Coerced into cheering Nicolas Sarkozy
21 October, 2011
What would you do if you wanted to see or cheer for a prominent political leader, like Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president? If that leader is giving a public speech, you would simply go there, right? But what if you were ordered by your superior to attend that event? Despite your interest in seeing the speech, you might refuse to go there or if you did go, you might have lost your original enthusiasm. In Georgia, nowadays, it looks like peoples’ interest in seeing someone prominent is often met with a feeling of obligation and sometimes even fear of losing their job. “Show support for President Sarkozy because he supported Georgia in hard times” - that was how the message was framed by local authorities when they organized trips for public sector employees to attend the outdoor speech. As a result, dozens of mini buses from the regions arrived in Tbilisi on Friday, October 7. The day had unexpectedly been declared a local public holiday a few days before by President Mikheil Saakashvili, as the Tbilisoba festival was moved forward from late October. That day, French President Nicolas Sarkozy gave a public speech on Tbilisi’s Freedom Square, and the event had been promoted with a trailer aired repeatedly on the country’s national TV stations. Reports by local media outlets suggest that tens of thousands of laris from municipal government budgets were spent to bring people to the capital. Public sector employees were ordered to travel to the capital by local authorities, according to several reports by independent local media outlets. As Guria News reported, it was difficult to find any civil servants outside Tbilisi on October 7, although the day was a regular working day outside the capital. In Zugdidi, Adamur Arkhania, the municipal procurement office told Tspress.ge that GEL 4,640 were spent from the municipal budget on bringing people to the capital. He said that the money was spent on four buses which had been rented without a competitive bidding process. According to Tspress, Zugdidi municipality’s Department of Culture distributed per-diems to attendees of the speech. From Poti, buses brought more than 250 people, including public sector employees, students, and school children, to Tbilisi. For transportation and food, GEL 6,000 were spent from the municipal budget, Vano Saginadze, the Poti Sakrebulo chairman, told Tspress.ge. From the small city of Dusheti about 600 people were sent to Tbilisi to cheer the French President: 16 mini buses, two large buses, and the private cars of the Dusheti Sakrebulo (council) and Gamgeoba (municipality) officials were used as means of transportation, according to the Mtsketa-Mtianeti Information Centre. The local online outlet reported that Lasha Janashvili, the local governor, was coordinating the process. The majority of people gathered were employees of various departments of the local administration, public schools and kindergartens. Following the order of local public school directors, pupils and the parents also faced pressure to attend Sarkozy’s speech. A list with the names of people to be sent to Tbilisi was drafted two days ahead of the event, according to the Information Centre. All individuals on the list were allegedly given a warning: those who did not attend the event would be laid off immediately. (Recently, several locals had been fired from their jobs after talking to reporters.) In the Eastern region of Kakheti, the picture was similar. According to the Kakheti Information Centre, public institutions closed at 1 PM on October 7, as almost all civil servants of local self-government offices were dispatched for Tbilisi to cheer the speeches of the French and Georgian presidents. Only 12 employees out of 120 were present at Gurjaani municipality at 4 PM when a journalist from Kakheti Information Center visited the office. “Every reasonable person should be in Tbilisi in these hours to greet Mr. Sarkozy”, an employee at the Department of Tourism Development told the journalist. From Rustavi's municipal budget, GEL 10,000 were spent to arrange peoples' presence at Tbilisi Freedom Square, the newspaper "Rustavis Ambebi" (Rustavi News), wrote. According to the paper, yellow buses used for local transportation in the city were used to bring public sector employees to Tbilisi. After reading the stories and watching the videos that Georgian journalists collected from all parts of the country, it is difficult to avoid memories of the past when "pioneers," workers and state servants were brought into the city center if somebody important was going to visit the country. During President Sarkozy’s speech, the square was filled with tens of thousands of people, hearing him emphasize that France was committed to supporting Georgia’s territorial integrity. “When I’m in Tbilisi, I feel like I am in Europe”, the French President said.