New PEN America Report: Taming Culture in Georgia
Report Documents Georgian Government Efforts to Control Culture for Political Gain
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
(TBILISI / NEW YORK) On the eve of the 20th anniversary of Georgia’s historic Rose Revolution, and days before a critical assessment by the European Union regarding Georgia’s candidacy, PEN America released a new research report, Taming Culture in Georgia: Georgian Government Clamps Down on Freedom of Speech and Cultural Expression, documenting a concerted effort by the governing Georgian Dream party to suppress free expression and curb cultural independence in the country.
In the report, author Polina Sadovskaya, PEN America’s advocacy and Eurasia director, documents a rapidly escalating strategy of government suppression of free speech and culture.
“For many years following the Rose Revolution, Georgia stood as a bastion of democracy in an often volatile region,” said Sadovskaya. “Unfortunately, as global attention shifted toward Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Georgian Dream officials began clamping down on free speech and cultural autonomy, not only in Tbilisi but across the country. Their goal seems to be the redirection of overwhelming public support away from EU membership and toward stronger ties with Russia. These actions have drawn limited international attention, which is concerning, given that restraints on writers, artists, and cultural workers are regularly one of the first signs of democratic backsliding as autocrats seek to control public opinion.”
Taming Culture in Georgia: Georgian Government Clamps Down on Freedom of Speech and Cultural Expression details several initiatives spearheaded by Tea Tsulukiani, Georgia’s minister of culture and sport and youth minister of culture, aimed at overseeing and controlling Georgia’s vibrant cultural landscape. Initiatives encompass almost every cultural sector, including:
- Literature: The Culture Ministry asserted authority over the highly-regarded Writer’s House, amending regulations to require the inclusion of a ministry representative on literary awards juries and requiring the ministry’s approval of the other jury members. (Writers at PEN Georgia likened this shift to Soviet–era controls.)
- Visual Arts: Following the opening night of an exhibition at Georgia’s National Gallery, a criminal investigation was launched against artist Sandro Sulaberidze for removing his self–portrait from a gallery wall and painting in its place the phrase “Art is alive and independent!” The Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA), a leading independent human rights advocacy group, found that this criminal investigation “significantly damages the guarantees of the freedom of expression.”
- Museums: The Ministry of Culture issued a series of directives aimed at restructuring the organizations under its jurisdiction, including the National Museum of Georgia and the National Agency for Cultural Heritage Protection. As part of this “restructuring,” staff members were required to undergo interviews ostensibly to assess their qualifications. These interviews were conducted by officials with little knowledge of cultural institutions, and instead of being questioned about their competencies, employees report being grilled about their political allegiance. Subsequently, scores of employees, including many highly qualified researchers and directors, were let go and replaced by government-appointed officials with little to no experience in managing museums or cultural institutions.
- Government Interference in Grants for Cultural Research: After the Ministry of Culture issued a decree asserting its authority over the application process for and implementation of grants awarded for projects within its museums, numerous grants were put on hold. Nikoloz Tsikaridze, the former chief researcher at the Georgian National Museum, expressed his distress, stating, “Our research projects, international scientific network and functional system in the field of culture and related sciences are on the verge of collapse…We are struggling and trying to save what is left.”
- Cinema: Gaga Chkheidze was dismissed from his position as director of the Georgian National Film Center (GNFC) after a government audit surfaced alleged irregularities. This occurred shortly after Chkheidze posted critical remarks about the government on Facebook, questioning, for example, why the Georgian government had not condemned Russia’s destruction of cultural heritage in its war with Ukraine. Meanwhile, the newly installed director of the Georgian Film Academy canceled a series of six screenings of the acclaimed documentary film Taming the Garden, directed by celebrated Georgian filmmaker Salomé Jashi, who was told that her film couldn’t be shown because it “creates political divisions in the public.”
- Theater: Shortly after staging a production of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, Dmanisi State Drama Theater director Lasha Chkhvimiani was informed that the Ministry of Culture had canceled the selection process for the 4-year renewal of his position. Instead, they appointed another candidate who reportedly had not applied for the post.
“In its initial opinion on Georgia’s application for EU membership, the European Commission raised many concerns about media freedom and other human rights issues. Unfortunately, the Georgian government’s professed commitment to EU membership remains largely superficial, and as a result, numerous challenges continue to exist. Yet, there is hope for a change in direction,” said Sadovskaya.
“Georgia remains a nation with the potential to alter course and embrace the wishes of the overwhelming majority of its citizens, who desire freedoms rooted in human rights. Writers, artists, and cultural workers play a vital role in the development and protection of these freedoms and the re-establishing of the country’s vibrant cultural independence.
“Free speech and artistic expression are the bedrock of a healthy, free, vibrant society. As cultural workers increasingly find themselves at the forefront of the struggle against growing authoritarianism in Georgia, the international community must support them, including through increased direct support for Georgia’s cultural life and those who contribute to and safeguard it.”
About PEN America
PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. To learn more, visit PEN.org.
Contact: Dietlind Lerner, [email protected], +1 310 699 8777