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Pinecone: The fringe political party saving the youth from political nihilism in Georgia

Libertarian party Girchi is known on the Georgian political scene for its original approach. It appears to have a growing appeal among younger voters tired of the more mainstream parties.

December 4, 2020 - Eva Modebadze - Articles and Commentary

Photo: eflon flickr.com

In many old and new democracies, the political nihilism of young people is a serious concern. Many young people find it challenging to navigate the advancement of populist ideologies, economic tension, fake news, media manipulation and distrust in politics at large. In emerging Eastern European democracies, where for a long time politics has been monopolised by Soviet-style governance, young people have been marginalised from meaningful political participation and disillusioned by the traditional conduct of politics. While young people’s distrust in political institutions often results in lower turnout in elections and low participation in local or national politics, one small political party in post-Soviet Georgia may have found a solution. This party is called Girchi, which translates from Georgian to pinecone — a symbol of freshness and enlightenment. Girchi, after just four years of political existence, mainly supported by young people, won 2.9 per cent of the vote in the 2020 parliamentary elections. Even though most of the opposition parties including Girchi declared the elections rigid and refused to enter the parliament, it does not change the fact that the party managed to secure at least four mandates in the 150-strong parliament, outnumbering many larger and experienced political parties.

Libertarian Girchi is well-known for its grotesque and extraordinary, even slightly freakish, actions, such as opening a brothel in its headquarters, planting marijuana seeds, begging for money at the presidential palace in protest, “renting out” the leader Zurab Japaridze for New Year’s Eve, placing a campaign Ad on PornHub and establishing a religious organisation with the sole purpose of helping young men avoid compulsory military service. However, behind its outlandish behaviour, Girchi has a clear political agenda based on libertarianism and classical liberalism — advocating for liberty as a fundamental principle, small and transparent government with less bureaucracy and economic liberalism. Girchi’s liberal democratic formula is simple: economic deregulation leads to prosperity, and prosperity is a prerequisite of democracy and welfare.

Of course, it would be wrong to assume that we need parties like Girchi because they offer solutions to various crises that current political systems face. Girchi’s success formula seems even too simplistic — deregulation of the economy cannot be the panacea for the country’s prosperity. Moreover, Girchi has little to offer when it comes to healthcare, social security, women’s participation in politics and environmental problems. However, the political pluralism that Girchi offers is essential in challenging the conception that politics is the work of “men and women in suits.” With its open distrust in Soviet-style big government and the old-fashioned way of conducting politics, on numerous occasions the party has presented itself as a channel for Georgian youth political participation. With its honesty, complete absence of populism and devotion to the party’s liberal ideals, Girchi managed to enter the mainstream, bringing freshness into redefining and challenging how politics can and should be done. By that, Pinecone has become an acceptable political force not only to those with the same outlook on politics, but also to some die-hard leftists like myself.

Explaining Girchi’s success

Before trying to understand Girchi’s success amongst the young population, the term “youth” needs to be defined. Who is the “youth” in Georgia? There are at least three widely-used definitions of “youth” — as a life stage, as a social group and as a generation. In Georgia, youth can be primarily defined as a generation of people born after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the independent country of Georgia. If we borrow the EU’s usage of the term, this classification combines Generation Y — people born in the 1990s — and Generation Z (born in the 2000s). 

Young people are considered to be holders of certain values and attitudes, sometimes completely different from those of older generations. Some studies underline that youth tend to be more progressive and democratic. This is especially visible in many post-Soviet states, including Georgia. Even though young people’s values and attitudes largely depend on the social groups and institutions in which they socialise, with increasing access to the internet and digitalisation, young people are less dependent on the social groups around them, whether it be family, friends or local community. The changes brought by wide access to information and, of course, the disappearance of Soviet ideology made the youth more independent decision-makers.

