Georgia’s EU Candidacy Advances: Amid ‘Resistance’

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The Georgian stand at Frankfurt in October reflected the battle against cultural pressure in Tbilisi described by PEN America.

The Georgian national stand in Hall 4 at the 2023 Frankfurter Buchmesse. Four Tbilisi publishers paid for the stand with support from the Open Society Georgia Foundation, rather than accept funding from a state that observers say is leveraging new oppression on the nation’s cultural community. Image: Intelekti Publishing

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Georgian Publishers’ National Stand
As Reuters Brussels is reporting this morning (November 8), the European Commission has recommended today that the Republic of Georgia receive formal candidate status for membership in the European Union.

The recommendation is conditioned on Georgia taking several reforms, according to Ursula von der Leyen in a news conference, including, per Reuters, “Georgia aligning itself with the EU’s foreign policy sanctions, pushing back against disinformation and political polarization, as well as ensuring a free and fair 2024 election.” The European Council is to take up the recommendation in December.

Publishing Perspectives readers will recall our November 2 article about the extensive examination that PEN America‘s Polina Sadovskaya has made of the pressures being brought to bear on cultural elements of Georgian society, for the PEN report Taming Culture in Georgia: Georgian Government Clamps Down on Freedom of Speech and Cultural Expression.

Polina Sadovskaya

In a new statement on today’s development with the EU candidacy, Sadovskaya says, “Despite orchestrated attempts by the ruling Georgian Dream party to redirect public support away from Europe, the will of the Georgian people has been heard in Brussels. Writers, journalists, artists, and other members of civil society have advocated tirelessly for democratic reforms despite government attempts to curtail civic engagement and suppress freedom of expression.

“While European Union membership would go a long way toward establishing a rights-based future for Georgians,” she says, “it’s no guarantee of long-term freedom and independence, as we’ve seen in a handful of EU member countries currently experiencing democratic backsliding. Societies require a robust civil society, with writers, artists, cultural workers, and others free to express themselves without government repression.”

As it turns out, the Georgian national stand at Frankfurt Book Fair last month reflected the cultural-sector crisis Sadovskaya has explicated.

Gvantsa Jobava: ‘Cultural Oppression is Unacceptable’

On the Georgian national stand at the 75th Frankfurter Buchmesse in October. From left are Frankfurt’s Vladka Kupska of Frankfurt’s sales group; Gvantsa Jobava; Tina Mamulashvili, the director of Sulakauri Publishing in Tbilisi; and Frankfurt president and CEO Juergen Boos. Image: Intelekti Publishing

During the 75th-anniversary iteration of Frankfurter Buchmesse in October, the national stand of Georgia–which staged its guest of honor program at Frankfurt in 2018–carried large colorful panels of presentational text and images, pointing to the challenges that would later be outlined in Sadovskaya’s report.

“We’re in danger of losing all the success that’s been achieved through the hard work of accomplished professionals in Georgian museums, film, theater, literature, and many other fields for many years.”Gvantsa Jobava

Many of our readers know Gvantsa Jobava, vice-president of the International Publishers Association (IPA), and the international relations chief at the Tbilisi-based publisher Itellekti. Jobava points out to us that the 2023 Georgian stand carried an evolved slogan from the 2018 Guest of Honor Georgia motto, Follow the Journey of Georgian Characters. Instead, this year, the theme became Georgian Characters in Resistance.

We asked Jobava about the PEN America report on cultural pressure in Georgia and its connections to the presentation of the Georgian stand at Frankfurt this year.

In her responses to us, she refers to the Georgian member-state candidacy at the European Union, clearly seeing the EU bid as directly relevant to what she refers to as “very challenging events taking place in the Georgian cultural field.

“Cultural oppression is unacceptable,” she says. “It means we’re facing dangerous attempts at [establishing] a dictatorship” in Georgia, something she relates to “a huge Russian influence in our country, which became especially obvious after the full-scale Russian invasion in Ukraine. If anyone doesn’t want us to succeed in our aspiration to become an EU member, it’s Russia, which has occupied 20 percent of our territory and left thousands of Georgian citizens without their homes.” Her reference there, of course, is to the August 2028 occupation by Moscow of the Abkhazian and South Ossetian territories.

