The article below will touch upon the potential for the emergence and self-creation of a new political citizenship in the context of the Rioni Valley protest. For this reason, the article concentrates on general multidisciplinary literature that situates local protests at the nexus of citizenship and legal subjectivity and offers a chance to understand the meanings and influences of locally cultivated manifestations of resistance in greater detail. The article considers citizenship as a tool and site of resistance, which, through acts of citizenship, can transform and change the meanings of existing dominant understandings of subjectivity and agency.
In 2019, an agreement was signed between the Georgian government and an investor on the construction of a cascade of Namakhvani hydroelectric power stations in the Rioni valley in western Georgia. The obscurity of this process, the detrimental conditions for Georgia stipulated in the agreement, the lack of democratic participation of the local population in the process and the requisition of land and water resources pushed the local residents to instigate a continuous protest, which took an organized form in 2020. The protest cemented its objective - "to save the Rioni valley" - to bolster the right to the water resource (river) and preserve the living environment. Later, the struggle against the privatization of water resources and land transformed into a common movement of groups in different regions. The protest took place in the villages Namakhvani and Gumati. In Namakhvani, the tents that were located on the land of the protester Lali Epremidze were dismantled by the police on April 11, 2021, due to which the protestors moved to the village of Gumati. As a result of continuous protests, on March 24, 2022, the company ENKA Renewables, which was supposed to build the Namakhvani Hydropower Plant (HPP), officially terminated the contract with the Georgian government.
At the current stage, the protest against Namakhvani HPP is over.
My doctoral research seeks to identify the hidden forms of resistance of women involved in the "Save the Rioni Valley" movement that emerged in post-Soviet Georgia, to observe how these women construct their own politicality and subjectivities, and to investigate local understandings of the possible radical potential of this process.
In order to achieve this goal, I will discuss the potentials of the emergence and self-creation of a new political citizenship. To that end, I will narrow my focus to the general multidisciplinary literature that situates local protests at the intersection of citizenship and legal subjectivity and allows us to see more comprehensively the meanings and influences of locally grown protests.
The transformative potential of citizenship in the anthropological literature
In the institutional framework of the nation-state, the idea of citizenship plays a leading role and determines the forms of relationship between the individual and the state. The idea of modern citizenship, as a political, legal, social and also cultural category, developed in the wake of Western democracy (Benei, 2005; Lazar & Nujten, 2013) and became the main prerequisite for democracy and statehood.
Discursively different names of citizenship have emerged in anthropology and related disciplines in recent decades, such as the “liberal understanding of citizenship” (Marshall, 2009), “cultural citizenship” (Ong, 1996), “sexual citizenship” (Sabsay, 2012) and others. Nevertheless, despite the existence of various definitions of citizenship, what they have in common is the ability to voice demands towards institutional governance or to obtain this opportunity (Isin, 2009). In general, the traditional theoretical understanding of citizenship equates the citizen-subject with rights-ownership, which regulates their access to resources and the scope of political agency (Petryna & Follis, 2015; Isin, 2009; Lazar, 2013).
This scope is well demonstrated by the critical theories of human rights, which focus on the weakness of the rights framework under the neoliberal order. According to this literature, the neoliberal order has offered “untouchability” to the globalized economy, but has done nothing to counter unequal structures (Moyn, 2018). In addition, according to the authors, in the process of obtaining rights, the group has to acquire not only the rights, but also legal subjectivity. As Partha Chatterjee describes, peripheral populations in postcolonial societies are considered to lack an "ethical" framework for citizenship and human rights. The political mobilization of this group necessarily involves efforts to change the empirically formed "population" and turn it into a citizen-actor (Chatterjee, 2011).
It is also noted that the necessary mechanisms for obtaining legal subjectivity are embedded in the concepts of citizenship and agency in the current system of nation-states. The idea of citizenship plays a leading role and determines the forms of relationship between the individual and the state.
Sociologist Injin Isin (2009) calls the process of citizenship creation “citizenship acts”, which encompasses the set of institutional and individual practices of citizenship self-creation (Isin, 2009). Studying acts of citizenship, they note, “requires a focus on the moments when, regardless of status, subjects transform themselves into citizens, or better – when they claim to possess human rights” (Isin, 2008, p. 18, as cited in Fortier, 2016). According to the sociologist Anne-Marie Fortier, “citizenship is an object of action” (Fortier, 2016), moreover, Fortier goes further and points out that acts of citizenship do not only involve thinking about oneself in its framework, but it is a practice of citizenship that transforms, re-defines or even rejects the idea of citizenship. However, conversely to Fortier and Isin, if we understand citizenship as a space of action, in such a case, the possibilities of using citizenship as a tool for a set goal and "becoming a citizen" and its limitations will become clearer (Chatterjee, 2011; Tsing, 2005).
