The Role of a Citizen in Politics – What Does Civil Activism Mean?

ზაალ ანდრონიკაშვილი, თამარ გურჩიანი, ნინო რობაქიძე, გია ნოდია
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ზაალ ანდრონიკაშვილი, თამარ გურჩიანი, ნინო რობაქიძე, გია ნოდია

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“The stereotype that we shifted the attention only to NGOs should be destroyed… In our society it is almost considered that civil activism relates solely to a type of organizational or non-governmental sector.” This view expressed at the discussion precisely reflects the problem or puzzle that the Georgian civil society sector currently faces.  

“The Role of a Citizen in Politics – What Does Civil Activism Mean?” is the topic to which the Heinrich Boell Foundation dedicated another public session. The discussion speakers, Ms. Tamar Gurchiani, Mr. Zaal Andronikashvili and Mr. Ghia Nodia, together with the audience, discussed the challenges confronting Georgian civil society and, based on the experience of recent years, proposed their suggestions for a solution.

How should the citizen, who is neither willing to follow the party political route, nor is a member of an NGO, behave? How can he/she convey his/her message to the government and how he/she can influence the ongoing processes in the country? How is he/she left to protect his/her own opinions and interests? These are the questions that Mr. Zaal Andronikashvili, associate professor at Ilia University and researcher at the Berlin Centre for Literary and Cultural Research, focused on in his speech. He sees the solution in civil initiatives and gives an example of the history of public movement for protecting the Gudiashvili Square in Tbilisi. Mr. Andronikashvili finished his speech saying that a citizen should realize that he/she is an owner of this country and can dedicate time and energy to change something even in his/her micro-environment.

The second speaker of the discussion, Mr. Ghia Nodia, Director of the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development, refers to this sentiment as “civic virtue”. He elaborates on this theme, saying “external exposure of civic virtue in the form of civil activism is not only an important issue, but is a key and decisive factor for the presence of democracy in the country. And when we generally say that problems in a democracy are related to political culture, we should probably remember, in the first instance, that certain problems and deficit exist in terms of this very civic virtue, which shows itself in civil activism”.  

Mr. Nodia also listed other problems: society finds it difficult to tolerate the pluralism of civil activism or to shift the attention from its qualitative problems to quantitative characteristics. Moreover, two main features characterize civil activity – negativism, when civil activism is equated with popular expression of protest, and “emotivism”, when emotional afflatus is required for civil activism. In his words, instead of organizing citizens “for something”, we have civil activism “against something”.

Lawyer Tamar Gurchiani, at the beginning of her speech, noted that she would focus mainly on CSOs. First she listed the myths and stereotypical approaches related to CSOs, asking whether the civil sector was stronger before the Rose Revolution and whether their performance improved. Ms. Gurchiani also listed the tendencies that she considers particularly dangerous to CSOs: State funding as the most important among other problems; identity, when CSO are not able to make up their minds on whether they should be watch dog or think tank organizations, i.e. whether they should control the state or help it develop policy. In her opinion, “unfortunately, those ideas are replicated, which imply that one should necessarily assist [the State] and this is the goal and assignment of one’s existence. But meanwhile, the State requires more control than assistance since it has all resources to handle everything on its own”.     

After the speeches, the discussion was opened for the local audience and those joining through the live-stream. A participant on the live-stream asked the first question: “Is civil activity in Georgia dependent on the good will of donors, and what would happen to civil activism in the absence of donors?” Other questions included: Who are the CSOs accountable to? How is it possible to balance their two functions, criticism and cooperation, in the relationship between CSOs and the government? Why civil activity is mainly expressed as a reaction instead of seeking out and bringing forward the most important issues? Why do citizens mostly attend meetings organized by political parties and attend less those organized by CSOs? How can we expand the role of citizens and what supporting forces exist to strengthen civil society and increase the public’s involvement in political life? Is it possible to mobilize the public when according to recent studies, it neither trusts CSOs nor is aware of them? What impact does the country’s economic situation have on civil activism? Can we expect activity from a hungry citizen who only thinks about acquiring bread for tomorrow?   

Mr. Zaal Andronikashvili believes that the only way out is the initiative and self-organization of each citizen; it is less related to upbringing/education since a human being, at any age, is able to comprehend his/her role and initiative. He argues that this perception is slowly spreading.

A large banner next to the panel, with Heinrich Boell’s photo on it and the caption “Meddling is desired”, created a natural background to the discussion and provided a fitting response to the questions raised during the debates.