Report: Georgia’s Cultural Life Under Increasing Pressure

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Partly based on pressures placed on Georgia’s book community, a new report says many Georgians ‘believe their democracy is regressing.’

In Tbilisi’s old town, late 2019. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Vicu 9

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

Amid an ‘Active’ EU Application Process
As many mark the 20th anniversary of the start of the Republic of Georgia‘s Rose Revolution—November 3 to 23 in 2003—Polina Sadovskaya, the advocacy and Eurasia director at PEN America, has today (November 2) released a new and darkening assessment of democracy and the freedom of expression in the Caucasus nation with a foot in both Europe and Asia.

The timing is important. Georgia, as Sadovskaya notes, applied for membership in the European Union in March 2022, “just days after Russia’s  full-scale invasion of Ukraine [on February 24, 2022]. In doing so, it ostensibly committed itself to the EU’s values of respect for democracy, the rule of law and human rights.”

The majority of Georgians support EU membership, Sadovskaya writes, “but the Georgian Dream political party, in power since 2012, seems increasingly to be under Russian influence. It has been accused of taking pages directly out of Russia’s playbook: earlier this year, thousands of protestors took to the streets when the government attempted to pass a law on ‘transparency of foreign influence,’ nearly identical to Russia’s notorious ‘foreign agents’ law,’ which has been used to decimate Russia’s independent civil society and media.”

And in terms of positioning itself as an EU candidate, Sadovskaya writes, “In June 2022, the EU conditioned Georgia’s candidacy on the country addressing 12 priorities. By the European Commission’s standards, the Georgian government has made some progress in implementing the EU-imposed conditions, but the European Commission notes limited or no progress on two key priorities, de-oligarch-ization and media freedom. Experts on Georgian politics say there is a lack of political will to fully implement the EU’s demands, most of which are connected to human rights. ‘Where Georgia is heading is certainly not to the EU,’ said a prominent member of Georgia’s civil society who spoke to PEN America on condition of anonymity.”

Image: PEN America, Lia Ukleba

‘Taming Culture in Georgia’

Sadovskaya’s description of the situation in Taming Culture in Georgia: Georgian Government Clamps Down on Freedom of Speech and Cultural Expression is hardly isolated.

Polina Sadovskaya

At CBS News, Sharyn Alfonsi’s 60 Minutes report includes an interview with Georgian president Salome Zourabichvili in which she says that a denial of membership in the EU for Georgia would be “a big victory for Russia.”

Referencing the Georgian ministry of culture’s 2021 tightening of control of a literary competition, Sadovskaya makes literature one of the key points of research for her report. “PEN Georgia, a literary organization of more than 70 Georgian writers and a member of the global PEN International network, described this change [when the ministry took control of the Litera competition’s jury] as echoing Soviet-era “appointments of representatives of the Soviet state to contest juries, mandated to reject submissions incompatible with party ethos.”

In August of this year, “the ministry chose to prematurely end its contract with the director of the Writers’ House, Natasha Lomouri,” Sadovskaya writes, “three months before her contract was officially due to  expire. Lomouri had served as director of the Writers’ House since 2011.”

With a newly installed Writers’ House director—a member of parliament for the Georgian Dream party—not only is the Litera prize’s future in question, but the Writers’ House, acting in resistance to the new moves by the government, has warned that the program’s new Museum of Repressed Writers could be in jeopardy as “an initiative intended to educate younger Georgians about the Soviet suppression of the country’s writers and other cultural figures.”

When the government began making its moves on the Litera Awards, Sadovskaya reports, “Writers and jury members participating in the Litera contest were deeply concerned when they learned that the government representative would be a pro-government commentator, Ioseb Chumburidze. Out of 110 books submitted for consideration, 93 were withdrawn by their authors in protest. Four of the five judges—that is, every judge beside Chumburidze—declined to participate. The ministry retaliated by refusing  to provide the funding for the award.”

With the 2021 awards left without a host, Writers’ House having withdrawn, PEN Georgia hosted a 2022 edition of the Litera, “supported by a crowdfunding campaign and assistance from local and international civil society donors.”

‘To Infringe on the Independence of Cultural Actors’

Sadovskaya’s report goes on to look at visual art, museums, grants for cultural research, cinema, theater, and “national and international human rights law,” by way of gathering these several elements of cultural life together for a conclusion in which she writes, “The Georgian government’s efforts to infringe on the independence of cultural actors and institutions should not be understood as just a bureaucratic whim, but rather as a concerted effort to impede freedom of expression and cultural rights.

“These attacks pose significant threats to the exercise of these rights in Georgia, and also undermine the enjoyment of other human rights.”

So is that–certainly more clearly now outside Georgia than has been evident inside it–the international publishing industry and its many world cultural sister sectors has a chance to examine in real time the kind of slide that frequently seems to happen in the shadows before the broader community is aware of it.

Many readers of Publishing Perspectives will recall the zeal with which Tbilisi’s  writing community threw itself into its Guest of Honor Georgia turn at Frankfurter Buchmesse in 2018. In the new report, it’s evident that the upward, outward, expansive trajectory envisioned in that extensive guest of honor effort has run into distinctly serious challenges in the last five years.

In addition, Georgia’s staging of its UNESCO World Book Capital events, including its Caucasus and Black Sea Basin Conference, were reflections of the energy that appeared a half-decade ago to be powering a new wave of cultural independence for the former Soviet state.

Sadovskaya’s report may offer those in world book publishing who are concerned about the freedom to publish and the underlying freedom of expression that undergirds it a chance to look at the situation in Georgia as it’s developing. With as many red flags as the new PEN report raises, there’s clearly no need to wait for the “Prix Voltaire stage,” in which the International Publishers Association‘s (IPA) signature honor for those who publish under various forms of repression—and often pay dearly, even with their lives.

Lisa O’Carroll is writing from Brussels for The Guardian that Germany “has proposed a detailed and innovative roadmap to expand the EU that would give candidate countries such as Ukraine early benefits including observer status at leaders’ summits in Brussels before full membership.” As O’Carroll points out, official EU candidates now are Ukraine, Moldova, Albania, Serbia, Kosovo, Turkey, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, “with Georgia in the active application process.”

The timing may well be right, then, as PEN and Sadovskaya are signaling, for the international cultural community, expressly including publishing, to examine the Georgian situation. To that end, the new report includes a series of suggestions for action and engagement both in-country and outside the Republic of Georgia.

Below is a brief video trailer for the new report:

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, 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.

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.