Sunday, May 22, 2011

Arab Spring. Georgian Summer?

I was a bit surprised to get a warning text from the US Embassy on Friday evening. The last (and only) time I received a text from the embassy was when Osama Bin Laden had been killed. So needless to say I was more than a little intrigued by what it could be about. I was out with some people when we all got the message warning about a "planned demonstration" taking place in Tbilisi on Saturday. Saturday came and went (although the Rapture did not). I had completely forgotten about the demonstrations and I hadn't hear anything about them from facebook or my host family (my two primary sources of Georgian news). But then this evening I remembered about them. Apparently the protesters beat up a car. Here's the video from Reuters:

I have to wonder, who are these protesters and what do they want? Unfortunately I'm limited to English reports, but this well is thankfully not entirely dry. These "opposition" protesters are in opposition to the current Saakashvili administration (and my boss, to some extent). Their leader is Nino Burjanadze; she is the ex-President of the Georgian Parliament. She went to Tbilisi State University for undergrad and received her doctorate in International Law at Moscow Lomonosov State University. According to a recent television ad, or perhaps it was a very obviously biased news program (honestly I couldn't tell, it was too long to be simply a political ad, but too sinister to be a news segment. It was very strange), she is corrupt and in league with the Russians. I asked my host cousin what it was about, but only got this very vague description, so my apologies on that. But the frightening thing about what I saw of her on this television ad was the horror movie music and the cross-hairs that they put on her while showing her picture. From what I could tell the ad was not endorsed by anyone specific, but the message was clear: This woman is evil and bad for Georgia.

If this woman is so evil she must be leading protests that advocate the public murder of babies and puppies, right? No, actually what she and her party, the People's Assembly, want a reformation of the electoral system. There are eight parties, conveniently being called the group of eight, who were trying to reform the electoral system. The ruling party and the group of eight were in transparent negotiations, called the Election Code Working Group (ECWG), from November to the end of March when suddenly the group of eight pulled out of negotiations. Then on April 5 the group of eight came back with proposals, but no meetings occurred after that. On May 12 the group of eight issued a statement/ultimatum that stated they wanted a written response to the April 5 proposals before the end of May, despite the fact that in negotiations both sides had come to determine upon an autumn 2011 deadline for electoral reform negotiations to end).

So what is the opposition saying now? Well, I'll tell you that it doesn't sound non-threatening, although it doesn't sound completely threatening, either. The first protests happened on Saturday, reported number range from 6,000 to 10,000 people. The protests continued into today, Sunday.

Although these protests originated as outrage against negotiations for the reformation of the electoral system, they are quickly becoming about government oppression. The opposition is claiming that the government is oppressing the opposition parties, arresting activists, and the storming of the Batumi headquarters of the People's Assembly party (all of which the government denies). The protests are now supposed to continue into tomorrow, Monday. Nino Burjanadze said of Sunday's protest numbers that “is not enough.” According to, she later said, "In separate remarks also on May 22 she said that that large number of people was needed in order to prevent a bloodshed as the authorities, she said, would not dare to take any actions against the protesters in case of large-scale rally." Personally, I find this to be a two-fold argument. Yes, it's true that a very large demonstration would lessen the likelihood of police brutality, however the fact that that is one of your arguments for encouraging more people to attend seems... fishy. It just doesn't seem on the up and up, for some reason, especially when you take into consideration these vague and potentially sinister remarks also given by Burjanadze, “If we are ready tomorrow we will act tomorrow… If we are ready by May 25, we will act on May 25, but it won’t be a long process; we will act in the nearest few days.” What exactly do you mean by "we will act?" And how will you define when you are "ready"?

And what is the significance of May 25, you ask? Nothing, yet. However the Georgian Party is calling for it to be “the Day of Rage of the Georgian people”, which would turn into “the last day of the Saakashvili’s regime.” And I'm sure it is no coincidence that May 26 is Georgia's Independence Day (which has me strongly rethinking this Independence Day powerpoint presentation that I just finished this afternoon. The last thing I need to set the youth of Telavi into a rebellious fervor- or maybe I'm just overestimating my skills as an educator).

The whole call for more protesters and the fact the protests are continuing two days past the original demonstration is a bit strange, and you factor in this when "we are ready" statement and it all sounds a bit foreboding. Although I don't know much about how far public opinion for the opposition spreads I can tell you that when I was watching the Reuters video, I recognized those yellow and purple flags from about two weeks ago when about five to ten cars packed with people were driving all around Telavi with those flags being held by the cars' occupants.

I'll try to keep you posted if anything else happens!

Here are the links to the articles I found. has been the most informative. They are in chronological order from oldest to newest:
November 28, 2009"Iron Lady Nino Burjanadze finds the steel to threaten her struggling ally,"
April 5, "Opposition's New Proposals on Electoral System,"
May 12, "Opposition Wants Ruling Party’s Response by End-May,"
May 12, "Ruling Party MP on Opposition's Electoral Talks Statement,"
May 22, "Some Opposition Parties Warn Against Escalation,"
May 22, "Clashes at anti-government protest in Georgia,"
May 22,"Protest Leaders Say Rally to Remain at GPB,"

May 22, "Anti-president protests continue in Georgia; opposition calls for massive turnout Monday"

Connecting with Arianna Huffington

 I have a guilty pleasure; I absolutely love graduation commencement speeches. There are two reasons for this: 1. They are always filled with such hope and inspiration for the future, and 2. There is a part of my brain that refuses to believe that I am no longer a student. In fact, since being in Georgia, I constantly have to remind myself that this is not a school trip or a year abroad. This is actually my job in my real world life.

