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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sending Georgia's Teens Back Out to the Camps

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You can see them everywhere in Georgia these days: billboard posters of clean-cut, fresh-faced youths, dressed in orange and blue, grinning and waving optimistically into the camera's lens. But no, this has nothing to do with the political crisis in Ukraine, and these teenagers aren't expatriate Viktor Yushchenko or Viktor Yanukovych fanatics. These are the "patriots," Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's golden generation, the ones he hopes will build his new, modern Georgia.

Saakashvili came up with the idea of the Patriot Camps a couple of years ago, and the program has been expanding since then. Each summer, thousands of teenagers spend a week or so at a government-funded campsite in the Georgian countryside, where they get to play sports, sing patriotic songs and fire off Kalashnikovs. If the Patriots sound a bit like the old Soviet Pioneers, that's probably because they are. Growing up in the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, Saakashvili was a Pioneer himself, and he obviously saw something spiritually nourishing in the Soviet youth program. He frequently dons the Patriot uniform and joins in enthusiastically with the youngsters.

In a country like Georgia, with a recent history of civil war and two unresolved separatist conflicts on its territory, it's not surprising that the more martial aspects of the Patriot scheme like the weapons training have raised concerns. One leading opposition politician has complained that it's another example of the Saakashvili government's militaristic rhetoric, and that the money would be better invested in upgrading the country's education system. Government supporters, however, offer a simple response: How else are teens from poor families going to get a free, healthy, all-action holiday in the countryside?

Nevertheless, patriotism has played a key role in the Saakashvili ideology. His government has identified itself completely with the concept of national pride, with the result that any opposition group reacting against it can be accused of being anti-Georgian. Before being adopted in 2004, even the national flag had been the emblem of Saakashvili's political party during the Rose Revolution. The government also promotes its patriotic agenda through roadside billboard advertising -- sometimes to boost specific projects like the Patriot Camps, sometimes just to glorify in its own achievements.

The most remarkable example is the huge poster of a baby holding up its little clenched fist against the background of a Rose Revolution rally and, naturally, the Georgian flag. Critics who have suggested that there are echoes of Soviet propaganda in such imagery could, of course, be described as cynical or unpatriotic.

Matthew Collin is a Tbilisi-based journalist.