Every Rose Has Its Thorns

Couldn’t resist the Rose pun.

So the Georgian Dream has become a reality. It looks like they’ll take 80-84 seats in Parliament, based on the current numbers, but everyone agrees they’ll have a small Parliamentary majority. Last week I was convinced that the UNM would win Parliament, but they will be the minority party.

I want to focus on where my predictions went wrong.

For one thing, I overestimated third party votes. None of the other parties crossed the 5% threshold needed to be seated in Parliament. I had thought at least two would, but instead all of the current Parliamentary opposition parties were swept out by GD. It seems that most of the people who would have voted for a minority party voted for GD instead. If those votes had gone to third parties rather than GD or UNM, GD and UNM would be much closer and a third party would likely end up getting to play kingmaker in a coalition government.

I also overestimated Misha’s regional support. This might be in part because of vote-rigging in the last election making the UNM look stronger than it actually way. It might also mean that media penetration to the regions is better than we thought it was. I suspect a lot of it was also that GD’s socialist overtures and nationalism appealed to a lot of Georgia’s poor rural population.

I probably relied too much on polls. I probably underestimated the amount of “undecided” and “refuse to answer” voters who ended up voting GD, and also didn’t take into account that voters may have lied to pollsters when they said they’d vote UNM, out of fear of reprisal.

Finally, I definitely underestimated the impact of the prison abuse videos. Perhaps it’s because I’m a cynical American, but I can’t actually imagine a country caring so much about their prisoners. The vast majority of Americans don’t really care about prisoner abuse, prison rape, torturing prisoners, or even killing prisoners – or if they do “care”, it’s certainly not enough to swing an election – and so as an American it is hard for me to comprehend a whole country of people who do care about those things.

Or perhaps it’s because until three weeks ago Georgians were content to let the abuse go on. While Americans are apathetic about their own moral failings, Georgians are more prone to be in denial about theirs, so no one really talked about the prison conditions – at least, not publicly – and Georgians allowed the government to get away with denying the reports. So perhaps the reason I underestimated the impact of the prison abuse scandal is because Georgians themselves let it go on for so long that it didn’t make sense for them to get so angry when it was exposed and ended.

But maybe the prison abuse videos weren’t a scandal because of what they were – depictions of awful but highly commonplace and unsurprising practices in prisons – but because of the role they filled in the Georgian political consciousness. I think the thorny side of the Rose Revolution – the claims of intimidation of businesspersons, the fear of reprisals for opposing the government/ruling party, the apparent lack of rule of law or justice at the high levels of government, the public perception that elections would be a farce – I think those things left Georgians feeling frustrated because no matter how deeply any one person felt wronged, the facade, like Aghmeshenebeli Street in Tbilisi, just covered over the structural defects in the system. I think the prison videos tore through that facade, and gave Georgians something substantial to be angry at – something you could point out, something you could articulate, something that couldn’t be denied or refuted or blamed on Russia. Something that couldn’t be seen through Rose-colored glasses.

I think the Georgia disillusionment with the UNM needed a symbol, and the broom became that symbol. Would the election have swung without its symbol? Who knows? Symbols are powerful things.

And finally I have to admit to a certain amount of apprehension going forward. I’ve joked to my friends and family that if TLG comes to an end, the vacuum in the market for native English teachers will be quite a business opportunity for those of us who choose to stay in Georgia. That’s semi-serious, though: I don’t know whether, or how long, TLG will last. I do know that I want to stay in Georgia for at least another year, if not more. If my job disappears, I’ll be okay – there really is a lot of opportunity for a native English speaker in Georgia – but I’ll lose the TLG benefits: the health insurance, the flights, the support structure, the steady (if small) paycheck.

It’s not just the money, though – Georgian Dream troubles me with its xenophobic elements and its constant mixed messages about whether there will be retaliation against UNM supporters. It’s no secret that every TLGV is here as Misha’s guest. Even if Ivanishvili himself claims to want to move towards the West, that doesn’t mean his party won’t dismantle as many of Misha’s programs as they can, out of spite. Say what you want about Misha’s governing style, but a lot of his programs have been really good for Georgia. I just hope that each program is evaluated on its merits, and that things like infrastructure, transportation, and user-friendly government services remain a priority.

It’s funny – I’ve never been this nervous about a US election. I guess I’ll just have to wait and see.

