominations other than Georgian orthodox is low. However, it is not only the representatives of other confessions that rank the high on the intolerance scale but also homosexuals, as elevated homophobia is a persistent characteristic of the Georgian society, especially among the older generations – unlike religious intolerance, more visible among the younger cohorts, this in general due to their higher religiosity, being born when the Communist atheistic propaganda ceased to be of relevance, and the pendulum of religiosity started moving upwards. Nevertheless, while Georgia remains a socially conservative country, it appears that some attitudes may be slightly changing in a more liberal direction.

Soviet legacy is still strong in many areas, in some cases creating the pendulum effect as in the case of religiosity. Still, while the Soviet policies have to great extent weakened interpersonal trust and caused alienation among individuals, strong family and kinship ties were able to resist such pressures, although a specific pattern of intra-societal connections have been developed. Social capital is considered as a concept reflecting such connections and interpersonal trust. Georgia is frequently characterized as a society with high “bonding” social capital, but low “bridging” social capital ((Leslie Hough. 2011. “Social Capital in Georgia”. Caucasus Analytical Digest, No. 31, 21 November 2011. , i.e. strong in-group solidarity and out-group mistrust, revealed in weak civic engagement, low rates of group membership and participation in public events. Indeed, kinship networks create important aspects of life, and contribute to the formation of identities, especially related to the family names. Many kinship associations have been created lately, in post-Soviet reality, especially of those with same family names, even if frequently the members of such associations are only very distantly related to one another, or sometimes even not at all. These would pay special attention to their place of origin, family history, or to relation to any aristocratic, nobility, or rich bourgeois family when this is possible.

Identities such as ‘Georgianness’ or ‘Europeanness” belong to the first type of political identity, and play an important role in determining political thinking among nationalistically, and respectively Europe-oriented, elites, although in the latter case European orientation does not necessarily coincides with pan-European identity, still another imitation serving political goals. The latter – Europeanness ((See, e.g.: Salome Minesashvili. How European Are We? Explaining Georgia’s Westward Aspiration. CSS Working Paper, Tbilisi, 2013. – reflects also the ‘project identity’ (as Manuel Castells ((Castells, Manuel. 1997. The Power of Identity, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture, Vol. II. Cambridge, MA; Oxford, UK: Blackwell)) called it), as the successive governments consistently attempted to strengthen this identity, stressing Georgia’s pro-European (and generally pro-Western) orientation as the main content of their national project, although once again the content of this project was hardly ever elaborated in detail, while actions might have sometimes contradicted fervently pro-European rhetoric.

Equally interesting is the ‘resistance’ identity, as Castells defined it, which may cover not just politically organised and relevant ethnic minorities (Armenians, and to lesser extent Azeris), or sexual minorities whose direct political role is currently irrelevant, but also political opposition, which traditionally is consolidated against ruling political elite by which it is side-lined and discriminated, rather than around positive goals. A mixture of ‘resistance’ and ‘project’ identity can be observed among ethnic elites striving for secession, as in cases of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, or creating autonomy, as e.g. in case of some Javakheti Armenian movements. ‘Resistance identity’ is closely interlinked with politicization of respective issues such as the perception of discrimination against one’s group, feelings of linked fate, a sense that the group is worth fighting and sacrificing for, perceptions of exclusion relative to other groups in society, and a belief that the political system is to blame for such injustices. Politicized identities in turn mobilize people to become involved in the political process and can mobilise them against the effects of perceptions of discrimination. People in Georgia tend to prioritize their ethnic, rather than civic identity, and there are politically significant consequences that derive from such prioritisation. Identity choices affect behaviours toward many aspects of the Georgian society, including the sense of civic responsibility and beliefs about obligations to the country, (mis)trust in country’s political institutions, and voting decisions. However, political elites not simply attempt to build new identities that fit into their political agenda, but more frequently existing identities are utilised (or modified) in order to achieve political goals, as an essential part of populist politics.

