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Fight At The Museum: The Georgian Government Takes On The Arts

Scores of employees at Georgia's National Museum have been controversially fired in the past year. (file photo)
Scores of employees at Georgia's National Museum have been controversially fired in the past year. (file photo)

TBILISI -- After several months of turmoil and dozens of dismissals, the staff of the Georgian National Museum were disturbed when the culture minister decided to temporarily relocate to one of their buildings, forcing the museum's education center and 60 employees from the Archaeological Institute to move. Still, it was largely forgotten a couple of months later when the mass firings began again, with 21 more employees losing their jobs.

Over the past year, more than 70 employees of the Georgian National Museum -- an institution that oversees 14 museums in Georgia -- have been fired under opaque circumstances. Ahead of the restructuring, museum employees report being called into brief interviews with a board selected by the Culture Ministry to allegedly assess competence. Those who were fired have said they were asked personal questions and confronted with social media posts they had made from their private accounts that were critical of the government.

Many fear that what's happening in the museum sector is part of a broader, politically motivated cleansing of the arts. "What the [Culture Ministry] did since the beginning of 2022 was, in a way, an act of war," says Nikoloz Tsikaridaze, an archaeologist and the former chief researcher at the Georgian National Museum. "There were no negotiations or explanations or constructive feedback. They didn't even inform us [of being fired], they just blocked our projects," Tsikaridaze says. Those who lost their jobs, some of whom had worked at the museums for over 20 years, are now banned from entering the museum premises.

"They said the main problem with the staff they fired was a lack of competency," says one museum worker who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals as they are still employed. "But none of the people on the interview panels were from museums, no experts and people with competency themselves. They didn't really ask me anything in my interview."

Georgian film director Salome Jashi (file photo)
Georgian film director Salome Jashi (file photo)

It isn't only the museum sector that's come under fire. Earlier this year, celebrated director Salome Jashi had a series of screenings of her film, Taming The Garden, cancelled after the director of the Georgian Film Academy had been fired and replaced by a new director who informed Jashi that the remaining six planned screenings would not go ahead.

"On the phone, the new director, Mindia Esadze, told me the film 'creates political divisions in the public,'" Jashi says. "It's an outrageous argument, because it's normal for any film or work of art or culture to cause a diversity of opinion. While he was talking, I grabbed a pen and started to write down what he was saying. You know, he hadn't even seen the film himself."

In one hour and 26 minutes, the film is a poignant meditation on the power that money and a billionaire's whim can exert over nature. The film documents how towering trees, dug up from around Georgia, are strapped to barges and sailed to the west of the country to be replanted in the billionaire's seaside park. The billionaire is Bidzina Ivanishvili.

A Georgian Billionaire And The Park For Traveling Trees
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Founder of the ruling Georgian Dream party, Ivanishvili is largely considered to be the gray cardinal behind the party, appointing ministers loyal to him and directing policy from the shadows, despite announcing in 2021 that he was exiting politics. A nonbinding resolution passed in May by the European Parliament called on the EU to impose sanctions against Ivanishvili for his "destructive role" in Georgian politics.

The Georgian Dream party has been in power since 2012, facing criticism at home and abroad for its failure to stamp out corruption, make progress on reforms, and its spotty record on media freedom and human rights.

Increasingly, criticism of Ivanishvili sparks vocal government condemnation, with the highest echelons of power coming out in Ivanishvili's defense. Following a European Commission report in June, which called for the "de-oligarchization" of Georgian politics as a condition for gaining EU candidate status, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili publicly slammed the report as "totally unsubstantiated" and a "campaign mounted by internal and external political opponents" against Ivanishvili.

Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili (file photo)
Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili (file photo)

During protests in July, which spread across central Tbilisi following the EU's decision to rebuff Georgia while granting Ukraine and Moldova candidate status, many of the speeches named Ivanishvili as Georgia's main obstacle to both functioning democracy and EU accession.

The new culture minister who so abruptly oversaw the turfing out of the Georgian National Museum staff is Tea Tsulukiani, a senior member of Georgian Dream and the former justice minister. Tsulukiani's eight years at the Justice Ministry were marred by a number of controversies, including public statements labeled as "xenophobic" and "transphobic," as well as much-criticized nominations of candidates for senior prosecutor positions who were politically aligned with Georgian Dream.

Other former employees of the Justice Ministry have followed Tsulukiani into the cultural sphere. Nika Akhalbedashvili, a former Justice Ministry lawyer under Tsulukiani, is now the director of the Fine Arts Museum. The new director of the Ethnographic Museum, Nino Chipashvili, was formerly the head of Georgia's Convicts Vocational Training and Retraining Center. Darejan Baiashvili, a former prosecutor, is now head of the Museum Collections Department.

"It's important to think about why they appointed Tsulukiani," says leading Georgian curator Irene Popiashvili. "The Culture Ministry is working to divide the art world. It's already divided but now it's worse."

A Polarized Society

One of the most powerful and pervasive characteristics of Georgian political life is polarization. Society is largely split along two main party lines: the opposition United National Movement (ENM) founded by former President Mikheil Saakashvili, who is currently incarcerated and has been on two separate hunger strikes; and Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream. Personality rather than ideas defines Georgian political culture, and support is often drummed up through degrading political opponents. Tsulukiani is known for refusing interviews to most media and has organized press conferences in which only media friendly to Georgian Dream were granted access. The Culture Ministry did not respond to a request for an interview for this story.