Girchi successfully took advantage of rapid digitalisation and based its pre-election campaign entirely on the internet. By doing this, the party also made an indirect focus on younger supporters, who are generally more digitally-educated consumers of the internet. Interestingly, for the 2020 parliamentary elections Girchi refused to have paid commercials on TV, billboards or any other paid advertisements. Instead, the party based its entire campaign on Girchi’s Facebook Page, attracting supporters with creative videos and hashtags #ისტორიულივიდეოები (#historicalvideos) and #გირჩიპარლამენტში (#girchiintheparliament). The leader of the party, Zurab Girchi Japaridze (who added Girchi as his middle name as a tribute to the party), explained this decision by simply stating that Facebook’s free platform was the way to go since they did not have recourses for an expensive election campaign. It has to be mentioned that Girchi functions entirely from donations. The list of donors is transparent and available to the broader public. Furthermore, after donating, each donor becomes Girchi’s partner and gets GeD (Girch Digital Currency) equivalent to the donated amount, which means that every donor gets involved in Girchi’s political functioning.

The leader of the party explained the party’s success by stating, “Girchi has the most sincere and heartfelt supporters, who believe in the party idea.” Japaridze says that none of the other political parties in Georgia have as many people sincerely devoted to the core idea as they do in Girchi. Indeed, Girchi’s internet campaign was the opposite of populism and was entirely dedicated to ideas of classical liberalism. Instead of giving appealing promises about social benefits in a country where the average salary is around 300 euros, Girchi advocates for an idea that is not very popular — state deregulation in every aspect, letting the “invisible hand” decide.

With not so appealing messages for the wider public, Girchi has been an avid advocate of the youth’s increased participation in politics. The party even released a video explaining “what happens when young people do not vote.” The video narrates, “Just because you do not go to elections, politicians give promises to your grandmas and grandpas.” Because young people do not vote, informs Girchi, politicians target older voters by focusing on raising pensions. The video claims that the fact that politicians are neither speaking to nor caring about young people getting a better education, having decent jobs nor enjoying their lives is the result of young people not voting in elections. Japaridze believes Girchi is the party of the future, and hopes to attract voters who support decentralisation and minimalisation of state power. Girchi’s pacifist rhetoric and active support of non-violence in a country with two unresolved territorial conflicts and the experience of civil war proved successful among younger liberal-minded youth. Asked the question of which political party stands closest to you, 40 per cent of Georgians aged between 18-35 say that there is no party, while 5 per cent support Girchi, making it the third party after the two mainstream parties — Georgian Dream and United National Movement. Amongst supporters of Girchi, not surprisingly, 84 per cent are aged between 18-35, 12 per centbetween 36-55 and only 4 per cent above 56.

Which party is closest to you? (2019)

Source: CRRC, Caucasus Barometer

Why do we need parties like Pinecone?

So why do we need parties like Girchi? There is no doubt that citizens’ inclusive political participation and their ability to influence political decision-making is one of the key tenets of democratic politics. Increased inclusion of the youth in the formal political process not only upholds key principles of democracy, but also increases representativeness. That is why liberal-minded parties like Girchi are essential in building the trust of younger voters in the political system, empowering them to participate in formal political processes and offering a brand-new outlook on the conduct of politics, without challenging core democratic values.

Throughout recent decades, European politics has seen increasing popularity of far-right and far-left populist parties. Anti-globalisation, Euroscepticism, protectionism, objection to elitism and support for expanding the welfare state have been common features of parties from both ends of the ideological spectrum. Considering these trends, post-Soviet Georgia’s Girchi has the potential to become an example of how to bring freshness into staggering European democracies and unite the youth around core libertarian principles. Even though Girchi’s socially-irresponsible policies, support for marijuana legalisation and other ludicrous statements make it unattractive to older generations, especially in conservative Georgia, it is important that Girchi offers a solution for disenfranchised and disillusioned youth to see alternative politics without having to resort to radical forms of populism or complete nihilism. Girchi’s anti-establishment attitudes are not just old wine in a new bottle —Pinecone utilises a completely new toolkit for alternative politics. This new toolkit is based on strong support for the idea that creativity can be useful in attracting youth to meaningful political participation and lending their voices to the formal decision-making process.

Eva Modebadze is a postgraduate student at the International Master’s programme in Central and Eastern European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (CEERES) at the University of Glasgow, UK. Her particular field of interest includes gender and security studies in the post-Soviet space.

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