Perhaps you’ve already heard the news that’s prompted me to come out of retirement and get back on my high horse: a group of Georgian chauvinists decided to bust up a film screening at a vegan cafe, because these days just being a complete asshole apparently passes for a political statement.
Reportedly this group came in with sausages strung around their neck and wielding skewers of meat. Kiwi cafe is also a non-smoking restaurant, but not for this sausage party! They lit up, and when staff complained they became aggressive and physically violent, thus reinvigorating the term “meathead” for a new generation.
Then, the cops came and decided to investigate and detain the victims, because of their “alternative” appearance, because in Georgia having a mohawk is cause for suspicion but wearing a meat necklace is just another Sunday night on the town. I’ve remarked before that many Georgian men seem to smell like smoked sausages for some reason, but I never knew it was because they sometimes wear it as jewellery.
Jokes aside, this is a pretty disturbing attack. I mean, okay, I personally don’t really care about veganism per se – no hostility there, it’s just not my issue. But I do very much care about living in a society in which some very basic rights are respected. This country has seen attacks on freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, and freedom of speech. Now we’re seeing an attack on the freedom to choose what kind of food to eat? The freedom to operate a non-smoking cafe and the freedom of patrons to choose to dine in such a cafe? I don’t think the Soviets even told people what to eat.
Now imagine if this group had attacked a Georgian restaurant during Orthodox fasting season and started throwing meat into people’s vegetarian meals. The people would have risen as one in defense of someone’s right to eat lobio for Jesus, and the attackers would have been mauled by the crowd. Police would have investigated zealously.
But of course the two situations are not remotely comparable. In Georgia the only freedom that is respected is the freedom to be like everybody else.
RFE/RL has an analysis of the attack in the context of current and historical trends in Georgia. It’s good, I recommend reading it, even if it is a tad glib about the severity of the attack itself.
The obvious takeaway from this analysis is that this can be seen as an anti-Western, anti-liberal attack and even grouped with anti-LGBT attacks in Georgia in that the attackers seemed at least partially motivated by the idea that being vegan is gay (I invite the reader to insert their own sausage joke here).
The less obvious takeaway is that the apparent rise in nationalist and ultra-nationalist rhetoric in Georgia, post-Saakashvili, is perhaps a regression to the mean from the relative liberalism of the Saakashvili regime. The RFE/RL piece suggests that this nationalist vein in Georgian culture played a role in the loss of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
What I don’t quite have a handle on is how strong and widespread this nationalism actually is. Most of the Georgians I interact with are more Western-leaning and cosmopolitan – but that is clearly a self-selected group. I would guess that the average Georgian doesn’t have much of a stake in the issue of veganism as a threat to the Georgian identity, and hasn’t deeply thought about the contradictions between the liberal democratic EU regime and the obligations of defending tradition and conformity. What I don’t know is how many Georgians are prone to be riled up, given the right circumstances, into nationalist violence, or into a pivot towards Russia.
Another question is whether this is an isolated incident or whether it will embolden other Georgians to take similar actions against nontraditional groups. Sometimes things like this are growing pains – an adjustment period of mutual fear and distrust that occurs when any new idea is introduced. Other times they’re a shot fired across the bow – a precursor to more frequent and dangerous attacks. If the Georgian government is concerned about the latter possibility, they’re certainly not showing it.
I wish I had more insight to offer here, but I don’t. I don’t think anyone knows – the situation is unpredictable and unstable. I was always broadly pro-Misha and so I have to take care not to exaggerate my criticisms of Georgian Dream or make dire predictions of doom because my guy lost an election. It’s hard to tell whether this is confirmation bias, but I’m left thinking that this wouldn’t have happened during Misha’s time, when rather than a vegan bar in that neighborhood there were actual gay bars which largely went unmolested. And I’m dead certain Misha’s police would have taken the matter seriously.
But on the other hand, there wasn’t a vegan cafe to attack in Misha’s time. It’s undeniable that Georgia is still making Westward progress under GD and that some of the anti-GD rhetoric has been overblown. There are also more non-smoking restaurants than ever. And of course that has to do with demand – people who run vegan cafes and American burger joints and whatnot understand that they are cooking for people who actually want to taste their food – that there is a sizeable market share for people who want a smoke-free dining experience. But GD has not done anything to impede this progress, so that’s something.
I guess I’m very concerned about the possibility of things on the anti-Western front getting worse before they get better, but I remain cautiously optimistic. Even if nationalists start winning elections, Georgians have tasted Dunkin Donuts and they’re not going to give them up. Globalization has worked its magic and an undeniable transformation has taken place in Tbilisi over the last six years (even though we still don’t have a damn Starbucks).
My other worry is that the most pro-Western Georgians will simply leave – especially if there is visa liberalization with the EU – and let the country go to the dogs. If you know you could feel safe in a vegan cafe in any European capital – I’d bet even in Moscow – why would you stick around here and wait for the brownshirts to come for you when they decide that your favorite digs don’t jibe with Georgian tradition?
Finally, I’ll just note that it’s hard for me as an American to even understand the mindset here. The freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights are part of the fabric of American society. We’re attached to them sometimes to the point of irrationality. Some countries have a national religion – we have the Bill of Rights. And the right to choose your own diet is clearly reserved to the states and the people. Take our most unhealthy foods and drinks and the only debate permitted in the public sphere is whether or not the state can restrict the amount we are allowed to buy at once. I have trouble imagining it even occurring to an American to try to force someone to eat meat if they didn’t want to. I think I speak for most meat-eating Americans when I say “fine, don’t eat meat – more for me!”
Georgians clearly have a very different understanding of rights and freedoms – an understanding which strikes me as somewhat ad hoc, given that there’s no document or philosophy they can point to other than a vague understanding of what is “normal”.
I think that veganism poses a very clear problem for that mindset: veganism is clearly not “normal” by almost any definition of the word, and yet it is also clearly a personal choice which threatens no one. I get that if everyone became gay, making children would be a much more complicated affair, and so nationalists who want to advance the bloodline at least have a twisted rationale for their hatred. But if everyone became vegan? Oh no! We’d have to convert all our pastures to wheat fields! That could take days!
But of course, in any society, there is a group of people who believe that when something challenges your mindset, your best bet is to attack it. It’s just unfortunate that Georgian society doesn’t have any reasonable check on those sorts of people.