The reason I'm sharing this guilty pleasure, which may be similar to someone saying that they love when friends sit them down for a slide show of their vacation photos, is because I recently watched the Sarah Lawrence Class of 2011 commencement speech given by Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post (which has only been around since 2005, which surprised me. I thought it was way older than that). Of course I have to say how happy I am for all of my friends that recently graduated. It's hard to believe that we're all grown-ups now. No more lying around on Westlands lawn or sitting on the hot rock- well we could, but I think it would be considered trespassing. For those of you who aren't SLC people, here's the commencement speech:

The two things that stuck out from her speech were her thoughts on the desire to connect with the world and her thoughts on getting lucky by being unlucky.

Since being in Georgia I've been thinking about the concept of 'community' a lot (and as soon as I start thinking about 'community' I think back to all of my classes with Julie Abraham where she was dead set on making us realize that the concept of 'community' only exists in our heads. So when I think of the construct of community and how I perceive communities within Georgia I imagine that Julie Abraham is somewhere in New York frowning but she doesn't entirely know why. Sorry, Julie!). I think about Georgian communities- most of which are based on family ties and are very different from the U.S. I also think about the refugee community where I teach every week as well as the expatriate community that I socialize with. There is a whole lot of community going on in my life. And what am I doing with all of it? I'm just trying to connect. I'm trying desperately to connect with the Georgian community- which is very strained at times due to language. I'm trying to connect to the refugee community because I am inspired and humbled and so many other things by the amazing women I meet at the community center. And I am trying to connect with the expatriate community because after all of the cross-cultural connections I'm trying to instigate, at the end of the week I just want to have people who speak the same language and who can laugh about the same things. All I do with my life is connect. Even this blog is a testament to my desire to connect with yet another community- my friends and family who are not on this journey with me (oh man, this post just got kinda meta. Whoa). And I think it is important to say that this project that I am on is a attempt by the Georgian government to integrate Georgia into the global community.

The idea that bad things can happen for good reasons is not exactly a new one. But I think that people too often forget it. For instance, it took me 9 months to get a job that did not involve wearing a shirt with a company logo. And the first real job that I got was to teach English in Georgia. Sometimes I forget that, yes, this was the first job that I could actually get. Although it may sound bad to put it in such blatant terms, it's how it happened. And although the time between graduation and the day I got a job was hard and soul crushing and depressing and ego deflating and I could go on, but I'll spare you, it was worth it in the long run. The other jobs I was applying for involved sitting at a desk for an interminable amount of time, getting coffees, and fixing xerox machines. Sure, the money would have been better, but I definitely would not have been able to have the adventures that I've had and meet the people I have met and even endure the hardships that will be good for me in the long run. I had a lot of doors close on me, but then a big ol' window opened up. And even on my bad days here I think I would do well to remember that being in Georgia is a hell of a lot better than being at Trader Joe's.

So, to all of my new fellow SLC alumni, I wish you all the best in whatever comes next. And for everyone else who is not so new to the real world, remember, we can always make it better.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Confessions of a Tetri Gogo: Adventures in Language

I noticed last night while having dinner with some friends that most conversations with TLG volunteers usually end up being about language. It will either be about how language barriers are difficult or how we've learned things about our own languages since being here. It's always brought up at least once in an evening.

But it's a completely valid conversation topic because language is always around us. Language makes up about 75% of our lives. And I don't mean just talking, I mean 75% of our lives is taken up by explaining grammar, speaking veryveryvery slowly, thinking about how we should phrase something in the most bare bones manner, trying to speak Georgian, and generally thinking about speaking or others' speech.

Although it can be incredibly frustrating sometimes, it has resulted in quite a few anecdotes. I will now share with you the most recent ones, which are also the most hilarious...

The other day I was with a friend in a second-hand shop owned by two little old ladies. These women were just sitting around when we came in. We were meandering among the clothes and the two ladies didn't pay us much mind, they continued their chatting. My friend and I both went up to the front of the store (not that it was that far away from the back of the store). For some reason the two old ladies got up out of their seats and stood there staring at us. They didn't come any closer to us- mostly because for them to be any closer we would have had to give them piggy back rides. So there they were, about a foot away, staring when suddenly I hear one of them mutter, "Tetri gogo [თეთრი გოგო]" For those of you who don't speak Georgian that means "white girl." I can only image that I was the "white girl" in question because I'm pretty damn white. I have no idea what I did to illicit such a phrase being hurled in my direction, I don't even know if it was meant to be an insult. All I know is that I had to fight the urge to crack up laughing. It was such a strange interaction.

Later that day my friend and I went to a cafe. Our choice in cafe was probably not a wise one- we went to the more popular cafe in town where all of the students go (okay, it's one of 2 cafes in town, so it's not like we had a whole lot of choices). Not surprisingly after being there for a little while we were quite literally surrounded by students, all boys.  And they were forming a radius around us. Personally, I do not like a. large crowds of teenage boys, and b. being the center of attention. So this was really not my scene. Not to mention most of these boys went to my school and knew my name, despite the fact that I had never seen them before. I really wanted to leave. However, the problem with having a radius of people around you is that there are no secrets. So I implemented the weapon of ex-pats everywhere: slang. I often use slang and speak quickly when I don't want Georgians to know what I'm saying and it usually works pretty well. So I turned to my friend and said, "I want to peace." Now, I say that slang usually works because after I said that I wanted to "peace" one of the boys turned to me and said, "The toilet is in the back and to the right." I think after an interaction like that all you can do is leave and leave quickly.

Those are some of my better run ins with language and misunderstandings thereof. I'll spare you the tedious and frustrating ones. I hope you've enjoyed them and maybe you will better appreciate the next conversation you have.