The potential of the idea of citizenship as a practice and as a field can also be seen through global or local movements/protests. Some anthropologists who study social movements, resistances and citizenship united for different purposes (Tsing, 2005; Povinelli, 1998; Alexandrakis, 2016; Lazar & Nuijten, 2013), point to the dominance of the universal language of human rights in the strategies of these movements. Despite the different ontological foundations, human rights perspectives can be found in the protests of the indigenous population of the Awajun and Wampis tribes in Peru against the oil extraction works taking place on their territory (Cadena, 2019), in the environmental movement in Indonesia (Tsing, 2005) or in the "water wars" initiated by the farmers in Bolivia (Albro, 2005). Similarly to the aforementioned movements created for the preservation of the living environment and local ecosystem, the language of human rights is actively used by the participants of the protest against Namakhvani HPP in Georgia. In the context of the latter, the language of universal rights is narrowed down to the concepts of democracy, political participation of citizens and shared rights to the living environment, which implies the translation of the social goals of a specific movement into the institutional language.
This may lead to new opportunities and new forms of citizenship. In liberal democracy, we see citizenship as a disciplined subjectivity, the forms of which are embodied in the passive actions of voting in elections, choosing institutional representation, the right to assembly and manifestation, and freedom of expression (Lazar & Nujten, 2013; Isin, 2009; Ong, 1996). These are the main forms of citizens' expression of their dissatisfaction, and in a way, we can say that it is similar to the admission/license of resistance (Gluckman, 1955). According to Max Gluckman, the ritual of resistance has the opposite effect of undermining the political system—it strengthens it. In his seminal text License in Ritual (1955), Gluckman points out that ritual is not only an illustration of the tensions in a particular society, but also an opportunity to resolve them, to defuse crisis and conflict. According to the author, these rituals highlight the conflicts in society and threaten unity. However, its open expression is encouraged so that the community can achieve unity and prosperity. Gluckman emphasizes that the behaviors expressed by the subjects involved in this ritual should be understood not as individual rebellion, but as actions dictated by their own social roles. Accordingly, he notes that rituals are a statement of rebellion, but never revolutionary (Gluckman, 1955).
This vision, which concerns the ritualization of resistance or its theatricalization, directly refers to the process of technicalization and normalization of citizenship and the universal human rights embedded in it. I call this process “ritual of democracy”, based on Gluckman, and the activists involved in it - “ritual citizens”, because activism is no longer only a tool for opposing the institutional oppressive systems. Instead, we now see it strengthening the same order.
It also involves creating an illusion of the democratic nature of the state. Voicing of these demands is encouraged, but those demands are never heard and considered by the state.
Transformation of citizenship
The "rituality" of protests and citizenship acquires clear forms in transitional countries like Georgia along with the strengthening of the normativity of the idea of a "new citizen". In the process of post-Soviet modernization of Georgia, as described by Stephen Jones, it sought to create a new citizen who would resemble the image of a modern Western citizen (Jones, 2013). This new citizen had to accept the status quo and the developmental prospects of all new democracies in transition. In particular, such processes as privatization of extraction and consumption of natural resources, the entry of foreign capital and economic development.
The language of those involved in the Namakhvani HPP protest may show a departure from this orthodoxy, which, on the one hand, helps us in a way to diagnose authority and, on the other hand, may offer us ways of perceiving the world which maybe be new for modernity, yet common to human nature, which may make a better world imaginable. As Maka Suladze, the defender of Rioni Valley, says:
The more often you have contact with nature, plants, the deeper you reach into nature, the more interesting things open up before you, you return more to new things... No, we don't learn new things, we just return to what we left off, what we forgot.
One of the focuses of my doctoral research is to search for the potential of deconstruction of this ritual citizenship, the example of which is the political agency of the participants involved in the Namakhvani HPP protest.
In the context of Rioni alley guardians, I consider citizenship as an object and space of resistance, which through acts of citizenship can transform and change the meanings of the existing dominant or even liberal vision of disciplined citizenship. Thus, if we perceive citizenship as a set of actions, which is determined by self-creation and „construction“, it can be said that in the case of the Namakhvani HPP protest, the top-down process of citizenship construction is opposed by the bottom-up process. The movement, with its form and language, may also transform the content of the „political“ and ensure that local knowledge and needs penetrate this definition of citizenship. In that, new ways of reconfiguring the idea of citizenship may be created, which, through the demand to preserve the living environment, seeks to gain the possibility of redenominating the world.
The content of the publication is the sole responsibility of the author and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the Heinrich Boell Foundation Tbilisi Office - South Caucasus Region.
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