Six persons emerge from the darkness to enter a harshly lit stage. They arrange themselves into two equally numbered groups – by gender, age, ideology, or whatever else divides them.
The participants then engage in a moderated discussion, exchanging views about issues they are likely to disagree on. The conversation is structured around several propositions, and as it progresses, viewers follow to see whether the two groups can find "common ground."
Common Ground (Saerto Ena) is a multimedia project series launched this year by Tbilisi Pride, a Georgian queer advocacy group, and inspired by Middle Ground, a popular American show with a similar framework and purpose.
"We try to show the viewers that civilized dialogue is possible, even around complex topics," Tamar Jakeli, one of the producers of the show, told Eurasianet. Jakeli, an activist working on queer, feminist and environmental causes, says the project seeks to counter Georgians' bitterly polarized discourse, particularly as it plays out on social media.
"On Facebook, we see discussions where it is very easy to radically defend a particular view, but it is very hard to see the opposing side as a human being like you," Jakeli said.
Common Ground is part of a modest trend of initiatives focused on overcoming various social and political differences in Georgian society. Different actors in media, civil society, and to a lesser extent politics have tried to set up frameworks where members of opposing camps attempt to set good examples by having civilized conversations.
Recent months saw a right-libertarian politician and an outspokenly leftist artist calmly discussing private property and art, Georgians and Russians sitting down for uneasy debates in Tbilisi, and a pro-Ukraine blogger controversially shaking hands with a Moscow-friendly far-right leader. The trend comes as political polarization reaches new peaks while the political class shows itself less and less able to defuse the tensions.
On Common Ground, men and women talk about feminism, older and younger generations debate values and traditions, and representatives of the economic left and right discuss capitalism and market regulation. The episodes show some participants switching camps on particular issues, while others show readiness to team up with the opposing camp to find solutions to mutual concerns.
This is not how debates usually go in Georgia these days. In a country where humanizing enemies is a classical literary trope, those principles are hard to find in the current discourse.
This has been most apparent in the realm of politics, which has known divisions for many years. This week, too, has been no exception, with the ruling party waging procedural wars to obstruct the opposition's attempts to form a parliamentary probe after key Georgian judges were hit by U.S. sanctions.
Legislative deadlocks are nothing unfamiliar to Georgians who for years have been trying to make sense of repeated boycotts and broken commitments. But in recent years, political divides have spread and infected more spheres of social interaction, and attempts by the country's leaders to exploit and amplify existing social divisions to their political advantage risk creating a vicious cycle of anger and trauma.
Particularly worrying have been attempts by the ruling Georgian Dream party and its allies to win conservative supporters by appealing to religious sensitivities and spreading conspiracy theories. That is amplified by the alleged use of trolls, bots, and sponsored content to further divide social media, the favorite frontline for argumentative Georgians. These frictions then manifest in the real world, such as during awkward holiday dinner talks this Easter.
Against this backdrop, some have tried to take matters into their own hands and come up with solutions on how to overcome differences or at least create an environment for exchanging concerns – at times at the risk of controversy.
One prominent example is the video series by RFE/RL's Tbilisi and regional branches, which invited Georgians and Russians to give their views – separately and in face-to-face talks – about each other and their respective homelands. It was a response to the arrival of up to a hundred thousand Russians to Georgia in the wake of the Ukraine invasion and their often awkward cohabitation with often unwelcoming locals.
"The project authors believe it is important to try to understand this issue despite the controversy surrounding it," read the disclaimer to the first show, in apparent anticipation of negative reception. The project continued, attracting many viewers.
More controversy followed a recent attempt by prominent pro-Ukraine military blogger Ucha Abashidze to engage in a dialogue with Zura Makharadze, a leader of the infamous Moscow-friendly far-right violent group Alt-Info that regularly creates havoc in Tbilisi's streets.
The nearly two-hour video shows the two men peacefully exchanging views on military strategy and geopolitics. But what was supposed to be another episode of "Human Talk" – a series of video interviews launched by the blogger to focus on listening to guests rather than arguing with them – elicited a predictable backlash: Critics thought the host left Makharadze largely unchallenged and thus gave a platform to the violent leader who continues to walk free despite many calls to prosecute him for organizing homophobic pogroms in 2021.
"We do not give a platform to groups whose goal is to oppress and use violence against certain groups in Georgia," says Jakeli, who also recalls considering organizing a discussion between queer people and conservatives in the Common Ground format but ultimately deciding against it.
It is not the first time that someone has attempted to build bridges in Georgia. Figurehead President Salome Zourabichvili tried starting a national conversation to overcome polarization in 2021, inviting representatives of various political and civil society groups to her palace. But the enthusiasm for confidence-building slowly waned, leaving questions about whether such initiatives are possible at higher governmental levels.
It is also unclear whether the current modest initiatives will ultimately have a civilizing effect on the broader culture of conversation and politics. Nor is it clear how far across the aisle the peace can be sought.
But at least there are more people in Georgia talking about talking.
Nini Gabritchidze is a Tbilisi-based journalist.