Robert Helm-Pleuger: Nini, tell us a little bit about yourself, like your name, your age, your background...
Nini Shakarashvili: Sure. My name is Nino Shakarashvili, I am 20 years old and I was born and raised in Tbilisi, Georgia. I am currently completing my bachelor’s degree at Caucasus University. I study public administration. At the moment I work as a PR manager at the sports and youth centre, and on the side I run a youth organisation. It’s called the Georgian Association for Equality, or GAFE. My colleagues and I are trying to fight discrimination in universities and youth groups, because it’s still an issue that needs to be addressed in Georgia.
Robert Helm-Pleuger: How long have you been active in this field?
Nini Shakarashvili: GAFE was founded about 18 months ago, but we started working on the idea two years ago. So it’s been two years and a bit. I am actively involved in the field of equality in youth groups in Georgia. I’ve been involved in social issues and civic engagement and similar matters for as long as I can remember. I recall very clearly the war of 2008. I remember being scared when I heard helicopters flying overhead. I remember my mother hiding jewellery in my toys because if we had to flee, she wanted to take it with her. That is a lasting impression that I grew up with, and that’s why I was confronted with the situation, culture, and politics on a daily basis.
My future is in Georgia
Robert Helm-Pleuger: Have you ever been abroad?
Nini Shakarashvili: I have travelled. I’ve been to the Netherlands, to Strasbourg, to Armenia. I was never away for a long time though. I didn’t participate in an exchange programme either, but I have been abroad and seen some things. My sister lives in the Netherlands, so I have a close connection to someone who has left Georgia.
Robert Helm-Pleuger: Can you imagine going abroad for a longer period of time and if so, what would you like to do?
Nini Shakarashvili: Well, for me personally, my nationality is a big part of my identity and so in a way my nationality determines my life. Personally I don’t think that I am better off anywhere else in the world than in my own country. That is why I want to be here. I want to stay in Georgia. I want to work here and benefit society. I am definitely thinking about maybe one day doing an exchange programme or getting a second degree somewhere in Europe, but I see myself living in Georgia. I see myself working for my country, and I don’t want to go anywhere else. But among the others in my generation it’s definitely a popular idea to go abroad and live somewhere else. And there is a major brain drain from Georgia. So yes, that’s a problem.
Robert Helm-Pleuger: So in your personal environment, there are people who have already left. How many have done so?
Nini Shakarashvili: Yes, many people have left, among them my sister who lives in the Netherlands now. To have seen her go abroad and then stay there is not easy for me, but it motivates me to build my country, to use my voice and my energy. I want to build a country that satisfies, or will satisfy, the needs of my sister and other people of my generation. That is a motivating factor, but of course there are also fears because of the political situation, the international situation with Russia. Of course there is this fear. Of course there are also doubts about whether it makes sense to do this in the first place. Does it make sense to stay in Georgia because one day you might wake up and be part of Russia? It is definitely scary, but I can’t think of any other way to make my life more meaningful than this.
The EU has hesitated long enough
Robert Helm-Pleuger: How do you see the future of the country for the young generation in Georgia in the coming years?
Nini Shakarashvili: We, the youth of Georgia, have often shown what our dream is, what we want and what we are striving for. We have often proven that our country is not an unimportant part of our lives. We have proven that we love our culture. We love our country. We love the people who live here, and we have proven often enough that we are capable of fighting for it. We have taken to the streets. We have participated in decision-making. We have thought about it. We discuss it every day, and the future we really deserve is integration into the EU. And that we have candidate status by the end of the year because we really deserve it. If you look at our public activism and public opinion about the EU, it is clear and obvious that we want to move in that direction. But the EU is still hesitant to engage on Georgia because of our political situation. That said, what else is the point of this powerful organisation if it doesn’t engage diplomatically with the country, if we don’t have a say, and if this country of three and a half million people, which is so diverse and unique, is abandoned? This is a really major issue in the youth sector in Georgia. Right now there are twelve recommendations that we need to follow in order to get candidate status. That would be the first step, the first victory for our country and for our generation, if we had candidate status and could take advantage of the opportunities that Europe offers and of the history between Georgia and Europe, which goes back far into the past. We have been trying to be part of this community for centuries, and now it’s time to really recognise what we can do and what we have to offer to the EU. Because we have diversity, we have culture, we have potential, we have incredible young people who could really be part of this enormous community and bring something new and fresh to the EU. And yes, the best scenario would be if we received candidate status, if we became a member, because the doors would open. That would have a great impact on everything in Georgia, on our economy and on so much more.
