UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES)


Between transparency and opaqueness: Birzha in post-revolutionary Georgia (2003-2012)

10 December 2015

Costanza Curro, UCL SSEES

The political leadership that came to power in Georgia after 2003 Rose Revolution envisaged the “transition” from socialism to capitalism and democracy as a transition from backwardness to modernity, from opaqueness to transparency. “Grey zones” of informality were to be replaced by clear-cut distinctions between “old” and “new”, “past” and “future”, “good” and “bad”. Such changes applied to not only to politics and economics, but also to people's cultural and moral values. Was the implementation of this modernisation project consistent with the government's narratives? Costanza Curro' discusses the tension between transparency and opaqueness in post-revolutionary Georgia (2003-2012) from the perspective of the government's approach to the form of street socialisation known as birzha.

In the aftermath of the 2003 Rose Revolution, the newly-elected president Mikheil Saakashvili declared that “transition” from socialism was over in Georgia, meaning that the country had completed its transformation into a Western-like democracy. From the perspective of the then-president and his entourage, “transition” consisted in “changing everything, and changing everything fast” - as he declared to the film-maker Stefan Tolz towards the end of his presidency in 2012. In other words, “transition” was a relentless move from old to new, from backwardness to modernity, from murkiness to transparency.

As opposed to informality, mainstream political narratives depicted transparency as the mark of a system's modernity par excellence, inasmuch as modernity was conceived as the effacement of ambivalent “grey zones” in favour of clear-cut dichotomies. Manichean divisions between “old” and “new”, “past” and “future”, “freedom” and “authoritarianism”, “order” and “chaos”, “West” and “Asia” - often narrowed to “Europe” and “Russia” - informed the post-revolutionary government's rhetoric and policies.

The ruthless war to informality in the name of transparency, beside internationally hailed anti-corruption reforms, targeted a series of practices which inhabited “grey zones” between legal and illegal, between public and private. In this context, the phenomenon of birzha, indicating a form of male street socialisation based on honour, trust and reciprocity, embodied meanings and uses of urban public space which contrasted with the post-revolutionary government's projects of “Westernisation”.

A Russian word meaning “stock exchange”, in Georgian slang birzha refers to an “open-pit gathering of idle youth”, while ironically referring to the financial word. Partly considered as initial step of a criminal career, belonging to birzha defines identification with one’s local group. On a comparative basis, it can be associated to “street corner societies” in North-American ethnically defined urban areas and in Mediterranean countries. Populating urban neighbourhoods, or ubani, birzha has been a form of socialisation alternative (and often opposed) to official narratives throughout Georgia's recent history.

In Soviet Georgia, birzha was a form of youth association differing from official organisations such as Young Pioneers and Komsomol’. The state was hostile towards a phenomenon such as birzha, which, valuing honesty towards personal ties more than loyalty to the state, was at odds with socialist ideas of youth as the engine to realise state ideology. Also, images of hard-working and healthy Soviet youth contrasted with birzha men's inactivity and debauchery.

After the end of Soviet Union, birzha became a pivotal feature of neighbourhoods' life, as a cluster of personal relations of trust and reciprocity which facilitated the circulation of goods and services not provided by a failed state. With institutions taken over by corruption and organised crime, birzha had a specifically ambivalence position. On the one hand, since it was more or less directly related to the criminal world which paralysed the state, birzha was part of the turmoil that affected Georgians' lives throughout the 1990s. On the other hand, as an expression of mutual solidarity between honourable men in times of brutal selfishness, birzha was considered as a form of protest against a corrupted system.

With the 2003 Rose Revolution, a Western-educated political elite came to power following people’s discontent with the post-Soviet establishment. Narratives of political and moral transparency materialised as glass buildings meant to make the centres of political power, public force, and finance visible to citizens. The Georgian parliament in Kutaisi, the Public Service Hall in Tbilisi, and the glass police stations around the country express this trend.

These architectural interventions were part of the government's broader project to modernise the country. In Tbilisi (but similar patterns can be observed on a national scale), beside paving potholed roads, painting old buildings (notably for George W. Bush’s 2005 visit) and renovating the old town with cafés and restaurants, the government removed from the cityscape features that jeopardised a clean and safe image (for example, harsh sanctions were issued against unlicensed street vendors).

Birzha was heavily targeted in the attack on informality. The government tried to eradicate young people’s fascination for street life and the criminal world through school and community projects. Where prevention did not work, the approach was zero-tolerance, which Saakashvili referred to as 'cleaning our streets from rubbish'. Sanctions against petty theft and drug-related minor offences were toughened up. Due to harsh sanctions in relation to the entity of crimes, by 2012 the inmate population was the third highest per capita in the world.

The institutional management of urban public space worked along the modernisation narrative's clear-cut lines of “old” vs. “new”, largely contributing to the marginalisation of certain individuals and groups. The state-sponsored reconstruction of Tbilisi addressed foreign visitors, political elites, or urban middle classes. Conversely, the government neglected residential neighbourhoods which were not part of its future-building project, where little had changed in terms of building renovation and infrastructural improvement.

For birzha (and expressions of informality at large), the barred access to the future was accompanied by the denial of living the present in urban public space. Symbolising the government’s victory over crime and informality through physical and metaphorical transparency overlooks the simultaneous creation of opaque zones where power was arbitrarily exercised. Abuses of power and police excesses were removed from the public eye to non-transparent areas far from the shiny city centre, from peripheral neighbourhoods, to rural outskirts, to prisons.

At the end of its rule (Saakashvili's United National Movement was defeated by the Georgian Dream coalition in 2012), the post-revolutionary government's vision of the end of “transition” as the demise of “grey zones” of informality in favour of clear-cut distinctions proved to be inconsistent. The government's ruthless dismantling of everyday informal practices went hand in hand with the enforcement of bold neoliberal economic reforms. The lack of social security provided by the state significantly impoverished a large part of the population. People kept on relying on informal means and connections, since institutions had not tackled urgent social problems.

Inconsistencies of the modernisation narrative, which created opaque zones as the other side of transparency, reinforced informality also as a psychological approach to everyday life challenges. Networks of relatives, friends, and acquaintances were still considered as more trustworthy than the official system, both pragmatically, as a way to “get things done”, and morally, as an expression of loyalty and solidarity between people vis-à-vis a hostile power. The perceived lack of transparency as the inconsistency between the modernisation narrative and its implementation ultimately undermined the government's legitimacy.

The “culture of informality” deemed to be pervasive of Georgian society since Soviet times was taken by the post-revolutionary political leadership as the main token of Georgia's backwardness prior to 2003. Georgian people's alleged habit of circumventing formal rules to “get things done” was not considered only as a necessary by-product of institutional inefficiencies, but also as a way of thinking which had corrupted citizens' values and behaviours.