Cultural Resilience: Navigating Political Crisis Through Dialogue

Natia Mikeladse-Bachsoliani's speech for the Culture is (a) Right Conference, held on 2-3.06.2024 in Yerevan by the CSN Lab


Since the Faro Convention, adopted by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe in 2005, the promotion of intercultural dialogue has been a top political priority of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. At the Website of the Council of Europe we find the following passage: 

“Dialogue between cultures, the oldest and most fundamental mode of democratic conversation, is an antidote to rejection and violence. In political parlance, the term “intercultural dialogue” is still only loosely defined. In a general sense, the objective of intercultural dialogue is to learn to live together peacefully and constructively in a multicultural world and to develop a sense of community and belonging. Intercultural dialogue can also be a tool for the prevention and resolution of conflicts by enhancing the respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law.”

After 28 years working as a program coordinator and project manager at the Goethe-Institut in Georgia and Armenia, my experience has shown me the difficulties and challenges of intercultural dialogue, especially in politically unstable and vulnerable countries like those in the Caucasus.

I would like to describe an example of these difficulties here. When I started my job at the Goethe-Institut in 1994, which deals with cultural exchange in the areas of language, programs, and information, it was primarily about bilateral exchanges between Germany and the respective host country. Around 2001, the Goethe-Institut was divided into larger regions worldwide to promote intercultural exchange and dialogue between neighboring countries as well. Following this division, Georgia and Armenia, along with Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, were grouped into the OEZA/Eastern Europe Central Asia region. “Naturally,” Moscow was designated as the leading regional institute. As a result of this change, shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a post-Soviet Goethe region was essentially revived with Moscow at its center, which by 2003 had already led to outrage among the staff and partners of the institute in Georgia. Although the Moscow regional institute was supposed to maintain a German presence, staffed by dispatched German employees, psychologically, it rather generated displeasure and incomprehension, especially due to the budgetary decisions dictated by the so-called “center” and the forced participation in common regional projects that were becoming increasingly difficult for our countries.

Especially after the 2008 war with Russia, joint projects with the three Russian institutes became virtually impossible for Georgia. One of the biggest obstacles to cultural cooperation in this region was the language: using Russian as the lingua franca was not only a no-go but also impossible due to the lack of knowledge among the younger generation. The dialogue in our region was repeatedly hindered and often artificially supported in order to secure additional project funds or simply to score points with the institution. With the onset of repression in Belarus and especially after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine two years ago, our Goethe region began to disintegrate, leading to the search for alternative forms of collaboration worldwide. Since April of this year, there has been a change in the division of the Goethe map: Armenia and Georgia now fall into one of the two left Europe regions (along with Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, Poland, Greece, Hungary, Cyprus, Serbia, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Romania, Poland, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, for a total of 22 institutes in 17 countries). Azerbaijan is still missing in this new division of Europe, as an institute opening in Baku will probably happen later than in Yerevan. However, I expect that it will eventually be included in this group.

This more detailed description of the regional division of a German cultural institution should help to better understand the difficulties in carrying out so-called regional projects and intercultural dialogue in our region. When the geopolitical conditions and the relationships of countries are extremely tense, as it is currently the case between Ukraine and Georgia with Russia, or in the case of Armenia and Azerbaijan, a dialogue at the cultural level becomes virtually impossible. Nothing should be forced or large projects designed merely for the sake of projects, to score points or acquire additional funds. These would result in beautifully written concepts and projects on paper, which in the end are accurately accounted for but overall have very low outcomes. Thus, today, it is not an easy task to promote substantial cultural work and meaningful networking in our countries, but it remains an exciting challenge nonetheless!

I would like to give some examples from my earlier work at the Goethe-Institut, successful projects or best practices, as well as less successful or politically sensitive cases.

Even before the second Armenian-Azerbaijani war over Artsakh, there were frequent attempts to bring together Armenian and Azerbaijani artists, publishers, library staff, or German teachers to participate in various projects and workshops. Success varied, depending on who was involved and how. The organization of such meetings required excellent preparation and a sensitive approach. For example, during a regional music project in 2009, in which pianists from all three Caucasus countries participated, the concert had to be canceled at the last moment because the Azerbaijani and Armenian pianists refused to appear on stage together at the end. Conversely, we were successful with our three-year project to promote museum work (2014-2017), in which curators and museum staff from the entire OEZA region genuinely came together to develop new concepts in museum work and share their experiences. The two curators from Yerevan and Baku got along very well. This collaboration succeeded only because of the careful selection of the participants and their willingness to exchange ideas. Despite the close contacts and friendships that emerged from such projects, this network could not withstand the extremely tense political circumstances after the 2020 war. This showed how fragile such relationships are and how vulnerable cultural networks can be in politically troubled countries.