Georgian Dream's success in the 2012 elections was in many ways a backlash to the rule of Saakashvili's ENM. After a first presidential term of sweeping and largely successful reforms following Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution, Saakashvili's second term was marked by emerging authoritarian tendencies and stifling freedom of media. The rise of Georgian Dream and its ability to win the 2012 elections was based on a mandate defined by being an alternative to Saakashvili. Without vision and with few reforms implemented over its decade of rule, Georgian Dream still largely campaigns on an anti-ENM platform. Combined with allowing the Georgian Orthodox Church to gain even more power, Georgian Dream's friendly attitude to Russia is causing increasing alarm to liberal or Western-learning Georgians.

After the firings of his colleagues at the national museum began in 2021, archaeologist Tsikaridze helped found the Union of Science, Education, and Cultural Workers, of which he is now the chairman. Given the limited protections around worker rights in Georgia, the establishment of such a union is a boon for cultural workers, but it has also served to alienate them from the government.

After his interview at the museum, Tsikaridze commented on social media about the opaque nature of the restructuring. It was after this that he lost his job. "I was in one of the last phases of the mass firings," he says. "Who knows what the real reason for me being fired really was. They didn't give me a score after my interview, and they still won't hand over documents explaining what their criteria for the firings were."

In one of the first rulings of such a case, last month, a former employee at the Georgian National Museum, Dinara Vachadze, won a court case against her dismissal and later had the decision to fire her overturned by a judge. Around 25 other lawsuits filed from former museum employees are currently under way. Vachadze, who previously worked as a senior manager at the museum, will receive compensation and a portion of her salary between the firing date and the day of the court's decision.

'Irreparable Harm'

An open letter signed in July by 130 former and current national museum employees slammed the firings as "causing irreparable harm" to Georgia's cultural heritage, and called for Prime Minister Garibashvili to "take an interest" in the case.

The attack on the museums shows no signs of letting up. The case of the International Council of Museums' (ICOM) National Committee in Georgia is illustrative of how the Culture Ministry is attempting to rein in independent institutions -- and what it does to those that resist. An international body active in 141 countries, ICOM members benefit from conferences, professional development opportunities, publications, standards, and free admission to most museums around the world. Museum professionals with over two years of experience can apply to become ICOM members.

At a General Assembly of ICOM Georgia in April to vote for a new board and chairperson, existing Culture Ministry members and several museum employees who had submitted applications to become board members were accused of trying to derail the 250-person conference.

"To put it mildly, it was an unpleasant situation," says Lana Karaia, now chairperson of ICOM Georgia. "They tried to interrupt us from speaking and distract us from the agenda. I opened the meeting and one of them [from a Georgian museum] just stopped me and started to talk about how ICOM is an unprofessional and corrupt organization. He just went on and on. Other members present told him to stop interrupting. He tried several more times. When others told him to stop he got very upset."

The Culture Ministry then sent two letters to ICOM headquarters in Paris, copies of which were also sent to the Georgian Embassy in France. The contents of the letters are not known, but the reply from ICOM to the ministry, in which it reiterates its support for ICOM's independence, is perhaps revealing of the nature of the ministry's letter .

Acting on their lawyers' recommendation that, as an NGO, ICOM Georgia is not obliged to comply with the ministry's latest requests demanding internal documents and personal information on staff be shared with them, ICOM has suffered a rare set-back. Several Georgian museums have now been ordered by the ministry to stop free admission for those holding ICOM membership cards.

Like Ukraine and Moldova, Georgia's central national question pertains to how to move Georgia out of Russia's sphere of influence and closer to the West. This question has only become more urgent in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February. By refusing to join international sanctions against Russia, grounding a plane intended to transport Georgian volunteer fighters to Ukraine, and reportedly alienating EU and U.S. diplomats, critics increasingly see Georgian Dream pulling Georgia away from the West.

A narrowing of horizons is an accusation levelled at the museum sector, too. "We have done a lot for Georgian culture," says Nino Jakelia, who worked at the Tbilisi-based Simon Janashia Museum of Georgia from 1981 before being fired three months ago. "The doors were open to foreign workers and scientists and we had a lot of joint projects together. This year, I had several international projects with colleagues from abroad -- including Israel, the United States, Italy. We had agreements, but the projects all failed because in the end the ministry didn't allow me to go abroad for the trips."

Georgian Culture Minister Tea Tsulukiani (file photo)
Georgian Culture Minister Tea Tsulukiani (file photo)

The establishment of a new directorate under Tsulukiani has become a central point of concern for many in the sector who are used to autonomy and experts making decisions. Where previously a museum would have a general director, a new, five-person directorate will jointly make decisions on most matters, after which the minister will personally be informed. From permission to enter the collections to areas of research undertaken, decisions will now be taken by the ministry's appointees in the directorate.

Other departments, critics say, have been gutted, their functions barely replaced. The Georgian National Museum currently has no PR team as they were all fired. Instead, staff working at the Culture Ministry are now working on the museum's social media pages.

But while the creeping state control of museums is cause for concern, perhaps even more troubling is the self-censorship that is inching into even independent institutions. The Georgian Film Academy that cancelled Jashi's screenings is in fact an independent institution. Critics say the decision to cancel the film's screenings were the result not of an official order, but of sensing that the political winds had changed.

"Mindia wouldn't have lost his job as the new director of the Film Academy [if my film was screened]," says Jashi. "But perhaps he would lose favor."

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    Nadia Beard

    Nadia Beard is a journalist and critic. Her work has appeared in the Financial Times, National Geographic, The Guardian, and The Times Literary Supplement.