Saturday, 30 November 2013

Be careful before you fall in love.

There is a dark side to Georgia.

If you believe the hype, Georgia is very much worth starting a relationship with. Astounding geography, hospitality like none-other, exotic cuisine,  incredible wine, both smooth and rough made and matured in the kvira and served from coca-cola bottles and empty petrol cans. Persephone’s pomegranates hang, rich and fertile from bushes outside next to doors which peel with paint. Grapes hang temptingly from vines in inner court yards and the warmth of the sun is mirrored in the smiles and greetings of the people. It’s a laid back, fun –loving attitude to love and to life. It’s fascinating, it’s beguiling, it’s noteworthy and it’s dangerous.

Georgia continues to be a country in turmoil under the young and inexperienced leadership of the new Prime-Minister Irakli Garibashvili who has been manoeuvred into place by Bidzina Ivanishvili the Georgian/Russian billionaire and past prime minister of the cobbled together Georgian Dream coalition party. The recently elected President, Giorgi Margvelashvili, another of Ivanishvili’s inner circle, have, between them, less than 4 years’ political experience.  78% of  those in parliament are men. Ivanishvili, after announcing his resignation as prime minister has now stepped down from politics to enable him to participate more in Georgia’s civil society. Civil society is meant to be the space between politics and family in which all groups are represented, listened to and developed. Ivanishvili, having, in the last 12 months, either by accident or design has, through his passivity and blustering rhetoric, created an elite which undermines the very concept he is now purporting to develop. 

It’s a very Soviet approach and it’s very doubleplusthink.

Ivanishvili set himself up as the hero of a nation which under him has been as equally manipulated as under  Saakavishili and before him Eduard Shevarnadze. The winner takes all attitude so ingrained in Soviet political thinking has morphed into an ability to speak aspirational European rhetoric,  but the tactics used to keep citizens confused and compliant, hidden under layers of doubleplusthink actions designed to generate fear is something that is often ignored when articles about Georgia appear in the Western Press. It does not suit politicians and charity givers to think that the millions of dollars in aid money  donated every year is not going on well thought out, well intentioned and well implemented strategies designed to support an emerging potential European nation.  It suits travel writers and tourists to collude with the illusion that all is going well because no one wants to think that under the veneer of the smiling, toasting, drinking (male)Georgian citizen is a population unable to step up and take responsibility for the villainy many of its traditions reinforce. 

No one wants to believe that Georgia is not Arcadia.

Georgia is a land mass at the end of the old Silk Road that keeps it as a main player, by default, in the energy game. Through Georgia travels a pipe- line carrying oil. Western educated Saakavishili played the civil society game well and created and perpetuated the  illusion of a progressive, modern country that seemed to want to be part of a wider state, a state of the union.

However, after just over a year in politics Ivanishvili has, by his doubleplusthink rhetoric highlighted just how little Georgia has moved away from the old soviet style. He has exposed  cracks in the illusion of the persona he projected when he was elected as the modern day hero prime minister.  This is now mirrored in the attitude and behaviour of many of Georgia’s citizens.  A return to Soviet style mentality was demonstrated in an open letter to the EU signed by the so called ‘intelligentsia’ of Georgian society which exposes a very dark side of Georgia. The ‘intelligentsia’ defended the homophobic actions of 10,000 ‘protesters’ led by priests against 50 peaceful anti-homophobic LGBT and NGO’s who were marking the international day highlighting LGBT issues.  

In amongst the black frocks and thronging the streets there were women, brandishing nettles ready to sting and punish anyone who was gay, suspected as being gay or looked vaguely out of place. Dark, dark traditions indeed.