Gvantsa Jobava

“The attack on Georgia’s cultural field is not news for us,” Jobava says.

“The same happened in 2018, when after our very successful guest of honor project at Frankfurter Buchmesse, the ministry of culture never expressed that they were grateful to the main organizer of the project, the Georgian National Book Center, for their perfect job which achieved for the country a lot of success.” In fact, she says, the ministry closed the organization several months later, in June 2019.

While the state’s Writers House of Georgia had been “funding important publishing and literary projects’–including Georgian national stands at Frankfurt, London Book Fair, and Bologna Children’s Book Fair–the program was also running translation grants for international publishers, literary awards, and an international literature festival, she says. As is supported by state backing in many countries, these programs were devised to help Georgian writers reach international audiences.

“But in 2023,” Jobava says, “the ministry of culture ended the contract with the director of the Writers’ House, Nata Lomouri, who has served in the role since 2011. Without any competition,” Jobava says, the ministry “appointed the new director, Ketevan Dumbadze, a member of Georgia’s ruling party and active member of Georgian parliament,” as Sadovskaya covers in her PEN report.

“This appointment,” Jobava says, “was a follow-up to the oppressive politics of Thea Tsulukiani, the minister of culture and former minister of justice in Georgia. Unfortunately,” Jobava says, “she’s aiming to achieve full control of Georgian culture and as a result, all the important achievements of various cultural fields are just destroyed. We’re in danger of losing all the success that’s been achieved through the hard work of accomplished professionals in Georgian museums, film, theater, literature, and many other fields for many years.”

Relative to events Sadovskaya detailed in her report, Jobava refers to an August boycott by around 100 writers and publishers of the Litera Awards program, based on perceived government interference through the ministry. And it turns out, Jobava says, that the Georgian national stand at Frankfurt would become “the very first serious challenge” the Georgian book publishing community would encounter in its international activities.

“This stand has always been for us a window onto Europe and the whole world,” she says. “It has always been important not only for the promotion of Georgian literature and for development of our publishing sphere, but it always had political importance for us. Twice, in 2017 and 2018, we organized at Frankfurt peaceful performances themed Stop Russia. The Georgian booth has always been a stage for us to speak about our aspiration to become a member of the EU. The Georgian booth has always been a place where we could show ourselves, our country, our society, our values, and prove why we’re ready to become part of the EU. That’s why we decided to fight for what has always belonged to us.”

To present the national stand this year as something authentically belonging to the Georgian publishing community, the publishers decided to decline state funding. The country’s four largest publishing houses—Sulakauri, Intelekti, Palitra, and Artanuji—funded the stand with additional support from the Open Society Georgia Foundation, making it open to all Georgian publishers and writers travelling to Frankfurt this year.

‘The Freedom to Publish’

The privately funded Georgian national stand in Hall 4 at the 2023 Frankfurter Buchmesse. Image: Intelekti Publishing

Citing the Georgian collective stand at Frankfurt this year as “an important victory for our sector,” Jobava describes the book business’ investment in the effort as “one more proof that Georgian culture is not going to give up its freedom. We wanted to prove that, despite difficult circumstances, ‘Art is alive and independent.'”

“We’re pretty sure that our friends, the whole democratic world, won’t abandon us in our aspiration to freedom and independence.”Gvantsa Jobava

Jobava says she was one of some 20 Georgian cultural players who went through a four-day training program in civil activism presented by USAID Georgia, the US Agency for International Development program, which has operated in Georgia since 1992, the agency says, providing approximately US$1.9 billion in assistance intended to improve the country’s security and prosperity. According to Jobava, since taking the USAID course, she and her fellow participants have been questioned by Tbilisi’s security service personnel in a “so-called secret case [that] is still ongoing.

