In Georgia, backsliding has taken over culture and art, says a new report

Image by Arzu Geybullayeva

A new report by PEN America, “Taming Culture in Georgia,” released on November 2, 2023, documents how, under the leadership of the Georgian Dream, Georgia's ruling party, freedom of expression has been on the decline and how this decline signals a “movement towards authoritarianism” in Georgia. Beyond the country's leadership's attempt to curb freedom of expression, there is a visible and deliberate attempt to tame the country's vibrant cultural scene despite resistance from the cultural community, finds the report. “Artists and writers face repercussions when they are perceived to be working against government interests,” write the report's authors.

That the ruling party has taken a U-turn on freedoms and human rights in recent past is no news to pundits who have been following the developments that have taken shape in the country, “particularly since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022,” according to the report.

But Georgia has been engulfed in a political crisis since October 2020, when the country held a parliamentary vote on October 31, which was contested by the opposition groups. Since then the country saw “violent dispersals of protests; attacks on and interference in the work of journalists and independent media; obstruction of the work of anti-corruption activists; and a widening divide between Georgian society and its political leaders,” says the report.

In addition to the country's deteriorating track record on freedoms and democracy,  the ruling Georgian Dream party also faced criticism for its anti-LGBTQ+ stance and has made significant shifts in its relationship with Russia ever since the latter invaded Ukraine.

The Russian invasion has been strongly opposed by the Georgians. About 90 percent of Georgian people view Russia as a threat, according to International Republican Institute's survey released in March 2022.

And yet, argues the newly released PEN report, the Georgian Dream party is seen “increasingly to be under Russian influence, taking pages directly out of Russia's playbook.”

One of those pages includes an attempt by the ruling party to pass Georgia's very own “foreign agent” law. The proposed bill “on transparency of foreign influence,” was similar to Russia's 2012 “foreign agent” law, which has been used to crush dissent and opposition in Russia since it came into force. It was proposed by a group of parliament members, formerly from the Georgian Dream, who quit the party and formed their own political party called People's Power in August 2022. If approved, the bill was going to “compel foreign-funded non-governmental organizations to register as foreign influence agents,” reported Eurasianet.

What has gone unnoticed, however, say authors of the report, are the “threats to the Georgian cultural sector, an essential component of Georgian civil society, and the rights to free expression, access to information, and the participation in cultural life.”

Over the last two years, government intimidation, harassment, and interference in the work of critical voices in the cultural sphere have increased significantly, suggesting that the government feels threatened by a vibrant and independent cultural sector.

Among many of the concerns highlighted in the report is the appointment to key positions within the Ministry of Culture of individuals unrelated to culture (in some cases from the Ministry of Justice), starting from the new Minister of Culture, Tea Tsulukiani appointed in 2021, who was a former Minister of Justice. These appointments have had a “significant impact,” limiting and undermining “the influence and work of independent, qualified professionals in the cultural sphere.”

War on culture

From the literary world, to cinema, museums and other spheres of art and culture, Georgian culture scene has been backsliding ever since Tsulukiani took over the ministerial appointment in 2021. Since then, the minister has been embroiled in controversy over what she said was her attempt “to clean up alleged inefficiency, corruption and nepotism from the areas of her purview.”

Theaters were among the first places targeted by the new minister. Following the expiration of the four-year terms of the artistic directors, “by Tsulukiani’s decision, some of the theater directors were appointed without competition,” reported Transparency International Georgia. But even when competitions were announced, the new directors were known for their loyalty to the ruling party.

Next inline were the national museums. According to Transparency International Georgia, some 70 employees were dismissed from the National Agency for Cultural Heritage Preservation and the National Museum of Georgia between 2021 and 2022, and in some cases banned from entering the museum premises.

Then came the turn of the National Book Center, which too was reorganized, leading to a standoff between Georgian writers and the Ministry of Culture according to Eurasianet reporting.

The film industry too had its share of controversy. In mid-March 2022, the Georgian National Film Center (GNFC), a public agency that sponsors film projects and otherwise supports the film industry, witnessed its long time director Gaga Chkheidze get fired on the grounds of financial mismanagement. Before his dismissal, Chkeidze faced several interferences from the Ministry of Culture according to the findings of the PEN report.

The report further notes:

The Georgian government’s removal of leading researchers from cultural institutions and denial of grants and other resources to researchers risks undermining both the rights of those individual to culture and participation in scientific progress, and the rights of Georgians and others around the world to benefit from research, information, and knowledge in a number of scientific and cultural fields. The punitive actions and systemic assaults against the artistic and professional independence of Georgia's cultural institutions, as well as against individual artists and professionals, will also have a chilling effect on freedom of expression in the entire country and further narrow civic space.

Those who spoke to PEN American said the repression reminded them of the Soviet occupation, “during which all art and culture was systematically repressed or exploited for government propaganda purposes.”

Whether Georgian Dream will take note of the recommendations listed by PEN America in its report is to be seen. Minister Tsulukiani's crackdown since her appointment in 2021 leaves little hope for that.

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