A Georgian Eurovision To Boost National Pride

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Heavy artillery fire boomed out over the Georgian capital, briefly obliterating the usual cacophony of car alarms, construction work and novelty cell phone ringtones that dominates the aural environment of Tbilisi. Nobody took much notice of it, however. This was just the Georgian army running through a dress rehearsal for today's Independence Day military parade.

With an embittered and radicalized opposition calling for some kind of "people's rebellion" after its crushing defeat by President Mikheil Saakashvili's party in last week's parliamentary elections, this is a difficult time to speak about national unity. But that's what the Saakashvili government is likely to attempt, at a time when it feels the nation's survival is again under threat from its former Soviet masters in Moscow and what it sees as the Kremlin's separatist marionettes in the renegade provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Being Georgia, there'll be a lot of singing, too. The government has been taking some tips from Eurovision in its attempt to stir up patriotic fervor among Georgian youth, and Independence Day will also see the final of the annual patriotic song contest, "Patrinoti." Based on the country's "Patriot Camps," where thousands of young people are given free summer holidays in the countryside, it's part of Saakashvili's ideological program to strengthen national identity in a nation that has been ripped apart by civil conflict.

Last year's winner was an emotional folk-rock anthem about Abkhazia, which became a big hit after the government bankrolled a high-budget video clip showing jolly Georgians returning to the breakaway region by car, bus, train and plane. It was a fantasy fulfilled, if only in song, for the many thousands who fled the war in Abkhazia in the early 1990s.

The deputy culture minister, Mirza Davitaia, says the state initially started the song contest for very practical reasons. "When our friends were in the army, in the reserves, they found out there were no army songs," he explains. "Soldiers, when they run, they don't have good Georgian songs [to sing]. In Soviet times, they had Russian songs, and now they have nothing for this.

"In the 1960s and 1970s, it was popular to make good patriotic songs, but after civil war in Georgia, this trend went down. That's why our party leaders and government leaders wanted to help our composers make this kind of music."

Critics might say state-sponsored pop promoting a government agenda is a long way from the dissident spirit of rock 'n' roll. But Davitaia insists Patrinoti is simply giving people what they need. "I think you can never have enough national pride," he concludes.

Matthew Collin is a journalist in Tbilisi.