At the regional meeting in 2023, the leaders of the Goethe Institutes of Eastern Europe/Central Asia once again pondered which joint regional projects could still be possible in our region. After much discussion, it was decided that we should go beyond our region and plan something that would enable dialogue across regions. We managed to initiate a two-year literary project that includes Armenia, Georgia, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, and Germany, and stimulates discussions among authors of the Black sea basin and with the reading public.

It was important for us to keep the discussion topics open to respond to rapidly changing circumstances. In the first year, two residencies, each involving five authors, were held in Georgia and Romania, followed by panel discussions, and finally, two more panel discussions at the Berlin Literature Festival 2023. It became evident how fruitful these joint residencies and the leisure time spent together were for the participating authors. In a relaxed atmosphere, on a nature trip or over a glass of wine in the evening, topics were discussed, plans were made, stories were told, transnational similarities or differences were discovered, participants philosophizing, and simply having long person-to-person conversations that are so important in our everyday lives!

"The motto of our project was a quote by Karl Jaspers: 'The fact that we can talk to each other makes us human."

Overall, the project TALKING TO EACH OTHER or “Black Sea Stories” brought together 12 authors from 6 countries and, after the successful panels in Berlin, was even invited to the literature festival in Malmö this year. This attests to the interest of the audience outside these countries and the successful project strategy: granting more freedom and fewer regulations and constraints for the participants as well as flexibility in action. The final round for the participating authors will soon take place in June here in Armenia, at the Writers' house on Lake Sevan and at the Goethe-Institut Yerevan. You will certainly experience an interesting round!

In times of political crisis, dialogue through culture becomes more and more difficult, both within a country, where society is polarized to the extreme, and beyond its borders.

When it comes to the freedom and independence of cultural workers, unfortunately, one must fight more often and more stubbornly in our countries. This demonstrates that art and culture still resonate greatly within society, which dictatorships fear and fight against. In Georgia, one can clearly trace how the authorities have successively abolished all initiatives, instances, and organizations of free cultural workers or replaced them with their censorship. 

Initially, those institutions that had successfully promoted and developed contemporary, independent art and culture over the past decade were targeted: the Writers' House and the Book Center, which, despite numerous obstacles, had successfully organized the guest country appearance at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2018, were punished shortly thereafter. I will return to how important this appearance was. This was followed by the mass layoffs of professional staff in the museum sector, the abolition or replacement of the LITERA Literature Festival, the restructuring of the Georgian Film Center, and the pressure on some theaters and publishers by the Ministry of Culture and the minister Tea Tsulukiani, appointed for this purpose, along with her team.

This rapid destruction of professional cultural workers by authoritarian politicians, underlines the importance of a strong and independent cultural ecosystem of institutions that exists alongside state structures. However, these too can easily be jeopardized by laws such as the “Foreign Agents Bill” passed by the Georgian Government. Even though it's no easy feat, such an ecosystem should try to obtain local funding from the private sector, which could be more resilient against authoritarian governments.

In my opinion, the message of the organizers/CSN lab/ of this event (panel discussion and lectures in frame of the EVN Media Festival) is very important: culture is a right. Over the last 10 years in Georgia, it has become particularly clear how important contemporary cultural creation is and what role it plays in current developments in society. I specifically emphasize the "contemporary" because it is in tune with the times and helps shape the future. 

There is nothing new in the fact that dictatorships are usually afraid of contemporary artists. But the topic is always controversial and important. Last year, as part of his contribution to a collective exhibition, a young Georgian artist wrote on the wall of the Georgian National Gallery, now under censorship by the Ministry of Culture: "Art is alive and independent." This little sentence frightened the authorities so much that it was erased the same day and then led to the closure of the entire exhibition. 