Robert Helm-Pleuger: Do you think this is the view of the young generation in general? Or are there only some young people who are fighting for this idea?
Nini Shakarashvili: There is national consensus over this. A study conducted by the National Democratic Institute in 2022 showed that 82% of the Georgian population favours Georgia’s integration into the EU.
A lack of interest in politics is a luxury
Robert Helm-Pleuger: If you look around Western Europe, many young people there are not interested in politics at all. So it’s very interesting to learn that in Georgia, everyone is fighting for freedom and wants to have change. They want to be part of the European family.
Nini Shakarashvili: The funny thing about the story is that we are so proud and our mentality is so, so proud. That’s why we have more than 200 political practices. Because everyone wants to be a leader. We argue all the time and discuss certain issues, but there are two things that we publicly agree on 90 per cent of the time. One: Russia is an enemy, Russia is a murderer and occupier. And two: we want to be in the EU. That is a kind of public consensus. There is no doubt about this, and we are doing everything in our power to achieve it. Can you imagine thousands of people leaving their places of work every day and going to protests when they need to, or discussing on social media how the country can join the EU? As you said, some young people in European countries want nothing to do with politics. But that’s a privilege, a luxury. We don’t have that privilege. Instead, we are able and ready to fight so that one day all children will have that privilege.
As a member of the young generation of Georgia, I would like to tell you what it’s like for us to live in a country that is 20 percent occupied by Russia. What it’s like to live in fear every day, to wake up and go to sleep questioning your life choices because they may not matter one day. The war against Ukraine has intensified these emotions in each of us. A few weeks ago, my father came to me and out of the blue showed me Google Maps and a map of Abkhazia. And he zoomed into the town of Gagra and told me that this was where the house had been where he spent his childhood. My grandfather built it with his own hands and now it no longer exists. Nobody took care of it. “But do you see this olive tree?” my father asked. "There is still this olive tree. My grandfather and I planted it together.“ My heart broke. So many fragments. So much stress that I get emotional. Our stress levels are sky-high after all we have been through and what my father has been through… Yes... I’m sorry.
Robert Helm-Pleuger: It’s okay.
A small country has a big voice
Nini Shakarashvili: We are not part of the EU family and we are not that popular. The 1993 and 2008 wars passed us by like no one really noticed, but we really went through hell. We really went through hell, and right now we can’t go to Abkhazia. I’m a young person and I can’t go see my father’s childhood home in Abkhazia. I can’t see those beautiful beaches, and we, the young generation, we really feel it, we embrace it, we may have been just children then, but the trauma, the pain, it exists and we feel it every day. It’s important for us to speak out about what we went through, we fought and we lost, and right now we are living on a bomb because it would take just days, not even half a day, for Russia to occupy us completely, and the scariest thing is this: imagine Putin, who started a war against Ukraine that is supported by the whole EU and the whole world. They’ve brought sanctions upon themselves and given up everything, and now they’re waging this huge war. You have another neighbour that is in this beautiful region; it’s called Georgia. Georgia is not part of the EU, it does not have candidate status, it is not a NATO member. Georgia has no military power because it is not allowed to give us weapons. It would take half a day to occupy us completely. Imagine if you were Putin. Wouldn’t you just occupy us? It is a miracle that we have remained independent so far. It is really a miracle. So I would like to ask everybody, every member of the European family, every individual who cares about this issue, who believes that in the 21st century we should live in a fair and equal world, to look at Georgia. Educate yourself on this issue and recognise that we, too, are fighters and are fighting this war every day. Support our country, at least informally, because we really need it and are doing everything we can to survive and to stay on the map. We want to live our future in this country, in our diverse Georgia.
When the war against Ukraine started, people in Georgia started collecting humanitarian aid supplies. To this day we are the country with the largest volume of humanitarian aid sent to Ukraine, which was a way for us to show our support for Ukraine. Everybody, every individual, without the participation of political parties or other groups. It was 100 per cent a civil society initiative. We came with whatever we had, we brought medical supplies and we sent tons of humanitarian aid to Ukraine. It is impressive to see that a small country like ours has such a big voice in such a situation.
Robert Helm-Pleuger: Thank you.
More about the NGO GAFE and contact: https://www.facebook.com/GafeGeorgia/