(enjoy my first rebooted vlog bit... it's more done just to be audio/podcast of the blog below, but maybe I'll add some effects later to the series and make it more vloggish, let me know what you think in the comments)
Georgia is safe.
I’ve got to repeat that time and time again, despite the popular draws the country has into the international media. The citizenry generally struggle to be known for positive things, like cheese boats with eggs, wine, techno clubs, and fashion, but the real draw in our disaster porn-obsessed culture seems to be civil unrest and war with Russia. To be sure, the ongoing occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are pressing concerns, but they don't really effect the climate for tourism, and if you don't travel there, you'll even have no idea that part of the country is barred by demarcation lines.
Like any country, things go wrong. The government has its problems, the city has its corruption, these things aren’t really that strange in the developing world, nor are they in the West. The United States (my home country) has been under wave of wave of violent protests, from BLM to Proud Boys to “antifa”, most of these end up with looting, beatings, tear gas, and mass arrests. So when a bit of that revolutionary spirit sparked up in my adopted home of Tbilisi, the emails and concerned calls phoned in. It’s a small country making international news for protests, so of course it must be big news, never mind that it’s just par for the course in a democratic country. It was actually far less violent than most American protests are (of course, if my American friends were imagining a modern American-style protest going down, I can see why they were concerned!).
After the unrest followed the typical bellicose sentiments of the Russian government, trying to drum up a dose of conspiracy and anxiety in order to gain support from their own waning electorate. Putin declared that Georgia was unsafe for Russian citizens and inexplicably placed a travel ban on the country. In response, the Georgians have a launched a movement to drum up tourism from other countries, the #spendyoursummeringeorgia campaign.
Despite Putin’s utmost, heartfelt concern for his citizens (/endsarcasm), Georgia remains a safe place, even for Russians. Georgians are for the most part welcoming people and though there are things wrong with the country (as in any country), there are also a great deal of things right in the country, especially for vacationers.
Image ripped from this CNN article who apparently got it from Vano Shlamov on Getty Images. Being a blog 6 people read means I can feel free to rip off images.
The low down
Russia has revived a kind of soft power they had once perfected in the Soviet days, focusing again more on propaganda and image to go along with strong military action rather than having any use for actual diplomatic relations. One of the main branches of its soft power is the Russian Orthodox Church, with little difference in the Soviet days of its KGB control and in modern days serving under FSB auspices—note also that Putin had his upcoming in the FSB regarding religious affairs. I’m not saying there aren’t legitimate complaints about Western culture, but that’s the thing—they’ve hijacked the legitimate complaints which should be a dialogue within Western culture to push a global Us vs. Them paradigm, making it instead between all the bad things about liberalism vs. Russia (which is only about good, God-fearing things, apparently), and if you are discontent with liberalism and/or the West, then you must kiss Putin’s hand, or at the very least, give a hand in destroying Western “Gayropean” institutions like NATO, the European Union, and the United States (which is simply gay, obviously not “-opean”)—and if you don’t, you hate families and God and all that’s holy.
if that's not Gayropean, I don't know what is. Ripped from this Eurasianet post.
It’s been a long and an immensely well-played game, one that has even pitted Orthodox Church against Orthodox Church, turning in the eyes of much of the Orthodox laity the Greek Orthodox into a nest of CIA vipers and Putin into a veritable Saint-Emperor. It’s also a game that outspoken liberals jump willy-nilly into as useful idiots, proclaiming that the NATO agenda is the gay agenda, that the future of Europe is in pink-boa-wrapped runway dance-offs at Berghain with sodomite orgies spilling down Kurfurstendamm or the Champs d’Elysees, thus playing into the entire fears that Putin has been capitalizing on (see also: brown people).
One such Orthodox institution the Russians have managed to hijack for their own political game and pursuit is the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy, an assembly that was started by the Greeks to help revive the Orthodox Churches in the post-Soviet territories and get them to cooperate. Unwittingly, the Greeks seemed unprepared for the neo-Sergianism that went along with this, a policy of the Russian Orthodox Church under the Communist regime to be willingly allegiant to the government in order to survive, and thereby actively cooperate with the regime in placing KGB spies throughout the priesthood—a practice that has not likely been discontinued in present times, just with a swap of acronyms (the players though are pretty much the same).
The Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy has been led by a Russian parliamentarian, Sergei Popov, re-elected on two-year terms since 2004. And though the Russians have parted their ways with Ecumenicism in their current slash-and-conquer ecclesiastical tactics, it doesn’t mean that they haven’t been using inter-Orthodox groups to wage their political power games and their dominance of the IAO is one such result. This doesn’t mean that the IAO is altogether malignant; cross-border cooperation is a positive thing after all, and the more multilateral institutions the better, even and perhaps especially those with Russian representatives, as that remains at least one outlet that communication can be had. It’s good Greece, Georgia, et al. take part in groups like the IAO, but we should be aware that Russia’s interests are not religious interests, except where the interests of the Church are that of the Russian state. The Georgian Orthodox Church, meddle as it does in Georgian politics (though I’m of the opinion that churches have every right to meddle, just as any other member of civil society), is still an independent organization, and praiseworthy for it. It is not a tool of the Georgian state, nor will it allow itself to be. The same cannot be said for the Church in Russia.
The latest meeting of the IAO was held in Tbilisi. This itself wasn’t enough to spark the riot, but that it was chaired by a Russian Minister of Parliament, Sergei Gavrilov. To me it reveals the great cynicism of Russia’s approach to religion: That an MP from the Communist Party of Russia would chair an Orthodox summit. Gavrilov is no stranger to this sort of hubris, as he has made regular religious appeals despite his upstanding position in an officially atheist community—a student of Stalin indeed. Gavrilov is also quite famous for making bold statements about how Georgia really belongs to Russia, or should, and is rumored to have even taken an active part in the Abkhaz war in the 90s. All that to say: Gavrilov is not, nor has ever been, a popular man in Georgia.
The IAO meeting was held in the Parliament building in the center of Tbilisi. Gavrilov, as chair, sat in the Georgian Parliamentary Speaker’s chair. The opposition was immediately insulted by this (nothing new, they’re insulted by everything, but at least now something with due cause), they bolted out, spread the word and immediately protests sparked up—Georgians seeing this Communist Russian MP sitting in their Speakers’ chair took it as a huge insult to their national pride, especially with a view of a government that many claim to be soft on Russia.
Everybody is pretty much in agreement with most of this. It’s what happened next that was disputed: Either the oppositionists attempted to storm Parliament, or the police just got overly nervous and started going crazy. I’ve heard conflicting reports from people there—I, having been trying to wean myself off Facebook addiction, didn’t even realize there was a major protest going down—but the end result of the tense showdown was that the police were firing rubber bullets indiscriminately into the crowd and launching canisters of tear gas like they were curled up shirts at a sports game. When the night was over, over a hundreds civilians and police had been injured, two people lost an eye, and dozens detained.
In honor of the two who lost their eye on the first night, protesters began to wear red eye patches. Ripped from this Al Jazeera article.
The next day, protests resumed. This time not so much about Gavrilov (though it definitely maintained a strong anti-Putin and anti-Russian government/occupation narrative), but more so about the police handling of the protest against Gavrilov (who safely left and even said he felt safe in “his homeland”—Gavrilov, from Tul, Russia, either is referring to his maternal grandfather who was Georgian or that he sees no difference between Russia and Georgia, a statement he has made in the past). As the hours passed and more speakers contributed to the protest, more and more issues were raised. There is a lot of discontent with the current political process, after all. The majority of the protest organizers seemed to have been content with pushing the agenda of changing the majoritarian style of Parliamentary elections, and having direct representation as well, meaning that participation in the Parliament would be allowed for even parties that didn’t have 5%.
International journalists were languishing in the Georgian capital. It’s been over 10 years since the last war, and large protests had been handled pretty well since then. As soon as the rubber bullets were loaded, the contingent was there, eager to represent Georgia as a country in chaos and make every penny they could off their sensationalist dollars ready to cash in on the typical sensationalist moolah. And though the reality was that the protesting (and violence of one night) was localized to the Parliament (though tear gas did float down the neighboring city streets), that isn’t what gets clicks man! (I can’t entirely blame the international press though, as their Georgian counterparts were equally stirred to action). Even the protests every other night after were entirely peaceful and well-conducted on all sides.
Russia though, had a strange reaction. The protest was anti-Russian government. There were many naughty signs of Putin, no doubt. But the protests were not anti-Russian people (I’ve even watched a few Russian vloggers who were there). Putin, dismayed about the treatment of his MP (who is not of his party) and I suppose, insulted by the signs, declared Georgia unsafe and banned tourism travel. But why? Because they protested him? The Russian government even had RT and Sputnik, along with their local state media branches, ripping montages of foreign reports and making them appear as though they were attacking and focusing on Russian people.
Russia occupies through military and puppet regimes, 20 percent of Georgia's territory. Image ripped from this Emerging Europe article.
This is like if Trump decided to declare the United Kingdom unsafe for Americans and banned travel there, simply because they protested against him. Putin has held Georgia economically hostage before—back in 2007 they declared a wine embargo. The Georgians were basically forced to improve the quality of their wine in order to hit the European market. The result was that it led a lot of Georgians to rediscover their own traditional wines and old, long-unused varietals, leading to a minor vinicultural renaissance of the heavenly nectar. If anything, the Russians lifting the ban was a bad thing, leading Georgians to resume mass sale of cheap wine to an easy target market.
So what effect will the Russian ban on tourism have?
The Georgians doubled down. When Putin banned tourism, they essentially bit their thumbs and said, “Screw you, we don’t need your tourists anyway, we’ll get other people to come!” (By other people, they largely mean rich Europeans and Americans, not rich Arabs or Iranians). That’s when they launched their hashtag tourism campaign, to help drum up interest in traveling here.
There’s some debate on how big of a market the Russian tourists were. Many say that though they were huge in numbers, they weren’t big spenders. Others say the opposite. Who knows. But hopefully the tourism trade can go the same direction as the wine trade. There are huge needs in infrastructure here for tourism development, and if Georgians are as willing to meet those challenges as they were the challenges of the wine industry, then there’s nothing but success for this country ahead.
But first some hardship as they are losing a sizeable share of the tourism market. Hopefully they can get over that initial hurdle. But if it’s one thing I don’t doubt is that when Georgians finally set their mind to something, there’s very little that can stop them.