 We, the older generation of the post-Soviet countries, remember well the time beyond the Iron Curtain, with censorship, restrictions, and the Aesopian language that were commonplace then. 

How does an artist remain free and independent in our geopolitically turbulent and fractured countries? What moral responsibility does an artist have if he doesn't just want to create art làrt pour làrt and if he is socially committed? What power does the written and spoken word, the new media and new forms of performance and design have? There are many questions and a need for exchange these days, especially among the young generation in neighboring countries. 

 Following the aforementioned repressions in the cultural sector, especially young cultural creators and activists reacted very quickly to these measures. Platforms for mutual support that had not existed before were created, which was certainly a surprise to the authorities. Over the last 30 years, a new generation has grown up to whom this reality is completely unknown or difficult to imagine. Add to this the new media and technologies that have rapidly developed over these three decades and led to new opportunities for dialogue.

Whether it’s Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, AI, or other social media and achievements, they all serve to facilitate a broader and faster exchange and mutual support in critical times. I will not dwell on all the negative sides of these social media, which certainly exist, as with anything created by humans. Rather, I focus on the use of the creative and fruitful possibilities that they bring and which should definitely be considered as we look to the future.

I am convinced that our Generation Z/GenZ understands each other much faster and better, not only through social media, but also through direct peer-to-peer encounters, spontaneously traveling to neighboring countries, joint events and happenings. I believe in this generation and its creativity, which is no longer stuck in the post-Soviet labyrinths and is totally free of this imperial narrative and arrogance!

 When it comes to cross-border understanding, there is often a linguistic obstacle. This hurdle is particularly relevant for countries such as Armenia and Georgia. While in the field of visual arts and music one can often understand each other without words, in cinema, theater, literature, and conceptual art good translations are necessary. The more one learns about contemporary art and culture of another country, the better the dialogue and empathy for each other's work. The importance of translating contemporary authors, presenting contemporary plays and films in other languages was demonstrated by the lively exchange between Armenia and Georgia in recent years. After a long hiatus in the relations between these two Caucasus nations, which were often incited against each other by third parties, thanks to several mutual translations and guest performances, as well as film screenings at festivals, there was a rapprochement among the young cultural creators and a completely new approach to relations, which is so important for our neighboring countries.

In times of increasing radicalisation and polarization of societies, including in Western countries, it is important to have mutual understanding and cohesion of all democratically and liberally minded forces across borders! For Armenia and Georgia, international festivals and book fairs are now those platforms that should be used at every opportunity.

And lastly, I will return to the successful guest country appearance at the Frankfurt Book Fair, which, in my opinion, encompassed all areas of art and culture and greatly benefited the resilience of cultural work!

 When in 2006-2007, a small group of literary figures and idealists in Georgia began contemplating how to represent their country as the guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair, most people dismissed us as eccentric and even a little bit crazy. Although there was already a wealth of intriguing contemporary literature, there were scarcely any translations from Georgian into German or other European languages. Moreover, the endeavor required significant logistical and financial resources. Thus, the journey to 2018 was a lengthy one. 

The fact that these 10-plus years have passed in the blink of an eye, and the marathon toward our guest of honor status at the Frankfurt Book Fair has been successfully completed, owes much to the dedication of enthusiasts, authors, translators, publishers, literature agents, and decision-makers who collaborated on this project. This appearance served as a gateway to our country and its culture. While countries like Georgia and Armenia can be explored through travel, true insight lies in reading the literature that boasts a tradition spanning over 1500 years — our works written in unique alphabets that few others comprehend. We possess the privilege and treasure of these distinctive scripts, which have both shielded and somewhat isolated us.

While we have translated much into our own languages,  back translations from our languages are rare. Now is the opportune moment for the world to acquaint itself with us more intimately, delving into our pain, love, friendship, fears, joy, and suffering through our literary works. The Frankfurt Book Fair stands as a monumental cultural platform — one that should undoubtedly be harnessed to showcase your country and elevate its recognition. Armenia has long deserved such recognition!

Finally, I would like to conclude by once again quoting Article 27 of the UDHR/Universal Declaration of Human Rights again, which should always inspire us to engage in dialogue with one another, even when being human seems so difficult:

 Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees cultural rights, including the right of all to participate freely in cultural life, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.


Natia Mikeladse-Bachsoliani, freelance cultural manager, translator, civil society activist