ZOiS Spotlight 31/2022

Exploring the Diversity of Georgia’s Post-Soviet Left

by Veronika Pfeilschifter 05/10/2022
'No to giant dams': protest against a hydroelectric power plant in Georgia’s northwestern Rioni Valley in March 2021. Mariam Nikuradze / OC Media

Since the mid-2000s, a new generation of left-wing intellectuals, activists, organisers, workers, and artists has been emerging in many post-Soviet states, among them Georgia. These leftists’ ideological spectrum covers a variety of ideational elements, from Marxism-Leninism via social democracy to anti-capitalist green ideas and feminist gender democracy. Politically marginalised, few in number, and either fractured or loosely organised, these groups and individuals have been questioning, intervening into, or opposing the mechanisms of hegemonic market liberalisation and the reproduction of social inequalities.

The evolution of the post-Soviet left in Georgia

The post-Soviet left in Georgia has been in the making for around two decades. It was initially composed mostly of young people, many of whom are still politically active today. Over time, the meaning of ‘left wing’ has partly shifted from a reactionary, anti-neoliberal, anti-authoritarian definition to a more expansive, affirmative one that encompasses a variety of political ideologies. It therefore seems more appropriate to speak about multiple left wings when analysing leftist structures and sentiments in Georgia.

The emergence of the post-Soviet left can be interpreted as a counter-reaction to the violent post-Soviet economic breakdown and societal inequalities that remain the core aspect of engagement and struggle for Georgia’s left. This is one of the findings of field research I carried out in Tbilisi in September 2022 among left-wing respondents who either self-identified as liberal leftists, socialists, social democrats, Marxists, communists, or socialist feminists or explained that their social experiences were the driving force behind their ideational activism, which needed no specific ideological label.

Georgia’s first post-Soviet left-wing organisation, Laboratoria 1918, was created in 2011 by students at Tbilisi State University in part as the evolution of a small translation group. The organisation protested inequality in education and attempted to gradually disentangle post-Soviet forward-looking socialist ideas from Georgia’s Soviet socialist past. The movement’s successor group, Auditorium #115, established five years later, continued this tradition and increased mobilisation on social issues, such as labour rights and workplace safety, not only among students but also among ordinary people. Their activism and engagement became an important catalyst for the formation of other leftist organisations, such as an independent trade union and a feminist organisation.

Since 2016, left-wing organising in Georgia seems to have lost momentum: most members of student groups have graduated and entered the labour market, joining either politics or civil society. Besides, internal divides in left-wing movements have sharpened and ideological reorientations have taken place. Since 2021, however, parts of the Georgian left have experienced a revival at two particular moments. The first was when some activists supported protests against a hydroelectric power plant in Georgia’s northwestern Rioni Valley. The second moment was when other activists established a socialist grassroots collective called Khma, which advocates and engages on social issues, such as affordability of medicines and free student meals.

Complex views of the Soviet past

A core way to analyse the left in Georgia today is to engage with views of Georgia’s Soviet past. The respondents in my field research shared widely diverging attitudes towards the Soviet Union as a political, social, and economic system. However, all of my interlocutors – regardless of the extent of their criticism of Soviet ethics, morality, and violence – underlined that Georgia’s Soviet-era citizens were more socially secure than today’s Georgians.

My interlocutors’ perceptions of Georgia’s Soviet past varied from the liberal left’s focus on political repression and violations of political and civil rights to socialists’ and Marxists’ emphasis on social welfare and the varying intensity of repression over time. One Marxist scholar said that the social order in the Soviet Union was anti-colonialist and anti-consumerist and that its end was a humanitarian catastrophe. A democratic socialist analyst said he had a ‘dualist relationship’ with the Soviet Union, stating that the repression was wrong but underlining the importance of the Soviet Union’s role in defeating fascism.

One liberal leftist stressed that the experiences of her family members had been influential in her ideological development. Soviet Georgians were more confident about their future and felt more secure than today’s citizens. However, she equated the Soviet regime with German fascism and said that nothing good could be said about the Soviet Union. Another liberal leftist stated that left-wing ideology was not the Soviet Union’s main ideological element, but that the Soviet regime had appropriated socialist ideas. However, he said he understood the contemporary Soviet nostalgia among some parts of Georgia’s younger left and the older generation, because the better social conditions of the Soviet era benefited society at large.

Diverging outlooks towards post-Soviet Russia

Respondents’ attitudes to post-Soviet Russia and Russia’s war in Ukraine differed as well. While all respondents described Russia as a security threat to Georgia because of its occupation of the territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, perceptions varied when it came to normative and material assessments of Russia’s war against Ukraine.

For example, there were significant differences in assessments of the Ukrainian government’s agency, political ideology, and embeddedness in the global system. Again, the main dividing line ran between liberal leftists, on the one hand, and socialists and Marxists, on the other. However, radical leftists were also divided: some of them were closer to Georgia’s liberal left, which saw Russia’s imperialist policies as the root cause of the war.

Some Marxists underlined US foreign policy mistakes in Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria as well as the US imperialist outlook. While these interlocutors expressed an understanding of Russia’s foreign policy, based on the nature and expansionism of US external action, and criticised the Ukrainian elites’ social policies during the war, socialist leftists sharply condemned Russia’s imperialist policies in its neighbourhood. One respondent stated, ‘I did not support the Ukrainian government, and I can say that people with my political views would not have a bright future in Ukraine, but that doesn’t change who is the victim and who is the aggressor in this conflict.’

Veronika Pfeilschifter is a PhD student and research associate at the Institute for Caucasus Studies at Friedrich Schiller University, Jena. She is also a research affiliate at ZOiS. In her dissertation project, she studies the new generation of young leftists in the South Caucasus.