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The Fall Of Robert Sturua Sets A New Standard In Georgian Public Life

Georgian theater director Robert Sturua
Georgian theater director Robert Sturua
The educated public learned that renowned Georgian theater director Robert Sturua had been dismissed from the post of artistic director at the country's leading Rustaveli Theater in Tbilisi from the maestro's own curt posting ("I've been fired") on Facebook late on August 16.

Georgia's Ministry of Culture initially declined to comment, saying a statement by Minister Nikoloz Rurua was forthcoming. But it was only in the afternoon that Rurua explained that Sturua had been dismissed for his overtly xenophobic pronouncements.

Specifically, Sturua affirmed at the end of June that President Mikheil Saakashvili cannot love Georgia because he is of (hidden) Armenian extraction. Then, responding to criticism of that statement, Sturua underscored his contempt for the rules of political correctness by saying that he is under no obligation to love blacks, claiming that they are culturally inferior to him.

If in a Western democracy a public figure who receives his salary courtesy of the taxpayer said something similar, he would not remain in office for very long.

Imagine, for example, that the artistic director of Britain's National Theatre said the prime minister could not be trusted as one of his grandmothers was Jewish, and added some derogatory comment about people with dark skin.

Possible Political Fallout

But it would be premature to leap to the conclusion that Georgia really is turning into a European country whose leaders are guided by European standards. For starters, it is extremely odd that it took the minister a month and a half to formulate a position. It should not take that long to assess the situation: the nature of Sturua's statements was pretty clear.

One possible explanation for the time lag is that the authorities were assessing the potential political fallout. Given that Sturua is widely known to openly oppose the government, sacking him would inevitably look like political scores were being settled and his xenophobic comments merely served as the pretext for this.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili
The Georgian authorities have to be extremely careful in light of repeated accusations of authoritarianism. Whether or not those accusations are justified is another matter.

But the primary difference from European practice is the overall context. In a hypothetical Western democracy, a racist pronouncement by the artistic director of a state-subsidized theater would elicit a universal wave of public indignation, which politicians of all ideological leanings except for the extreme right would express solidarity with.

It goes without saying that Sturua should be sacked, assuming that he did not preempt that decision by publicly announcing his resignation.

In Georgia there were some protests against what Sturua said, but they were by no means unanimous, and most "masters of culture" showed solidarity with him as a colleague.

'Status Intelligentsia'

But the issue is not simply Sturua's opposition views. At the root of the problem is the extremely complicated relationship between the present leadership and the segment of society known in the former USSR as the "cultural and scientific intelligentsia," and during the perestroika period more scientifically as the "status intelligentsia."

After Saakashvili and his team of young reformers came to power, the older generation of the intelligentsia lost its status as the moral leaders of the nation.

The fact that Robert Sturua could stage as many plays as he wanted at the Rustaveli Theater on government money, and that no one stopped him making ironic comments about the government in his favorite metaphorical style is beside the point. What matters is that the Rustaveli Theater ensemble no longer felt they were the spiritual center of the nation.

It is also no coincidence that it was accusations of xenophobia that became the stumbling block. Political discourse in Georgia is increasingly taking the form of "culture wars." If Saakashvili's modernizing government identifies with Western liberal discourse, in which it is considered shameful to judge people on the basis of their ethnicity, a predilection for conspiracy theories, in which perceptions of the ethnic roots of "bad" leaders are a key component, remains the hallmark of the post-Soviet intelligentsia.

Armenophobia Equivalent To Anti-Semitism

Hence the myth, popular in these circles, that Saakashvili's concealed Armenian origins explain his "lack of patriotism." In the Georgian context, Armenophobia can be considered the functioning equivalent of Russian anti-Semitism.

Many people were surprised that it was Sturua who embodied that attitude, given his reputation for toppling traditional values: his style, combining irony and elements of carnival, superseded the hitherto dominant heroic-romantic approach.

And, as his defendants rightly point out, nothing in Sturua's body of work even hints at xenophobia. But the fact remains that in terms of his social and political views, Sturua turned out to be just another representative of the Soviet intelligentsia.

In the polarized atmosphere of today's Georgia, Sturua's dismissal would have been construed as a settling of scores whatever the circumstances. But setting the precedent for firing a popular figure because he was accused of xenophobic pronouncements sets a new standard for public figures in state service.

Ghia Nodia is professor of politics at Ilia State University. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL