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Georgian artists on the front line of anti-government protests

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The Georgian government’s attempt in March to impose a repressive Russian-style “foreign agent” law has galvanized the country’s cultural community. Museum workers and artists have been at the forefront of dramatic protests in which police fired water cannons into crowds waving European Union flags and said they planned to continue the battle despite the government’s backtracking on the legislation.

The bill, if passed, would have required media outlets and NGOs with more than 20% of their funding from foreign sources to register as “foreign influence agents,” a move that sounds like strongly to legislation imposed by the Russian government of Vladimir Putin in 2012. A significant number of contemporary Georgian arts and cultural projects receive grants from foreign organizations such as the German Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, the Goethe Institute and the US Embassy, ​​cultural activists said. The arts journal.

Bouillon Group, an artist collective based in the capital Tbilisi, staged a performance titled Weightlifting Strategies featuring bureaucrats in chairs outside parliament, and its members have been a fixture at rallies against the Foreign Agents Act.

“For Georgian society, which has a long history of relations with Russia, it is quite obvious that Russia is behind the recent developments in the country,” says Natalia Vatsadze, one of the group’s arists. . “Especially the ruling Georgian Dream party, whose leader Bidzina Ivanishvili is the informal leader of the country and which has accumulated its wealth in Russia.” Billionaire Ivanishvili is known for his ties to the Kremlin and his extensive art collection.

“The Ministry of Culture tried to control artists for political purposes,” says Vatsadze. “Replace professionals with obedient and dependent workers.” Under the Foreign Agents Act, “any performance by our band that is a criticism of the government and is financed by foreign funds will be punished,” she said. “First a fine and then jail.”

Georgian Dream officials have accused “US-backed anarchists and Satanists” of supporting the protests and corrupting young people, who have come out in large numbers against the law. Young people at the rallies invigorated Georgians battered by post-Soviet wars and poverty in the 1990s, the Russian invasion in 2008 and the fallout from the Russian war in Ukraine. Georgia has taken in thousands of Russians who have fled repression and military mobilization over the past year. The March protests featured many expressions of support for Ukraine.

“For Georgians, it’s about being in Europe or going back to Russia,” says Natia Bukia, co-founder of the Project ArtBeat gallery in Tbilisi, from London, where she was. inauguration of an exhibition by the artist Nika Kutateladze. Bukia says his sense of the nihilism of the events of the past year has partly dissipated from the energy of young protesters who “know what they want”.

Uta Bekaia, the founder of Project Fungus, a Tbilisi-based queer art collective, says young Georgians fear the Foreign Agents Law will endanger the local LGBTQ+ community. “They grew up in free Georgia with no attachment to the Soviet past and don’t understand why anyone would do such a thing,” he said. The arts journal from New York, where he had lived for years before returning to Georgia and founding Fungus. The project is “a queer artists’ platform for expression” that “could not exist under the law in a homophobic system that would never support anything queer.”

Mass layoffs of cultural institutions

Under Culture Minister Tea Tsulukiani, museum workers have experienced major restructuring and massive layoffs. “The process was brutal with around 75 employees, including very experienced and leading scientists, being fired from the Georgian National Museum,” says Nikoloz Tsikaridze, an archaeologist who was among those fired from the museum. Dozens of specialists have been fired from other cultural institutions and the remaining employees face intimidation and harassment, according to Tsikaridze, who is also president of the Union of Science, Education and Culture Workers. of Georgia, which was created after the layoffs.

In February, the Georgian National Museum revoked approval for 13 international research projects funded by the Shota Rustaveli National Science Foundation of Georgia and evaluated by the European Research Council, he says. Tsikaridze provided The arts journal with a list of two dozen additional archaeological research and excavation projects that have been suspended due to ministry policies.

Lana Karaia, president of the Georgia branch of Icom, the international museum network, says Tsulukiani’s ministry is engaged in a constant “show of power to those who depend on the ministry; block access, control museum employees and treat Icom Georgia as a kind of enemy”. Karaia says older cultural workers told her that the situation in Georgia had never been worse “except in 1937” – at the height of the purges of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

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