US band The Killers had a rough crash-course in Georgian politics

Image by Arzu Geybullayeva

Getting booed by a crowd of frustrated fans was likely not how the US band The Killers imagined leaving the stage during their much-anticipated concert in the city of Shekvetili, in the Southern Caucasus country of Georgia. But this is exactly what happened after the band's lead, Brandon Flowers, brought a drummer from the crowd on stage, as has by now become a tradition at the band's concerts, to play the song “For Reasons Unknown.” But when Flowers, noting his lack of knowledge around Georgia-Russian relations and etiquette, announced to the crowd of fans that the drummer was Russian, asking them whether they were “OK with a Russian coming up here?” Booing ensued, followed by some of the fans walking out of the concert venue in protest.

Flowers attempted to calm down the crowd by saying, “You can’t recognize if someone’s your brother? He’s not your brother? We all separate on the borders of our countries? Am I not your brother, being from America?” This only infuriated the crowd even more. Having fought a war with Georgia in 2008 and with its ongoing war against Ukraine, Russia and its citizens are not popular in Georgia right now — to put it lightly. The band later issued an apology to the people of Georgia. The Killers may have arrived in Georgia without having the slightest idea of the historical and political context, but they sure were brought up to speed after the concert.

Despite Flowers's attempts to reconcile with the crowd, the concert ended abruptly without the band saying goodbye to the fans.

Held at the Black Sea Arena in Shekvetili, Adjara, the incident was widely reported both in Georgian media and internationally:

“The Killers support the killers,” wrote political movement Shame in a lengthy post critical of the band and its decision “to champion Russian-Georgian ‘friendship’” on the platform X (formerly known as Twitter).

In this setting, artists must acquaint themselves intimately with the venues of their performances and the broader sociopolitical landscapes. This mindfulness becomes crucial to avert their actions from glorifying a state their audience perceives as a symbol of terror. The recollections of families torn apart lives shattered, and futures robbed continue to serve as stark reminders of the darkness that Russia inflicted upon our land, read the statement by the Shame movement.

The concert venue also issued an apology, saying it “did not share” Flower’s views, according to OC Media reporting. There were also controversy around the venue and the concert itself in the run-up to the event. According to reports, the Killers were invited as part of the Starring Georgia campaign, introduced in April 2023, which was framed as “an opportunity to put Georgia on the map of international event calendars as a new destination.” The campaign/festival's venue — Black Sea Arena — was formerly linked to an off-shore registered company Limestone Finance International. According to a 2021 report by Transparency International Georgia chapter, Limestone Finance International was owned by the Georgian billionaire and founder of the ruling Georgian Dream party, Bidzina Ivanishvili.

Ivanishvili is a key figure in Georgian politics. He made his fortune in the pre-Putin era in Russia and founded the Georgian Dream party in 2012. While Ivanishvili publicly announced his decision to leave politics in 2021, some believe he is still calling the shots behind the scenes. In June 2022, the European Parliament adopted a resolution “on violations of media freedom and the safety of journalists in Georgia.” The document called on Georgian officials to impose personal sanctions on Ivanishvili “for his role in the deterioration of the political process in Georgia.”

It took Georgia's government a year to put together a bill on de-oligarchisation, which was adopted by the Georgian parliament on June 13, 2023, despite the objections raised by the Venice Commission, which argued that for de-oligarchisation to become effective, it is not enough to adopt or amend laws but take “concrete measures” aiming to “reduce oligarchic influence.”

The bill failed to address concerns as outlined by the Venice Commission opinion, and according to reporting by local media, the bill would target several opposition figures rather than Ivanishvili.

The European Commission will share its interim opinion in October and will vote on Georgia’s candidacy status again in December 2023.

The Killers and their lack of knowledge

“Inviting a Russian drummer to serenade a crowd of Georgians on their soil amid a crawling Russian occupation was a mind-blowing oversight,” said Tinatin Japaridze, a Eurasian political risk analyst at Eurasia Group, in an interview with Gzeromedia. Adding, “Hopefully, The Killers will spread the word among their colleagues in entertainment and make it public knowledge in the West that for as long as Moscow continues to occupy our sovereign territory, Russians cannot and will not be our siblings.”

“They [The Killers] came to Georgia without even realizing what's going on and whom they are going to sing for,” Ramaz Samkharadze, an owner of a radio station in Tbilisi, told the BBC in an interview. Samkharadze also told the BBC that his radio station has removed all of the band's songs from the air as “a gesture of support.”

The Georgian population at large has been clear on its anti-Russian position since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, and there have been numerous mass protests in support of Ukraine. At the time, many drew parallels to the 2008 five-day war between Russia and Georgia in the latter's two separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

When Georgia expressed interest in joining NATO in 2008, tensions escalated,  ending in a war that cost hundreds of lives, displaced tens of thousands, and left both territories in a state of frozen conflict. A six-point peace deal signed between Russia and Georgia on August 16, 2008, did not stop Russia from recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent, earning widespread condemnation by Western leaders. That condemnation was reinforced in a statement issued by the acting head of the EU Delegation to Georgia on the eve of the anniversary: “As the EU stands united in condemning, in the strongest possible terms, Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified war of aggression against Ukraine, we also reiterate our condemnation of Russia’s recognition of and continued military presence in the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It is a violation of both international law and of Russia’s commitments under the 12 August 2008 agreement.”

Following the invasion, thousands of Russians fled political repression, economic troubles, and conscription from their homeland. In Georgia, one of the most popular destinations for feeling Russians, the influx was met with less enthusiasm.

There is, however, a wide disagreement between the government of Georgia and what Georgian citizens think of Russia. A series of protests against Georgia's ruling government's decision to cozy up with the Russian state were organized in recent months. The most recent was held in Batumi in July 2023, when a Russian cruise liner docked at the city's port. In May, mass protests erupted over the government's decision to reinstate flights between the two countries.

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