The South Caucasus country of Georgia marked May 9, the day former Soviet republics celebrate the 1945 victory over Nazi Germany, with a debate about its Stalinist past and its NATO future.
As per tradition, elderly communists dusted off photos of their favorite Soviet dictator, wartime leader Joseph Stalin, as well as Soviet flags and World War II medals. Demanding the return of a monument to the Great Leader, they paraded Stalin’s bust through his hometown of Gori.
But this year they faced a rival rally, in which several rock bands performed to prove that Stalin is not the only rock star in town.
Just as the Communists marched with slogans proclaiming “Glory to Stalin!,” young activists gathered nearby with slogans declaring “Totalitarianism Kills!” and “Gori Is Not Red.” The red stars were pitted against the stars of the European Union, the place where Georgia, at least most of it, hopes to be in the future.
“The victory over fascism was undoubtedly a momentous event. Nobody denies that,” activist Nino Dalakishvili told Netgazeti.ge. “However, today when we see that [World War II] veterans are being used by political forces and these forces are being sponsored by Russia, we believe this is detrimental to our country. This is what we rally against. We want to defend our nation’s progressive, pro-Western policy.”
There are widespread concerns that Moscow, seeking a political foothold in Georgia, is enabling the growing, but still relatively marginal anti-Western rhetoric in the country.
Several cars with Russian plates, carrying Russian flags and St. George ribbons, arrived in Georgia shortly before May 9. St. George ribbons are seen as a symbol of patriotism in Russia, and as a symbol of Russian imperialism and Kremlin propaganda by Russia’s neighbors like Georgia and Ukraine.
But criticism of Georgia’s Western integration plans is not limited to the elderly and visiting Russians. Just as Gori was witnessing the faceoff between hipsters and Stalinists, a current-affairs debate was playing out back in the capital, Tbilisi.
Two members of the ruling Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia Party, parliamentarians Tamaz Mechiuari and Soso Jachvliani, spoke out against NATO exercises scheduled to kick off in Georgia on May 11.
The Kremlin already has condemned the drills as provocative, and, apparently, that condemnation resonates with the two MPs. Mechiauri, head of parliament's finance and budgetary committee, said that the exercises pose a threat to Georgia. “I don’t support joining NATO in our current circumstances,” he said, local outlets reported.
In a thinly veiled jab at Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli and her tiny, pro-NATO Republican Party, Mechiauri posited that the only purpose of the drills is for certain politicians to make themselves relevant on the political scene.
Public attention has focused mostly on Mechiauri. Best known for once confusing the EBRD with a Russian vulgarity for sex, Jachvliani has escaped similar scrutiny.
The staunchly pro-Western Republican Party demanded that the Georgian Dream expel Mechiauri for holding views at odds with Georgia’s stated foreign policy course.
“Mechiauri is an ignoramus and a fool… a headache for his own party,” blasted Levan Berdzenishvili, a lawmaker from the Republican Party.
Mechiauri, in turn, has demanded that the government boot out the Republicans.
This might seem like a schoolyard brawl except that the Republicans have regularly been in the political firing line of late -- in particular, NATO-boosting Defense Minister Khidasheli.
Many were disappointed by the mild response of Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili, who chided Mechiauri, but said that the Republicans, who chair parliament and hold cabinet posts, should respect the personal opinion of a member of the ruling coalition.
The Republicans earlier had announced that they will run apart from the Georgian Dream in this November's parliamentary elections.
Meanwhile, ever attentive to political drama, many Georgians are watching to see if the build-up to November's elections might show if this was one man’s personal opinion. Or if Russia indeed has found a foothold in Tbilisi.