Protesting Tomorrow
25 June 2019

Against the backdrop of the protests against Russian occupation, it seemed we couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate topic than discussing the future of protests to end our festival.

“We thought we would talk about how social media and technology are changing the nature of protest around the world,” said Natalia Antelava, Coda Story’s Editor-in-Chief.

But with the third day of anti-Russian occupation protests echoing across Tbilisi, the spotlight had to be on Georgia.

So, we invited Tamara Chergoleishvili, a local magazine editor, to join Guardian correspondent, Shaun Walker, Georgian philosopher, Levan Ghambashidze, and Coda Editor-at-Large, Peter Pomeranzev.

The Tbilisi protests were like lighting a match in a room filled with gas, Levan said. There was a strong undercurrent of discontent, tipped over the edge by a symbolic event that people could easily unify over; domestic issues fail to produce such powerful protest movements.

“Why are 30,000 people ready to do that?” Shaun asked, suggesting that in other countries, people don’t protest as much.

“It took some time,” Tamara answered. Georgians don’t protest frequently. No mass protests have greeted, say, the disastrous devaluation of the Georgian Lari.

Levan chimed in, saying protesting in Georgia is difficult because the real man in power — billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili — has no formal government post. Since the formal executive has no actual power, it’s difficult to hold specific officials accountable.

One factor weakening protests in Eastern Europe, Peter said, is that governments like Russia’s can point to failed movements like Syria’s, suggesting that protest leads to disaster.

At the same time, he added, ideologically flexible governments make it difficult to articulate a clear alternative vision.

“A lot of it is about the belief that something can change,” Peter said.

Tamara suggested something similar is afoot in Georgia as well. Since Ivanishvili has so many resources, she worries people don’t believe they can successfully challenge his rule.

“Why are 30,000 people ready to do that?” SHAUN WALKER

The panel moved onto discuss the power of satire and whether it’s still an effective strategy. The Georgian panelists said satire plays a role, while Peter called it a “20th-century strategy”.

“Being satirical is a mode [today’s authoritarian leaders] are very comfortable with,” he said. “I don’t think satire works against these kinds of nihilists.”

So, what form of protest is effective? After all, one audience member said, “governments are learning they can just ignore [protesters].”

Peter said he believes that protests need long-term strategy and planning. In the age of social media, protests start and end too quickly. They need strategy to match the outpouring of emotion.

Finally, one audience member challenged the glorification of protest.

“Should we still be that enthusiastic about the concept of protests?” he asked, “Or should we worry because protest can deliver fascism and…more authoritarian governments?”

People clapped. Peter echoed the questioner’s concerns. He said that hard-right radicals are using resources like protest guides by Srjda Popovic, a progressive activist.

“The greatest revolutionary guidebook is by Lenin, and he was a dickhead,” Peter added.

By Eduard Saakashvili