ZOiS Spotlight 4/2021

Georgia’s Informal Civil Society: A Glance Behind the Scenes

by Sina Giesemann 03/02/2021
Street scene in Tbilisi, Georgia. Michele Burgess / Alamy Stock Foto

Civil society development in the post-Soviet states has long had a reputation for being generally weak. Georgia is no exception: the Soviet legacy and widespread corruption have led to what appears to be an entrenched lack of trust in political and formal institutions across Georgian society. This is backed up by the findings of recent polls by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the Caucasus Research Resource Centers (CRRC), which point to a generally low level of trust in institutions, including non-governmental organisations. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to jump to the simplistic conclusion that Georgian civil society is weak.

After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Georgia embarked on its journey towards democracy, a process which was subject to strong external influence by international organisations. Independent civil society organisations did not begin to feature more prominently in Georgia’s public discourse until the Rose Revolution in 2003. Although civil society in Georgia has continued to evolve since then, the civic landscape still appears to be dominated by international NGOs, perpetuating the impression that civil society engagement is aligned to an external agenda.

A fact often overlooked, however, is that there is a long tradition of mutual neighbourhood support and local networks in Georgia. Assistance with household tasks, childcare, shopping for the elderly and neighbourhood initiatives that focus on the environment or civil rights are an expression of community spirit and a willingness to help – but they also bear witness to the existence of an informal yet active civil society. Out of these every-day actions, networks emerge that seek community-based solutions to local problems. Neighbourhood networks and initiatives generally operate out of sight; they are informal and voluntary and cannot be compared with the institutionalised structures of civil society. They are, nevertheless, a key element of civil society and allow conclusions to be drawn about the local problems that communities face.

CBOs in urban areas – generally invisible, informal and diverse

Community-based organisations – or self-help CBOs - are local-level action groups. During the Soviet era, these networks were an attempt to compensate for the structural shortcomings of the planned economy. However, instead of disappearing with the demise of the Soviet Union, they continue to play an important role and take a wide variety of forms, depending on which local problem they seek to address.

Looking at the statistical data, it is apparent that the willingness to provide mutual assistance with day-to-day challenges via social networks has actually increased. The data covers reciprocal community or friendship-based assistance with household tasksrepairsfinancial problems or illness. Well-established neighbourhood assistance and support networks can also be a response to structural problems within society. Community-based groups tend to appear wherever there are gaps in the state’s social welfare provision. The assistance provided to older people in Georgia during the coronavirus pandemic is the latest example of this type of community initiative. It took just two weeks to organise local structures online; the Let’s Help the Elderly group is one example.

Local environmental groups, which have proliferated in recent years, are further examples of community-based initiatives. The members of one urban environmental group that creates and campaigns for green space in Georgia’s capital call themselves ‘Guerrilla Gardening Tbilisi’. Their demands filtered into the public discourse when they staged a radical and relentless protest campaign against the construction of the Budapest Hotel in Vake Park in 2014. The group is not a registered association and does not receive any external funding. It keeps politicians and political parties at arm’s length and attracts members from diverse age groups and professional backgrounds. This organised opposition to the construction of the hotel is one of the most successful examples of urban grassroots activism in Tbilisi and points to a new civic reality at the local level.

A community of shared values

Fear of discrimination and social exclusion can also spark the emergence of less visible grassroots structures. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI+) people are some of the most excluded and marginalised groups in Georgia; in addition to facing discrimination, they are often the target of violent attacks by conservative hardliners. They are also among the least visible groups, increasingly compelled by the threat of violence to seek refuge in informal, low-profile solidarity networks. Granted, a number of organisations have sprung up in Georgia, mainly since 2002, that campaign publicly for the rights of sexual minorities, but these organisations rarely engage in joint activities involving the local LGBTI+ community.

The White Noise Movement is a grassroots group that attracted international attention during the ‘Rave Revolution’ in front of the parliament building in Tbilisi in May 2013. The protests arose as a collective response to raids on two night clubs in the capital. Although this protest was not primarily motivated by the cause of LGBTI+ rights, the group is strongly associated with liberal values, which include campaigning for the rights of sexual minorities. Their members see themselves as part of a social movement that is built on three pillars: LGBTI+ rights, feminism and liberalisation of repressive anti-drug policies. Until the events of 2013, the group generally stayed below the radar in Georgia, but already had a well-established reputation as a solidarity network.

Expression of current social dynamics

In international analyses of civil society, local community-based groups and networks are often underrepresented or disregarded completely. And yet it is worth taking a closer look at these initiatives. They are an important feature of the civil society landscape, not only providing insights into new and dynamic developments but also shedding light on structural problems within society.

However, community-based groups are not easy to identify or to research due to their informal, less visible features. A glance behind the scenes of protest actions or every-day support structures reveals this informality. Informal networks and neighbourhood support can be an expression of a vibrant civil society – itself a key element of democratisation. Granted, Georgia’s NGOs, particularly in the capital, are still subject to the influence of external funding agencies, but informal initiatives have great potential in terms of identifying solutions to local problems. If existing grassroots initiatives were considered in the provision of external funding for the civic sector, this would help to build a sustainable, locally embedded civil society and ultimately help to strengthen trust in formal institutions.

Sina Giesemann is currently reading Geographical Development Studies (M.Sc.) at Freie Universität Berlin and is now a research assistant at ZOiS. A DAAD scholarship holder, her Master’s thesis explores the dynamics of the LGBTI+ movement in Georgia’s capital Tbilisi.