The contents of this letter refuted the observations made about the homophobic and xenophobic demonstrations incited, instigated by and led by members of the Orthodox Georgian Church. These critical observations were made by Thomas Hammarberg of the EU,  sent to Georgia to observe, report and try to understand what is happening in Georgia as it goes through a further transitional period.  The report ‘Georgia in Transition’ ( September 2013 ) highlighted that any civil society needs to ensure ‘basic rights to all human beings’

The letter stated very clearly that no one had any right to arrive on Georgian soil and comment on anything that was going on there. , ‘Respect our traditions’. It also said, ‘ Go away if you don’t like what we do here.’ It went on, ‘You Westerners, you are evil and sinful because you accept that gays exist and your own spirituality is at risk because you are weak and do nothing about it.’

Georgia is full of traditions, most of them contradictions, some of them very uncivil. Quite a few are dangerous. These contradictions are all about controlling people, but they are especially  about controlling women.

When embarking on a relationship with Georgia the visitor would be forgiven if they thought that women were revered, respected, and held in high esteem. They are very much so but  in a contradictory and controlling way. They are held in esteem  if they conform but held to account if they do not. Indeed, Queen Tamara, who  ruled Georgia in the Golden Years 1184 – 1213  is, for her wisdom, vision, insight, courage and bravery held up in literature, in icons and in schools as a paragon of virtue and strength. She is remembered as the strongest of women and is referred to as a King.

King Tamara.

She displayed such qualities ‘normally’ attributed to a Georgian man  so society  decided to change her gender. Ironically this kind of gender re-configuration is one of the reasons the ‘intelligentsia’ was so upset on May 17.Doubleplusthink again. It is ingrained and endemic.
Anyone who embarks on a love affair with Georgia needs to know all this.  Anyone visiting Georgia, who works with Georgians, who chooses to live in Georgia needs to know this.  Men and women who fall in love with Georgia, her culture her ‘traditions’ need to know that most of these things are  illusions. People need to know that there is little loyalty to women especially if they break the code.

The illusion of the Georgian  woman,  especially that of both the literal and metaphorical mother is a myriad of contradictions. Revered in the traditional Supra and toasted (by men) in a theatrical performance often full of empty heartfelt alcohol fuelled pledges and promises, the woman’s role is  linked to and reinforced by stereotype, superstition and Orthodox ideology. Women must be the Deda, or the Mother. Do not be fooled.  Deda is cruel, Deda is manipulative, Deda is subservient and Deda reinforces the iron bars that imprison her, her daughters and her grand- daughters. Deda adheres to the rules of the patriarchal society and reinforces the illusions of a civil society created by generations of men, all eager to reinforce the teachings of an increasingly powerful patriarchal church.

As all foreigners are guests, and guests are traditionally seen as ‘gifts from God’ the generosity of the Georgian family, can be overwhelming. The female guest in particular soon realises nothing can or should remain private. Of particular interest to the Deda is the guest’s own morality. It soon becomes clear that if the guest answers any of the relentless questions incorrectly then a subtle shift in the atmosphere occurs. Ever-so-slightly. Not enough to put your finger on, but enough to invite self-doubt.  Wine loosens tongues and questions of the most intimate nature are asked and assessments quickly made.

The female guest is categorised with absolute certainty through seemingly banal and trivial questions.  What clothes do you wear? What face cream do you use? What size are you? What colour bra do you wear? What do your parents do? What age did you say you were? Do you have boyfriends? Have you been married? Can you have children? How can your skin be so white? Do you smoke? Do you drink? Why will you not eat? Eat more, Drink more. How can you have a child already? Are you married? You don’t want to be married? You are divorced? Where is your God? Who is your God? What car do you drive? Is that your real hair colour?  Are you a good girl? Are you a Kargi Gogo?

It’s relentless. Conversations jump around and are full of emotion, they don’t flow. It’s a tried and tested soviet style interrogation technique and the questions pin you against a wall, barricade you and before you know it you are defeated. Completely and utterly defeated.  Being killed with Georgian kindness has been used for the centuries by both ‘friends’ and enemies alike and is mistaken for ‘hospitality.’

If you don’t conform? Persecution soon follows. It’s subtle and it’s sure.
Is it any different for the Georgian girl? No, it’s worse.

If you go to Georgia, if you become involved with Georgia, you need to know this.
From their birth Mothers and Grandmothers groom girls for marriage, they ensure girls are young when they marry and are virgins  on their wedding night. If they are not then there are clinics that do hymen reconstruction for a fee.  Sons are encouraged to have sex with prostitutes and non-indigenous women  and  the first sexual experience at about the age of 14 is often bought and paid for by an uncle. Many boys are taken to Russia for their ‘first’ time. Mothers arrange for their daughters-in –law to be sterilized once they have had enough children and take them to have selective sex abortions if they are having too many girls. Mothers encourage sons to continue to visit prostitutes even after they are married and sit in judgement on their daughters if they complain. Georgian women are encouraged to have sex merely to have babies – any form or enjoyment makes her a bad girl. Often the only form of sex, when married, is in the missionary position.  No one will speak of these things. It’s traditional not to. It’s also part of the tradition to threaten, often with of social exclusion,  quite often with violence and on occasion with death if such things are spoken about.  That’s the code, that’s the tradition.

If you plan on falling in love with Georgia these are things you need to know.

The best thing a Georgian mother could do if she had a son who was gay? Kill him. The father should then kill the mother, and then himself. How else would Georgia be purged of Western influence?  How else can Georgia keep her traditions? Listen to the words of some traditional folk songs. It’s all in there.

There are some strong women’s groups in Georgia who are working hard to change this.. The Women’s Fund for example has active NGO groups on the ground, working with abandoned, abused, judged and excluded women. The younger generation  however, are not all on board with an emerging female voice  and the media overtly sexualises and trivializes the female form, voice and identity.  What happens to Georgian women who refuse to conform to being the Deda? Most women are married whilst they are teenagers and bride kidnapping is still not uncommon. Social stigma and shame keep women keep Deda alive.  

There are many   women who are beginning to see that there are other choices that can be made but the Georgian society needs positive role models, education and opportunities to enter politics and travel. Georgian women need to start rebelling and shouting and throwing off the literal and metaphorical head scarfs and to start breaking the code.

That's really tough because many younger Georgians have been raised by grand-parents who know nothing other than the soviet codes, mentality and traditions and who continue to perpetuate the cycle.

Georgia has just initialed the EU association trade agreement that agrees integration with Europe, European trade and European ideals.  Georgia wants to trade with  Europe but has a long way to go before and needs to look at its own traditions, its doubleplusthink strategies and its soviet mentality. 

At the moment Georgia seems to be  heading towards actively rejecting the kind of civil society that it says it aspires to be and if it continues to perpetuate the so called 'traditions' that keep women dis-empowered and refuses to recognise LGBT members of its own community, Europe, no matter how beneficial it may seem to be a trading partner, will soon become impatient with the illusions. One of the players is going to have to budge. It's not going to be Europe.


Be careful before you fall in love. There is a dark side to Georgia.

Sarah Cobham November 28th 2013


  1. You could choose not to get involved - you clearly hate this country.

  2. Or I could choose to continue to exercise my right to opinion in any form I like. Clearly I am involved. Very much so. And will continue to do all that I can to highlight ALL aspects of Georgian culture to the world - it would be naive to believe the illusion that is perpetuated by those in power or to be lectured at by some one who believes not getting involved would help victims of that power. I am the founder and director of The Northern Georgian Society. Please do take some time to educate yourself with just how involved I am. Be great to see you at one of the events in the UK this summer. Feel free to introduce yourself. We could have a conversation.

  3. I lived in Georgia for almost 2years as part of the group of volunteers brought over by then president Misha saakashvili.
    We had fun in Georgia, don't get me wrong, there were ups and downs, but we clearly enjoyed Georgia
    Now that a good number of us have left, we still reminisce on the good old days
    Recently i met a Georgian abroad who told me the country is now in a state of limbo, before there was a certain level of transparency, but that is not there anymore
    atleast Misha once in a while gave people 5laris on their metro cards or discounts off their utility bills,
    Thanks for sharing this dark side of Georgia
    As a person of color who lived in the country, speak the language, if i were to write a book, goodness