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Happy Independence Day, Georgia!

Since 1991, Georgia has celebrated Independence Day annually on 26 May. But this national holiday only exposes the gap between elites and the people.

 

As a rule, Georgians love to bring out the booze when it comes to celebrating important dates. Religious or civil, Christmas or International Women’s Day, we uncork the chacha and have a grand old time. Surprisingly, though, Georgians hesitate to devote much ‘emotion’ to 26 May, Independence Day. First coined during the short-lived republic of 1918-1921, Independence Day was left uncelebrated during the Soviet period, only to be revived in the early 1990s.

The reason for people’s reluctance is simple: the majority of Georgians are not emotionally attached to Independence Day. They don’t feel it. In fact, they don’t know what independence is or whether they need it or not. Instead, Independence Day in Georgia is the preserve of a select – and elite – few. Time and again, certain classes attempt to promote 26 May as a significant historical date – without much effect. The reason for their failure is clear: what is important for elites is far from what is important for everyone else.

The birth of the first republic

The Russian Revolution of 1917 caused Georgia to announce independence on 26 May 1918 and thus to establish a republic for the first time in Georgian history – a republic led by the social democratic Menshevik party.

The majority of Georgians are not emotionally attached to Independence Day.

During the first three years of independence, 26 May was celebrated by government as a national holiday. Unfortunately, though, the Menshevik government was exiled to France in February 1921, leaving Georgia to become part of the Soviet Union.

However, both independence and democracy became difficult tasks for Georgia to achieve. A poor, agrarian country with little economic growth and low level of education, Georgia did not have the resources necessary for independence.

The Menshevik political class received sovereignty by chance, and the country unexpectedly announced it. Many scholars now talk about the democratic nature of the first Georgian republic. But it is still difficult to argue that it was a democratic state, for just like independence in 1991, Georgia did not have the resources to establish a truly democratic political order in 1918.

Georgian troops deployed in Iraq celebrate Independence Day in Baghdad on 26 May 2006. Photo: CC Jason Dangel.

Independence Day was thus lost for 70 years until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. But when Georgia again announced its independence in 1991, 26 May re-emerged in public discourse, prompting new patterns of memory in public life.

Over the past 25 years, 26 May has been used to celebrate not only independence, but, unsurprisingly, nationalism too. And Georgian nationalists have their idiosyncrasies. On the one hand, they glorify 26 May and, on the other, demonise the Social Democratic government – the political group, which announced Georgian independence. They dislike their cosmopolitan views, both in terms of politics and social issues.

Apart from its symbolic dimension (the ‘revival’ of the Georgian nation), 26 May is utilised as a political instrument by nationalists and apologists of liberal nationalism to maintain anti-Russian sentiments in Georgia. Sadly for Georgians, they see independence as a kind of cultural symbol, a tool against the ‘enemy’. There is no perception of independence as a tool for achieving consensually determined social and political goals.

The collapse of the Soviet Union was accompanied by the emergence of a new and independent Georgia ruled by former dissidents. Unfortunately, in the early 1990s, these former dissidents appeared to be unprepared for accepting and understanding sovereignty. Zviad Gamsakhurdia, a former political prisoner and writer, revived romantic nationalism as our national ideology, where the supremacy of national symbols was more important for Georgian political life than pragmatic ideas, debates or the practice of rational politics.

Romantic nationalism contributed not only to ethnic conflicts, but deeper crises, making the modern Georgian state even more reluctant to engage in democratic transformation.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, 26 May did not mark the beginning of sovereignty and rational political thinking, but became rather a symbol of romantic nationalism, devoid of pragmatic political significance or aspirations.

Rebirth of the republic

While the revival of Georgian nationalism came to form a constituent part of the Gamsakhurdia era, nationalistic rhetoric and practices were strongly internalised by the political system set up by Mikheil Saakashvili.

Indeed, it was Mikheil Saakashvili and the United National Movement who attempted to reprise the nationalistic discourses popular in the early 1990s. Saakashvili’s nationalism was based principally on the construction of a symbolic enemy (Russia), accompanied by militaristic anti-Abkhazian and anti-Ossetian rhetoric. Independence Day was thus frequently used by Saakashvili to promote a nationalistic politics, potentially divisive in a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional state.

Independence Day was used not only to recall the trauma of Georgia’s ‘Sovietisation’ (and hence deepening anti-Russian hysteria), but also to demonstrate Georgia’s ‘military might’ to Abkhazia and South Ossetia through the organisation of military parades. Under Saakashvili, the country held the largest military parade in its history.

But, unfortunately for Georgia, the nationalistic and militaristic rhetoric of Saakashvili (culminating annually on 26 May) not only hampered the process of democratisation, but deepened conflict and misunderstanding with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Is 26 May an important date for Georgians?

In contrast to the Saakashvili administration, the current government is more hesitant to organise military parades, choosing instead to celebrate Independence Day with cultural events.

While this choice may have provoked certain groups of Georgian nationalists to accuse the coalition of being ‘unpatriotic’ and ‘unworthy’, it has only revealed these groups to be a more irrational and violently aggressive part of society than previously thought. 

Misunderstanding independence

But still, the question remains: is 26 May an important date for Georgians? Or is just a historiographical trick, a marker of nationalist ideology?

If Independence Day is an important date, then why don’t people show more emotions, more commitment? Of course, if people are going to really get the meaning of 26 May, then we need more ‘political education’.

A military parade in Tbilisi during Independence Day celebrations. Photo: CC Kober.

Regrettably, Georgians, and especially ‘post-Soviet Georgians’, cannot and do not understand the need for independence. Those groups who do talk about 26 May generally have irrational perceptions of independence – the nationalist cultural and political elites, the liberal political class, and a certain strain of young intellectuals. Indeed, these groups frequently link the date to a vision of the past based on victimisation rather than using it as a tool for future development.

Apart from generating romantic nationalism, remembering traumatic events and promoting victimisation, Independence Day is used by the intellectual class to carnavalise the academic sphere. The various academic events, intellectual gatherings or public meetings organised on 26 May witness ritual performances by intellectuals, who promote their own political positions and the image of Georgia as a victim of powerful enemies, particularly in relation to Russia.

Usually, the majority of such events or activities concentrate on the traumas of the past. Intellectuals at this carnival display sensitive dedication when it comes to thinking about the past, yet rarely focus on the present and future challenges of independence.

Similar to many East European societies, it is elites (both political and cultural) who show devotion to the supremacy of symbols. These symbols strengthen the power of dominant groups, rather than amplify the interests of common people. That’s why in Georgia, a country with poor economic growth, elites expend resources on celebrating their domination and power instead of freedom in general. Independence Day in Georgia is not a day for the people: it is a day when the state displays its power.

This year, the government of Georgia will spend 1,579,000 lari (£450,000) on celebrating 26 May. The country is currently witnessing serious economic failures. A sizeable part of our society lives in poverty and starvation. Many families are on the threshold of physical survival. This is how post-communist populism functions: subsidising symbols instead of the lives of citizens.

Happy Independence Day, Georgia!

About the author

Bakar Berekashvili is Lecturer in Politics and Critical Theory at the Georgian-American University, Tbilisi. His articles regularly appear on the website of the Georgian Public Broadcaster, where he works as a political analyst.


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