While in a transitional and traditional society like the Georgian one, ethnic and religious identities are important, it is political parties play a central role in identity politics culminating in elections and governance. Against the background of ex­tremely complex and tumultuous years of the last two decades, Georgia’s political parties demonstrate some general patterns characteristic for most post-Soviet societies – lack of clear ideology, val­ues, vision, or strategy; excessive role of leaders’ personalities; heightened degree of political opportunism and populism; lack of internal democracy. At the same time, main political parties in Georgia reveal some specific characteristics – in their predominant pro-western and pro-democracy orientation, limited membership base, and frequent recycling. Party building and political participation in Georgia is still, after all difficult years since independence, following the personality-focused model, but with a naïve version of liberal democracy mixed with nationalism ((G. Tarkhan-Mouravi. “Political Process and Parties in Georgia”. In: Kay Lawson (Ed.) Political Parties and Democracy, Vol. III. Post-Soviet and Asia Political Parties (Volume Co-Editors: Baogang He, Anatoly Kulik and Kay Lawson). Santa Barbara, Oxford: Praeger Publishing: 2009. pp. 9-33 )) .

Group loyalties are often more important than state patriotism, political loyalty, or sense of responsibility. This in turn leads to anti-meritocratic personnel policies and ineffectiveness of governance, but also ascribes great importance to identity politics organised around personalities and social networks. The leader’s personality plays a very important role, and correspondingly politics is personality centred, personalities of politicians becoming more important than any formal political ideology, agenda, or declared values. These in turn lead to even more imitational nature of institutions borrowed from the Western models, and bring around more political cynicism and opportunism. Leaders are however rarely enjoying sustainable and long-lived popularity in Georgia, where excessive popularity of a leader may be soon replaced by resentment and hostility. Of course, it is well know that there will not be one ideal type of leader; it could well be that the same person who might be seen as an ideal leader in one time and place by being seen as best representing the group norms and needs (i.e., prototypical), may not be seen as prototypical of the group in another time or place that provides a different comparative context, losing legitimacy and public support partly because he himself may change, but also because the context has changed. This was the fate of all Georgia’s political leaders, starting from the most short-lived Zviad Gamsakhurdia, or Eduard Shevardnadze and Mikheil Saakashvili – whose popularity lasted for a few years at least. This happens partly due to excessive expectations that naturally follow revolutionary changes, and are subsequently followed by disappointment and frustration; by the weakness of opposition as none of the previous regimes where conducive to developing viable, strong opposition, but also the ‘resistance identity’ of such opposition that rarely offered the public any constructive long term agenda or vision; by the change in the incumbent leadership’s style of governance which gradually became more and more anti-democratic and authoritarian due to the weakened system of checks and balances (what Tomas Carrothers labelled as ‘dominant power syndrome’) ((Thomas Carothers. “The End of the Transition Paradigm”. Journal ofDemocracy13:1.2002. 

Such model of formation of ‘resistance’ identity among the political opposition and its supporters creates certain risks for the future, as mutually reinforcing cycles of weakening opposition, growing authoritarianism and then the new round of radical political change tends to influence not just electoral politics, leading to the domination of a single political power, delegitimising and frequent disappearance of the political force that has lost elections, when the new opposition is basically emerging due to the split within the ruling party, without clear ideological reasons for that, or a constructive agenda; there is still the risk that if democratic institutions are not duly built through which public disappointment can be channelled and framed, the destructive crowd politics once again come afore endangering stability and the same democracy which is commonly proclaimed as a goal of public protests. It is well known that crowd protests lead to special type of a temporary identity, based on certain anonymity of group members resulting in the reduced salience of within-group differences, i.e. depersonalization, and the loss of sense of personal responsibility. Such events may resolve some problems and uncertainties, but will necessarily bring around more new problems, uncertainties and risks.

Currently the Georgian society is once again in the point, which may be called a point of bifurcation. Politics of identity plays again the key role in determining the direction of events, but the identity itself reveals changing, fluid nature, which makes prediction difficult, but observation – extremely interesting. Results of the forthcoming (October 27, 2013) presidential election may appear one of the important harbingers of change, as the Georgian history is one more time attracting attention of political scientists and journalists.

George Tarkhan-Mouravi

George Tarkhan-Mouravi, is co-director of the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) in Tbilisi. He is also chairman of the board of the Georgian Political Science Association (GPSA). Was involved in developing civic sector in Georgia and Eastern Europe, having had initiated and/or headed a number of NGOs, including Prague-based international association of think tanks PASOS. Authored and co-authored a number of publications in the areas of ethnic studies, regional security, political analysis, policy research, and conflict.

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