“Mr. President, are you ready to rock?” exclaimed Senegalese hip-hop star Youssou N' Dour as Georgia’s Mikheil Saakashvili arrived at a May 26 concert that was designed to raise awareness about the plight of Georgia’s 350,000 Internally Displaced Persons.
The answer was never in doubt.
Under the banner “Music Breaks Walls!,” N' Dour, fellow francophone hip-hop star MC Solaar, hip-hop DJ Maïa-K, rap artist Youssoupha, Afro-soul artist Grace, and English actress-singer Jane Birkin appeared in the western city of Zugdidi, not far from the breakaway region of Abkhazia, to deliver a government-encouraged message of peace and reconciliation.
If the format sounds familiar, it should. In 2007, a band headed by a former member of 70s disco sensation Boney M was invited to Georgian-controlled South Ossetia to perform within a few kilometers of Tskhinvali, capital of the breakaway region. That concert sought to deliver a similar message. [For details, see the EurasiaNet.org archive.]
This time, Abkhaz constituted the target audience. Roughly 30,000 IDPs from the 1992-1993 conflict with Abkhaz separatists live in Zugdidi.
Media production company Altervision Group, which set up a Tbilisi music festival after Georgia withdrew from the 2009 Eurovision contest, organized the free Zugdidi event, held on Georgia’s Independence Day.
A press release stated that guests were invited by the Union of Jewish Students in France, the Coalition Against Racism, a French non-governmental organization, and the Coalition for Justice, a Tbilisi-based non-governmental organization that describes its aim as raising awareness about IDP issues and “human rights violations carried out in the occupied territories” of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Vera Kobalia, an IDP from Abkhazia who heads the Coalition for Justice, said the idea for the concert came up spontaneously during a Tbilisi visit from representatives of the Union of Jewish Students in France (UEJF). “By our being here, we can perhaps help Russia change its view, or prevent Russia from entering [Georgia] again,” elaborated UEJF Chairperson Arielle Schwab.
Earlier in the day, MC Solaar, Grace and Jane Birkin, along with representatives of UEJF and the French non-governmental organization Coalition Against Racism, led a peace march to the Inguri River bridge border crossing to Abkhazia.
“I came here to say we haven’t forgotten you,” Birkin declared to a round of cheers from a crowd of about 100 people, some waving Coalition for Justice flags.
Birkin, known for her human rights activities in Chechnya, admitted that she had not heard “much” about the ethnic cleansing of Georgians from South Ossetia during the 2008 Georgia-Russia war as described by the Coalition for Justice. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
She told journalists that she came at the invitation of President Saakashvili’s advisor Raphaël Glucksmann, son of celebrity French philosopher André Glucksmann. Both Glucksmanns have worked extensively on Chechnya-related issues.
As with Boney M, locals appeared dazzled by the Zugdidi show – a definite touch of exotica for this hard-scrabble provincial city. Youssou N' Dour and his band opened the evening with powerful African rhythms, mesmerizing the crowd, which scrambled for photos with any and all musicians within reach.
Members of Zugdidi’s IDP population had mixed reviews. For Tornike Kilanaua, Gali district head for the pro-Tbilisi Abkhaz government-in-exile, the concert reminded outsiders that Georgia’s IDPs were not always IDPs. Others, like Besik Basaria, responded more cynically. “IDPs want homes, jobs, money, that’s the support they want,” he said.
Event organizers said that they understand that music is not going to feed Georgia’s IDPs. “We are reminding the world that, although there are other places with [IDPs], 350,000 live in Georgia,” said the Coalition for Justice’s Kobalia.
Paul Rimple is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi.