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Georgia: Ideas and struggles of the “workshop generation”

Interview with Nugzar Kokhreidze, head of the Georgian NGO Dialogue of generations (RICDOG). Interviewer: Yulia Oreshina.

February 22, 2018 - Yulia Oreshina - Stories and ideas

Image by Yulia Oreshina

YULIA ORESHINA: Dialogue of Generations has been actively engaging in work with youth in Georgia. What challenges do you face?

NUGZAR KOKHREIDZE: We live in times when everything is getting created. At the same time, it is a period of chaos as there are no points of reference. People have freedom, but without knowledge and experience they do not know how to manage and take advantage of it. The country is developing having successfully chosen the path of European integration. However, there are a lot of debates within the Georgian society and a lack of agreement on some of the most important issues. The most difficult aspect of our job is that we are not sure what to offer to young people. We do not know their goals and what direction they are likely to choose. We give them the tools that could build a consensus within the society. We only offer a space for their personal development, but young people need to develop new ideas by themselves and create an atmosphere of solidarity. This is not an easy task.

Not everyone is able to find their place as long as this chaos persists and there are no points of reference. This is the biggest challenge faced by today’s youth.

Is it difficult to form a dialogue between the generation of the 1990s and today’s youth?

Our mission is to find a common platform because these two generations do not really understand each other and still have a communication problem. We witness confrontation of different opinions and visions in all our projects. Although there is no big age difference, the dissonance is noticeable. It was problematic to convince them to work together, explain why volunteering is important. We have transformed our organisation into a community that focuses on personal development, while at the same time emphasising responsibility towards others. We hope to create some kind of laboratory where we can test various approaches, and so far, we have had positive results.

The memory of the fall of the Soviet Union and the wars the Georgian society had to endure were still very recent when you started working. How was the youth back then and what issues were important to them?

The youth of the 1990s kind of lost itself in that moment. They were struggling for independence, trying to build a strong state, but society did not unite. On the contrary, it got more conflicted.  Everything became more complicated, creating more social problems in the process. It was in the troubles of everyday life that this generation was lost. They had no professional opportunities and no life goals. They were victims of their newly gained freedom. They went through wars and stress, and when they were supposed to make independent decisions it turned out they were not prepared to do that. Earlier, they were used to someone else deciding for them. Today’s youth does not have this problem because they were raised in an open state, without the burden of the Soviet past. It is a more open and Europeanised generation, that still is unaware of what they should expect from a globalised world and the rapidly changing political situation. This is even more crucial when you live in a relatively small country dependent on both internal and external factors.

Do you see any significant changes in society, any problems that engage this new young generation? In what way does it differ from the 1990s youth?

The youth of the 1990s had hope. They had a clear goal in gaining independence and building a new country. The influence of the Soviet space was stronger back then, but so was the opposition against it. They were dreamers, romantics and freedom fighters. There were many victims and a struggle that united people. All of the conflicts and defeats that followed were a result of us being a romantic generation. We believed that changes will come naturally and that the whole world will support us in our fight for independence and state building. We were not pragmatic enough, and we were unable to change our own mentality and approach to life. Today’s youth is more pragmatic, albeit less educated. They no longer have these hopes and aspirations, they are surer of what they want. They are great at discussing tolerance, gender equality, social responsibility, democracy, rights and obligations. Still, they lack deeper knowledge. I call this youth “the workshop generation”. They do not read books, but have been through numerous workshops where they have attained practical skills. This makes discussions with them difficult. They are accustomed to debate as they know argumentation techniques, but their knowledge is superficial. This is why I encourage all the youngsters I work with to read, especially classical literature as everything stems from the classics. Youth that reads is more open minded, as they say.

How about mental transformation? Are the Soviet patterns of thought still visible in Georgia?

I believe that we still live in a post-Soviet period. Not so much physically, as mentally. We are not able to leave this mindset. We were raised in this educational system and we are still influenced by our parents. It is irrelevant how progressive we are in our approach to gender issues, tolerance and LGBT rights in society, if we still have a problem developing some kind of social responsibility in everyday life and in our informal communication. I am convinced it is a matter of Soviet mentality. The involvement of the individual in public affairs and responsibility before the wider society is limited. At the same time, maximum involvement is expected from the government. On a superficial level, we are aware of our obligations to actively participate in the affairs of the state and in its decisions. In reality, however, it is harder to apply to everyday life. For example, a very present-day topic: can a Georgian man treat a woman as a partner, participate in housework and childcare? Before marriage – sure. However, sometimes it does not work out this way. Georgians often think like Asians but talk like Europeans. We still have a Soviet mentality as we were brought up in these traditions.

The Friedrich Ebert Foundation recently undertook a study of values and lifestyles of Georgian youth. It was criticised by many Georgian intellectuals…

I have read this study and I think it is an interesting description of the changes this generation is undergoing. I have a number of doubts about some of the figures and the questions asked. There are some issues, where I clearly see a correlation with my experiences, and other ones that I have not encountered in my practice. We tend to idealise some of the processes, posing questions that give us the answers we are looking for.

It is important to understand the position of survey respondents. Actions are motivated by the protest, coming of age, and individualism vs the collective. Teenagers wear masks, they take on various roles – most often popular ones. They would claim they are liberals. During an election, they would demand that the government helps the poor, creates welfare programmes and raises pensions. In their everyday behaviour, they come across as socially minded and socialist-oriented. Nonetheless, in conversations about lofty abstract topics they present themselves as liberals. This duality is prevalent in today’s youth. They know how popular it is to promote liberalism today, so they repeat they are liberals. If social-democracy is popular tomorrow, they will most likely become social democrats because it is trendy. They do not explore the ideas, they do not believe in them. If they do not believe in them, they will not live by them either.

The narratives presented by the survey respondents are not necessarily reflected in their actions in reality. When we question them, they feel like they are in a theater – they act.

What results of this study correspond with your observations?

We are now facing a transformation. This generation will create a society of a wholly different nature. This is positive. We see that today’s youth is not worried about labeling themselves as social democrats, something that just 20 years ago would bring up associations with communism. They read Marks and do not see its connection with the Soviet past. On the other hand, some have begun to defend the liberal doctrine. How sincere and real they are in this – we still do not know. Until now, there has been no discussion about what kind of political order we should have and what ideological foundations we should model our economic future on. Today this is commonplace. It is important that this discourse exists. It leaves food for thought and options.

What is the difference between the youth living in the province and in the capital?

Youth from distant regions is more pragmatic, especially if they want to study in the capital. They are aware of having have less money and fewer contacts, meaning they must make an additional effort. In contrast, youth from the capital have more resources and information. With each year passing, considering the development of the internet and media, the gap between the youngsters is becoming smaller. Many young people move to Tbilisi, where they adapt well, creating non-governmental organisations and participating in different activities. We are experiencing the process of globalisation, where regional borders are becoming insignificant. This is different in places where the pace of life is slower and the youth more passive. This is the only difference I notice. It is complicated further by large scale migration and a brain drain leading to less development potential in the province. Youngsters from rural areas have less chances to meet people who could be used as social capital.

During the post-communist transformation the youth was confronted with poor quality of education and a fiercely competitive labour market. Do you see any improvements?

When it comes to education, there are more negatives than positives. The introduction of a uniform national exam led to less corruption in the system, but also to lower levels of knowledge among the students. The functionality of the educational system has been distorted. The youth that enters university does not have the basic required knowledge. Science has left the institutions of higher learning. The educational system is based on market relations. Universities focus more on a financial turnover, embracing a business structure, while leaving behind the higher goal of educating. They are afraid of losing students as that would lead to lower income. Students that pay high tuition do not understand they are paying for education. They are not focused on attaining knowledge and skills but on receiving a diploma. In this kind of environment, it is hard to build a qualified cadre.

The state does not facilitate conditions for education. The less educated people are, the less they feel a sense of their own responsibility towards the state and society. They are less inclined to take part in the decision-making process. This in turn means there is no progress in the democratic process. Furthermore, the high level of unemployment is closely related to the education system not being in tune with the labour market.

Is this young generation raised with an awareness of active civic responsibility?

It is raised up this way, this is what our organisation seeks to promote. I encourage the youth to attend parliamentary sessions and listen to various politicians. I believe that a young person who thinks that he or she is removed from politics is hurting the society at large. Politics is collective responsibility. Georgia is too small of a country for a majority to say it is apolitical. Civic attitudes are not only projected through elections, but also direct control.

I have noticed that more and more young people discuss problems of their districts on Facebook. I see their frustration when it comes to problems such as cutting down trees, but also a need for engaging larger groups of youngsters. An active civic engagement can be seen in the approach towards climate, the place of residence, plot of land in front of the house, the road. These skills lead to something more – control over local governance and influence over central power. This is civil society. I see positive signs that I think will further strengthen.

How do you characterise the relationship between the youth and the state? Do the frequent protests in Tbilisi have an impact on the development of political culture in Georgia?

Yes, absolutely. Firstly, this is something entirely new to us. I like that these protests have a social agenda such as protecting worker rights. Up until now, there has only been a liberal discourse in Georgia, making it seem as if there was just one available option. This disorientated young people in particular. If someone is just aware of liberalism they will become liberal, because they are unaware of other ideologies. If they were presented with a number of options they would be able to choose consciously. These youth protests are important because of their social character. They create a properly functioning civil society. The country can split into left and right, but what is crucial is that no one is ambivalent towards the direction we decide on. It is in youth movements of protest I see the future of Georgia. If we compare Georgia with other post-Soviet states there are more positives. This still does not mean much, however. Everything is ahead of us.  

Nugzar Kokhreidze is a co-founder and head of the NGO Dialogue of generations (RICDOG) and a representative of the international movement to combat climate change.  

Yulia Oreshina is a social anthropologist, translator and lecturer in cultural memory studies at Georgian American University in Tbilisi.

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