“Of course, the main goal of the officials was to intimidate not only cultural representatives” who participated “but the whole society as well. The plan didn’t work. This case gave us even more motivation to fight for our fundamental rights.”

And these recent developments, she says, have created a new level of unity among the country’s cultural leaders–bringing new focus to that spirit of resistance and firm appreciation for the news from Brussels today that the European bloc will move forward to the December consideration of Georgia’s EU candidacy.

“I want to use this opportunity,” Jobava says, “to call on all the international organizations that actively support strengthening democratic values to support the initiatives and projects” in Georgia, “because in these dreadful conditions that Georgian culture is facing, it’s important that the cultural industries can keep on breathing.”

At issue in Georgia today, she says, are “freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and freedom to publish. We need help and strong support from Europe and from the West in this difficult war. And we’re pretty sure that our friends, the whole democratic world, won’t abandon us in our aspiration to freedom and independence.”

‘I Am Georgian and Therefore I Am European’

This year’s stand at Frankfurt carried four floor-to-ceiling banners, pictured below, spelling out a ceremonial descriptive rationale for the Georgian delegation’s “resistance” theme.

The ‘Georgian Characters in Resistance’ banners at the national stand at Frankfurter Buchmesse, 2023

Those banners’ messages, translated, read:

“‘I am Georgian and therefore I am European.’ Historic words spoken by the late Georgian prime minister Zurab Zhvania (2003) in front of the Council of Europe on January 27, 1999. On March 7 and 8, Georgian people united in protests against the Russian-inspired Foreign Agent Law initiated by the parliament of Georgia. A Georgian woman supported by the group of demonstrators held the European Union flag as they resisted the water cannon used by the police force. As a result of these demonstrations, the Georgian parliament dismissed the bill.

The art is alive and independent. As a sign of protest against the repressive politics of the current minister of culture, artist Sandro Sulaberidze removed his artwork from the exhibition in the National Gallery and spray-painted this phrase in its place. The performance went viral and the phrase became widely used as a statement by artists, writers, directors, curators and other culture professionals.

Georgian Writers in Resistance. Since the Stalin [era] repressions of the 1930s, the authorities have [more than once] tried to ‘tame writers’ in Georgia. The attempts continue to this day. We are independent writers and publishers and with this national stand, we represent Georgian literature at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Our victory will be glorious. In 1921, the 15-year-old Maro Makashvili joined the Georgian army in a fight against Soviet Occupation as a military nurse. She was writing letters to her father from the front line, bracing him with the promise of victory. In 2023 many free-spirited young people joined demonstrations against the ‘Russian-inspired’ bill of law. A 16-year-old girl ‘dancing on the water cannon’ became the symbol of the resistance of the youth.”

More from Publishing Perspectives on the freedom to publish and freedom of expression is here, more on the Republic of Georgia is here, more on Frankfurter Buchmesse is here, more on the work of PEN America is here, and more on guest of honor programs, more broadly, in world publishing’s trade shows and book fairs is here.

Publishing Perspectives is the International Publishers Association’s world media partner.

Now available here for your free download, our 2023 Publishing Perspectives Frankfurt Book Fair magazine

Our 75th Frankfurt coverage from our Frankfurt Book Fair Magazine, which was available throughout the trade show in print, is also available for your free download.

The magazine has interviews with fellows and grant-program recipients from international publishing markets, as well as programming articles from our Publishing Perspectives Forum at Frankfurt including our Executive Talks with Penguin Random House worldwide CEO Nihar Malaviya and Nanmeebooks’ Kim Chongsatitwana; highlights of key events at the 75th Frankfurter Buchmesse; and coverage of Frankfurt’s upcoming guest of honor programs (Italy, the Philippines, the Czech Republic) and this year’s Guest of Honor Slovenia.

There’s also news of literary agents and agencies; award-winning books from guest of honor markets; focus articles on artificial intelligence, sustainability; and a forthcoming effort to get more Korean literature into world markets; as well as 75th-anniversary “Frankfurt Moments.”

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.

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