Rioni Valley haindpainted illustration

Struggle for the Rioni Valley in between Political and Civil Society Terrains

Contested Infrastructures and Development Politics

Who can resist capitalism today and how? Who can resist capitalism in Georgia or in other
peripheral countries of Eastern Europe and Eurasia, where the supposed central agent of
the resistance – civil society – according to mainstream/liberal or critical evaluators, is weak,
divided, and alienated from local social concerns (Foa and Ekiert, 2017; Howard, 2012)?

In this book I tell a story of the struggle over Rioni river valley in western Georgia, in particular the detailed history of the anti-dam movement that took place between November
2020 and July 2021. In doing so, I engage with this broad, yet continuously politically relevant
question: who resists capitalism and how do they resist it? Based on the study of this
unique struggle in the history of post-independence Georgia, and drawing on the concepts
of subalternity, civil and political society by Antonio Gramsci and Parta Chatterjee, I discuss
how hegemonic developmental politics are produced and contested. On the one hand,
this research details the strategies of political-economic elites to legitimise the existing
developmental politics and exclude resistances to it from the public sphere. On the other
hand, it observes the possibilities to resist (even if temporarily or partially) the irreversible
destruction or severe exploitation of humans and nature, local cultures and heritages and
living environments. It explores existing attempts at identifying and fighting for alternative
developmental paths countering the hegemonic developmental order.

Drawing on observations about the struggle for the Rioni valley, my main point is as follows:
larger share of the resistances against existing development politics in Georgia, as well as
probably in many other corners of Eastern Europe and Eurasia, takes place beyond civil society, on what Patra Chatterjee calls a political society terrain. Civil society, this alleged central avatar of the politics of resistance, is a kind of a battlefield in itself. Struggle over becoming a part of civil society, part of rights-bearing legitimate citizenry, or being excluded from it, is the central characteristic of the battlefield. This observation has a crucial importance for the existing literature, as well as, and more importantly, for ongoing political struggles in the post-socialist space and beyond. To this date, there is an ongoing debate about the reasons why civil society is so weak, elitist, and detached from the concerns of respective societies (Gagyi and Ivancheva, 2019). According to some authors working on the region, the concept of civil society should be set aside altogether. Others would rather broaden the concept of civil society so that it can include not only the actors that are recognized as civil society actors in the post-socialist public spaces – as NGOs or formal associations – but also the marginalised struggles and the forms of everyday resistance (Jacobsson, 2016; Jacobsson and Korolczuk, 2019). I argue that both approaches are theoretically and politically problematic.

Drawing on the experience of the Rioni valley struggle, I demonstrate that the exclusion of
various groups from the civil society terrain, and the denial of the legitimacy of their struggle,
are the main tools for the existing political and economic elites to maintain their hegemony.
In other words, the subalternity of certain groups, their epistemic displacement,
emphasising their non-compliance with the existing legal-institutional order, and suppressing
their voices in the public space is carried out precisely by excluding them from the civil
society terrain. Subalternity therefore, is not simply related to material deprivation, but is
shaped in a specific historical context through material and discursive displacement of certain
groups from the legal and moral parameters set by the hegemonic order, disconnection
from knowledge production, and deliberate deprivation from the opportunity to articulate
one’s political voice and interests in the public space. Those kinds of excluded groups, that
are denied access to conventional channels of democratic engagement and are stripped of
civil rights, are left to organise on the terrain of political society, that is, on the terrain of alternative values, torn from the existing institutions and structures. Overcoming the delegitimization becomes the main challenge for subaltern groups and determines the strength of the resistance. In other words, political society is a terrain of mobilisation for subaltern groups that are actively removed from the possibility to fight on civil society terrain.
Moving beyond the political society terrain, getting under the skin of civil society, and doing
so, destabilising the very concept of civil society, instead of “strengthening” civil society
or simply attaching this label to oneself, appears to be the way to confront the hegemonic
order today. The two dominant academic approaches to the ‘weak’ civil society problem in
post-socialist East, one rejecting the concept altogether, and the other one trying to stretch
the concept to include marginalised, subaltern struggles, seem detached from current political
realities. Both approaches ignore how the exclusion from civil society, or overcoming
such exclusion, in itself becomes the decisive object of a struggle for many subaltern groups.

In what follows I attempt to summarise the chronology of the struggle for the Rioni valley,
and flesh out the empirical base for these conceptual claims.

Observing the efforts of the government and the lobbyists to discredit the fight for Rioni
valley clearly shows how hegemony and subalternity are produced; how the state and, more
generally, political and economic elites operating within the liberal consensus, handle resistances against existing developmental politics.

Lela Rekhviashvili

Product details
Date of Publication
Heinrich Boell Foundation South Caucasus
Number of Pages
All rights reserved
Language of publication
Table of contents

Struggle for the Rioni Valley in between political and civil society terrains: contested infrastructures and development politics - 125