Patriotism and pop - from my column in The Moscow Times:
Heavy artillery fire boomed out over the Georgian capital on Saturday afternoon, briefly obliterating the usual cacophony of car alarms, construction work and novelty cellphone ring-tones which dominates the aural environment of Tbilisi. Nobody took much notice of it, however; this was just the Georgian army running through a dress rehearsal for today’s Independence Day military parade.
With an increasingly embittered and radicalised opposition calling for some kind of ‘people’s rebellion’ after its crushing defeat by President Mikheil Saakashvili’s party in last week’s parliamentary elections, this is a difficult time to conjure up the spirit of national unity. But that’s what the Saakashvili government is likely to attempt, at a time when it feels the nation’s survival is yet again under threat from its former Soviet masters in Moscow and what it sees as the Kremlin’s separatist marionettes in the renegade provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
This being Georgia, there’ll be a lot of singing, too. The government has been taking some tips from Eurovision in its attempt to stir up patriotic fervour among Georgian youth, and Independence Day will also see the final of the annual patriotic song contest, Patrinoti. Like the ‘Patriot Camps’, where thousands of young people are given free summer holidays in the countryside, it’s part of the Saakashvili administration’s ideological programme to strengthen national identity in a country which has been ripped apart by civil conflict.
Last year’s winner was an emotional folk-rock anthem about Abkhazia which became a massive hit after the government bankrolled a high-budget video clip showing jolly Georgians returning to the Black Sea breakaway region by car, bus, train and plane. It was a fantasy fulfilled, if only in song, for the many thousands who fled the war in Abkhazia in the early 1990s. A previous winner was an ode to friendship between Georgians and Ossetians, at a time when most of South Ossetia remains under separatist control.
The deputy culture minister, Mirza Davitaia, who’s running the show, says the state initially started the song contest for very practical reasons: “When our friends were in the army, in the reserves, they found out there were no army songs,” he explains. “Soldiers, when they run, they don’t have good Georgian songs [to sing]. In Soviet times they had Russian songs, and now they have nothing for this.
“In the 1960s and 1970s, it was popular to make good patriotic songs, but after civil war in Georgia, this trend went down. That’s why our party leaders and government leaders wanted to help our composers make this kind of music.”
Critics might say that state-sponsored pop promoting a government agenda is a long way from the dissident spirit of rock’n’roll. But Davitaia insists Patrinoti is simply giving people what they need: “I think you can never have enough national pride,” he concludes.
Friday, May 23, 2008
Georgia has made it to the finals of the Eurovision song contest this weekend. Its entry is a piece of turbo-pop sentimentalism, ‘Peace Will Come’, sung by Diana Gurtskaya, a blind refugee from the separatist war in Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia who now lives in Moscow. She says the song was inspired by her persional experience of armed conflict. Gurtskaya has been awarded medals for her cultural endeavours by both Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili – two men who usually don’t even agree to disagree. In recent months, she also made an appearance at one of Saakashvili’s political rallies, standing beside Misha as he made his speech (see picture). Strangely, last year she almost represented Belarus at Eurovision, after reaching the final of the national contest there. She says that God decided she would represent Georgia this year instead.
In the days leading up to this week's parliamentary elections in Georgia, a Brussels-based PR firm employed by the government invited foreign journalists on trips to the remote Kodori Gorge, to show us the Georgians weren't massing troops there as the Russians have alleged. They insist they only have Interior Ministry forces there (although some of them do look a bit like soldiers - see picture). More on Kodori and separatist-controlled Abkhazia here - and more on the big election win for President Saakashvili's party here, with some great polling-day photos here.