My second week in Tbilisi has been capped off by a bit of a fever, which has only served to highlight how kind people are here, yet again. The pharmacist at the local drug store smiled non-stop as she attempted to interpret my handwritten Georgian for ibuprofen and sore throat medication (Google translate can’t make up for my own terrible scrawl, but, to be fair, the Georgian alphabet is different). We communicate by pantomiming, and I leave with my Ukrainian medication and no clue as to proper dosage. Back at the office, my boss helps me to translate the instructions before I take the first dose. Thankfully, a few days later I am feeling better. Even a little sick, the cool breeze that dances through old town tempts me outside, if only to sit and read for a brief spell. While my evenings have been largely spent trying to fight off my illness, work this week has been very eventful.
I was fortunate enough to attend an annual conference held by thirteen major Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) who publish an annual report on the state of Georgia’s government. Every year the Government sends representatives; however, this year was special as the government published a formal response to the report. Unlike most events, the presence of US embassy staff prompted translation services; I was grateful for the opportunity to follow along more fully with the discussion, though some of the government’s vague responses stumped even the translator, who at one point exclaimed, “I don’t understand what he is saying; he is saying nothing!” Georgia’s efforts to align itself towards European Union membership have prompted a great deal of effort. As treaties are signed and reforms agreed to, Georgian law is not always up to the task of putting agreements into place as quickly as members of the NGO community would like. Tensions can be felt and voices are raised on the topics like LGBT rights, alleged corruption in the Ministry of Energy, and a few select cases where the Supreme Court’s rulings have been outright ignored.
Georgia is a very Christian country and the Georgian Orthodox Church is an extremely popular and influential institution that does not look favorably on the LGBT community. Most officials rather not discuss the topic, because there is no official Government stance; forging ties to Europe requires tolerance, but traditional Georgian culture rejects the lifestyle. To be honest, the rhetoric sounds a great deal like debates at home regarding gay marriage. Homosexuality has become an especially difficult topic, as pro-Russian supporters use anti-gay sentiment in their rhetoric to argue against European Union membership. While discussing the creeping Russian occupation of Georgian territory, an attendee told me a funny story. Russian subs often go into Swedish territorial waters as a means of flexing military muscle (just like flying fighter jets near borders, etc.). The Swedes decided to have a bit of fun and began projecting a weak Morse code signal underwater that naturally attracted Russian submariners’ attention. After getting close enough to pick up the signal clearly, the deciphered code simply repeated, “Gays over here,” over and over again, to mock Russian homophobia.
As for the ministry of Energy, Georgia is not rich in natural gas or oil reserves, but its mountainous terrain and numerous rivers make it a great place for hydropower development. Energy independence and the urgent need to boost the nation’s economic development has spurred investment in the sector, but dams drastically affect the natural environment. At the event, I was told a story about a dam proposal that created a great deal of debate. It would have been a profitable site, but would have required two northern villages to resettle. The debate went back and forth between those in favor of development and those concerned with the villagers’ rights and preserving the natural environment. The debate was effectively stalled after a year, but eventually it looked like the pro-dam group was gaining the political advantage. Upon hearing they may have to move northern Georgians (described by a Tbilisi local as a bit more rugged) began to paint street art in protest of the damn. I was later told street art was slang for spray painted threats inviting the government to try and take the land if they could. The topic quickly was tabled and the damn never built. Nonetheless, many natural sites have been quickly developed much to the dismay of local environmentalists.
Overall, this past week has given me a great insight into Georgian national politics. The challenges faced by the people here are not that different from most the countries I’ve visited the last few years, and the politics remind me a great deal of home. Overall, I was impressed by the quality of the NGO’s reporting and the willingness of the Government to come to the table to discuss. There are a great number of passionate and intelligent people here that are working hard to secure a prosperous future for the Georgian people.