Beyond top-down democratisation: protests of Georgian students, ‘ravers’ and workers

  1. Auditorium #115: The student movement at Tbilisi State University (TSU) was founded in 2016, in response to state interference in the university’s autonomy and corruption issues in student self-government. It quickly expanded in numbers as well as in thematic coverage. Students from other universities joined the movement pressing for educational reform in the country along with direct budgetary funding of higher educational institutions in Georgia. After the rector of TSU resigned and some promises about reforms were made, the movement lost its momentum.
    Instead of vanishing, it transformed itself into a more exclusive group with explicit leftist ideology and in addition to education reform, it started promoting workers’ rights and increasing awareness for environmental issues in the country. It was also the first social movement, not centered on gender or minority issues, which openly expressed its support for the LGBT community in Georgia. As they saw the government halting the adoption of new educational legislation, Auditorium #115 occupied one of the main university buildings for several months. In 2017, they actively focused on youngsters working in the service sphere, Tkibuli miners and railway workers who spoke up against inhumane, unsafe working conditions and low wages.
  2. #Raveolution in May 2018 appeared as a sudden collective action after the crackdown on the clubs Bassiani and Café Gallery in Tbilisi. Among many organisers the White Noise Movement(WNM), founded in 2015 and closely associated with Tbilisi’s club scene, was one of the leading forces. Its popularity increased during the last couple of years, advocating for major reforms in the drug policy of the country. WNM demanded the decriminalisation of drug use and the legalisation of soft drugs, such as cannabis, but they also advocated for state-funded medical treatment and the rehabilitation of drug addicts. Many supporters of the ‘raveolution’, however, stood up against police raids and violence in general, perceived as an attack on Georgia’s liberal youth.
  3. The strike of Tbilisi Metro workers, which resulted in a complete shutdown of the Tbilisi Metro system, took place shortly after the ‘raveolution’ in June 2018. The courts and the Mayor’s office tried to prevent this from happening, even issued a ban on strike during working hours. The Metro Workers Union found an ingenious, albeit risky way to achieve their goal – hunger strike, which led to a subsequent shutdown of the whole metro. After dealing with massive online disinformation and a couple of discussion rounds with the mayor, they stopped the strike on vague promises. It is worth noticing that 71 percent of Georgians supported the metro strike, despite the discomfort it created in Tbilisi’s public transportation system.
  • Potential for social change and further democratisation: threats and challenges

All three movements, which were themselves intertwined with many other smaller ones, closed a major chapter of their struggle once the state showed them a “humane face”. The movements got promises directly from high-ranked officials and invitations to the ministries for future legislative planning. Entangled in this web of bureaucracy, they, however, then lost momentum and public support. The process of decision-making was not clear and transparent enough during these discussions behind the curtains. With several exceptions these movements were and still stay heavily concentrated in Tbilisi, which speaks for the problem of extreme centralisation of the country as well as the unequal distribution of power, knowledge and resources. Another, yet growing threat to the further development of such movements are the attempts of public space monopolisation from the side of populist radical right groups and extremists, the ultra-conservative stance of the church on almost every social issue and the government standing aside.

At the same time, the existence and further strengthening of these movements is vital for EU-Georgia relations as well, in the sense that civil society needs to develop a mechanism for direct pressure and keeping the government accountable, instead of constantly seeking for help from outside. An aspiring candidate country should be a functioning democracy with strong internal checks and balances. Furthermore, the European Parliament’s resolutions on the implementation of the EU-Georgia Association Agreement set reminders and recommendations also related to labour rights, education and drug policy in Georgia.

Beyond their indirect role in EU-Georgia politics, the movements of students, ‘ravers’ and workers have the potential to become an actual driving force for future social change. And first and foremost Georgia will need this social change for the sake of its own democratisation and development. There were some wins and even bigger losses for these groups, but they also proved that cooperation and mutual support is possible; they can merge and dissolve, transform and reinvent themselves. After having taken a troubling hiatus in the second half of 2018, next year could be decisive for the evolution or even the mere existence of such social movements in Georgia.

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