[Video: Buffalo Springfield: Stop Children What’s That Sound]

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7 Responses to Every Rose Has Its Thorns

  1. Giorgi says:

    Hi, it’s that polite guy again. Well, thanks a lot for a very objective summary of recent developments. You now see how misleading the polls were (and I shall skip the discussion on NDI and IRI contributions). I would also make a short comment on “other” opposition parties. As of the election results, one may or may not agree that vast majority of them indeed were UNM’s plan A to have “opposition” in new Parliament, but once the real opposition had arrived, fate of CDM, Rights and Labor was clear. There simply was no room for them in UNM’s plan B.
    On prisons, you’ve said it all.
    I also will partly agree that certain GD individuals are not of the standard that we, the Georgian middle class, would like to have seen and those concerns may grow in future, proportional to their activities.
    For the moment I think this election was only good for the country and we all look forward to improvements of UNM’s failures and under-achievements.

    And finally on TGL’s future: the native English speaking teacher is nothing than good for Georgian children and I do hope the government will find funds to keep this project on payroll, although I have to admit that my daughter (7) had very bad results in her first grade, practically not even achieving full knowledge of all letters which I would have expected. Anyway, this is a completely different topic.

    Thanks again for your summary article and looking forward to reading more.
    Sincerely,
    Giorgi

    • panoptical says:

      Giorgi,

      Words cannot express my frustrations with teaching in the first grade. There seems to be a widespread perception in Georgia that first graders are too young to learn anything. It makes me insane.

      This year at my school my coteachers keep telling me that they aren’t “allowed” to teach the first graders how to write until the second semester. The teachers constantly underestimate the number and variety of activities needed to keep the first graders entertained, and when I suggest that we do more they say it’s too much for them or too hard for them or too complicated for them. I am at a loss as to what to do.

      TLGVs are partly brought here to change Georgian perceptions of education. It is a constant, uphill battle to do so and I am sorry to say many of us are not up to the task.

      My coteachers and I are trying to teach the kids to write despite the orders from above, although since they don’t have notebooks it’s been challenging.

      Finally, I would say that the Macmillan English World 1 book’s attempt to shoehorn phonics into teaching the alphabet (the letters are introduced by their sounds, not their names) is inferior to the traditional way of teaching the alphabet (i.e. teach the names of the letters first and teach the sounds using phonics lessons later). Apparently this tactic is based on some kind of recent TEFL scholarship or something, but it doesn’t make sense to me at all. Either way, most of the English teachers in Georgia don’t know English phonics well enough to teach it, and can’t even pronounce most of the words they’re trying to teach in first grade correctly. If TLGVs were allowed to teach teachers instead of/in addition to students, the whole project would be much more efficient and run much more smoothly.

      I think TLG has a lot of potential and is run really well, but I think that we’re also handicapped by the political realities of the MES and the decentralization of schools and the attitudes of hundreds of Georgian English speakers who think their English is fine when in fact it is barely passable. If the program does continue, there are a lot of changes I’d like to see in how TLGVs are trained and what our role is in and out of the classroom.

  2. Talleyrand says:

    I agree that it’s beneficial for Georgian children to learn English, and a necessary part of that is bringing in foreign English teachers. The native English teachers simply lack the experience to teach English effectively by themselves. These are generalizations, but we’re talking about a system-wide issue, so I think it’s fair.

    However, the current incarnation of TLG is too broad. Too many unqualified volunteers. I’ve met a few from Poland with thick accents that I’d trouble understanding. I’ve no access to the data, but I’d guess most volunteers leave Georgia after less than a year. Most have little or no experience. And it’s no surprise—TLG offers one of the lowest salaries in the world for such a position. It’s rightfully called a volunteer gig. The stipend will never attract long-term teachers with great qualifications and experience. There are exceptions, of course. But that’s the impression I’ve received. The culture shock is too great for most volunteers, and they go home. They run into frustrations with the schools and it’s too much to handle for a few hundred dollars per month. I imagine the airplane tickets are a huge expense, especially considering many volunteers are from America and get to go home once a year for vacation. TLG offers great support to its volunteers, but that support costs money. Insurance policies are expensive, especially if volunteers really go to clinics as much as they complain about getting a little stomach flu.

    Why not go to China where English teachers are actually paid a reasonable wage, and have access to modern amenities and reliable transportation? Frankly most English teachers are somewhat mercenary in how they choose destinations, and they don’t share your love for Georgia. So that’s why Georgia by and large only attracts the lowest rung of talent.

    Will TLG be scrubbed? Unlikely. But will it be downsized? I hope so. The original goal of bringing in 10,000 volunteers was ridiculous. I’m not sure if that was an official goal of Saakashvili’s government, or just an advertising slogan. But 10,000 unqualified Americans and Aussies and Kiwis running around Georgia for a semester before going home isn’t a cost effective idea for teaching English.

    I hope the new government sees the value in TLG, even if the hedges need to be trimmed. If they cut the budget, I hope they do it in such a way that they’ll bring in less teachers in the future, rather than screwing over current teachers.

    • panoptical says:

      I agree with basically all of this.

      I’ve defended the “quantity over quality” approach on the grounds that a lot of what is needed is just exposure to native speakers – a kind of basic reality check for Georgian teachers to make sure they’re teaching a variety of English than can be understood by other English speakers in the world.

      But I agree that when it comes to bringing in teachers from countries where English is a foreign language, I don’t really see the point of doing that. And I also think that the high turnover, low salary, yearly vacation flights, etc. contribute to a sort of mixed bag – some TLG teachers are really great, but many are not, and the overhead of bringing them here to teach for three or four months per flight seems really steep. It would make more sense to me to give one flight per year instead of two, but double the monthly salary – same cost but less turnover and more dedicated volunteers.

      On the other hand, TLG isn’t actually the lowest salary – there are actually English teaching programs in South America that pay less, or pay nothing. I think from the English teacher perspective TLG is a decent entry-level teaching position – it doesn’t cost anything to do it, and it gives you experience and answers the question of whether you want to teach EFL enough to get a TEFL or CELTA cert.

      But yeah, if TLG continues it would be nice to see some kind of refocusing.

      • Talleyrand says:

        I’ll just add that I’d be an imprudent move for the next government to dismantle TLG, especially when Georgia is heavily advertising for foreign investment. Hopefully the xenophobic elements of the next government will be appeased with a few funding concessions. I doubt Ivanishvili wants to kick out all the foreign teachers. Considering how much the Georgian economy relies on USAID, and how English fluency is crucial for joining the international community, it’d just be a bad move to unplug from the English world by denying Georgian students access to TLG.

        I look at the situation in Ukraine as a worst-case scenario for a former Soviet state shooting itself in the foot after years of improvements.

        • panoptical says:

          Well, it’s a little bit complicated, because the US does have programs to spread English and Western-style democratic institutions in Georgia, but TLG isn’t one of them.

          When the Georgian government wanted to start TLG they approached the US Embassy, and basically the Embassy was not willing to bring American citizens over to Georgia without at least a reasonable amount of oversight and some guarantees that the Georgian government was not willing to make, so Georgia went ahead and started TLG without any help or approval from the Embassy. That’s why TLG isn’t connected with Peace Corps, USAID, American Corners, or any other expat group/NGO/whatever that works with the US government. The Embassy wasn’t particularly happy with TLG and has stayed hands-off.

          So there’s a reasonable argument to be made that if Georgia wants English language education they should try to work with embassies to make it happen rather than going solo. Georgian Dream could, in theory, use that logic in disbanding TLG. Furthermore, if they float the idea of getting rid of TLG to American advisors/Embassy staff, they are unlikely to encounter any substantial objections as long as contracts are honored and flights home are provided.

  3. kk@kk.com says:

    I’m gonna start a separate thread here, but what I have to say touches on the comments made above. I was a TLGV last year, and I enjoyed my time in Georgia. It’s a great program for young college graduates who want volunteer experience abroad, and I feel that the TLG did a good job in addressing the needs of volunteers. Sure, the admin wasn’t perfect, but I felt that TLG staffers were helpful and responsive to emergent issues. I guess the best way to sum up my time there is by likening it to teaching with the Peace Corps (with several differences, of course).

    Having said that, I have 2 things to say regarding the viability of the program.

    First, the TLG marketing team needs to be more forthcoming about ground conditions in Georgia. Fortunately, I had minimal expectations going there, but many volunteers seemed to take life in the raionebi (regions) badly. To the credit of TLG, they do mention in the manual that life in Georgia is different from life in Western countries, but I don’t think that “disclaimer” really suffices when the TLG website portrays teaching in Georgia as a working holiday in some sun-kissed, foreigner-friendly locale. I understand that TLG doesn’t want to scare off any potential applicants, but I think openness is the best policy in attracting the best-suited candidates.

    This leads me to my second thing, QUALITY CONTROL. I get the impression that TLG takes any Tom, Dick, or Harry without a criminal record with no inquiry into the candidate’s abilities or character. Yes, it’d be too much to ask for professional or seasoned TEFL teachers at 500 Laris a month, but I feel that some volunteers are just not cut out for the job. When I was there, I met many volunteers and some couldn’t deal with the living conditions, others had trouble coping with cultural differences, and a surprising number had no idea why they were there. Fluency of teachers is another issue. Looking at the TLG FB page, it’s shocking to read comments from apparently successful applicants who can’t even type correct English. I mean, would it hurt for TLG to be more selective or are they that desperate for volunteers?

    It looks as if TLG isn’t taking in new volunteers for the remainder of the year. I hope they use that time to examine their marketing and recruiting tactics to further improve the program. It is a well-intentioned program, and I hope GD will agree to continuing it, but it needs to start thinking about sustainability now that it’s been up and running for 2 years.

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