Creating a European dialogue in Georgia

Levan Dvali and Pieter Boeder report from the international conference “Challenges of Non-formal Education” at the Youth Palace in Tbilisi, Georgia. They encountered ambitious and curious young Europeans, eager to make a positive contribution to a shared European future.

By Levan Dvali and Pieter Boeder

Tbilisi, Georgia is a place of paradox. One might visualise the capricious Caucasus capital as a ballet dancer doing the splits: One leg still stuck in the Soviet empire, the other pointing firmly towards a digital, globalised future. Or as a chocolate chip cookie, specked equally with Soviet brutalist architecture and grotesque modernist contraptions, dreamed up by recent rulers eager to piss their names against the wall. While thoroughly conservative as a nation, the Georgians have proven to be tireless in their pursuit of novelty.

On 16 and 17 of November 2018 we gathered in Tbilisi’s National Youth and Children’s Palace for a series of workshops with young Georgian citizens and for the international conference ‘Challenges of Non-formal Education’. Among the speakers were politician Doris Pack, ambassador Karl-Eric Norrman and Into Film CEO Paul Reeve. It was an excellent opportunity for Levan Khetaguri and Pieter Boeder to present the “Wir sind Europa!” (We Are Europe!) project to an audience of mayors of municipalities, representatives of cultural centres, the national media and young people.

From i-dentity to we-dentity

Levan Dvali at his office at the National Youth and Children’s Palace in Tbilisi, Georgia

Although the Tbilisi Cultural Diplomacy Academy (CDA) was founded in part to counteract Euroscepticism and increasing Russian propaganda in the region, its mission transcends such narrow dimensions. Initiator Levan Khetaguri: “What we are promoting instead are European values, human rights, equality, tolerance and diversity – supporting inspiration and the generation of new ideas, strengthening the evolution from ‘i-dentity’ to ‘we-dentity’ and, last but not least, encouraging co-creation and active citizenship.”

Together with the National Youth and Children’s Palace, the Tbilisi Cultural Diplomacy Academy – an initiative of A Soul for Europe, the European Cultural Parliament, Arts Research Institute and Stichting Caucasus Foundation – is developing a non-formal education curriculum to support and empower young people. Critical thinking and reflection, consensus creation and cultural diplomacy are high on the agenda. The rationale is clear: While Georgian support for European integration remains high, it rests on hopes and expectations rather than a realistic assessment of the geopolitical situation. True knowledge of what ‘integration’ might mean remains scarce.

Supporting and empowering young people

Andreas Bock, editor of the online portal and Steve Austen – both members of the A Soul for Europe strategy group – gave the first Tbilisi workshop in 2017 to help address this challenge. Andreas found that there was a strong desire to learn more about the European Union and its relations with Georgia: “The participants were particularly interested in the future of their country and how they themselves could contribute to a positive development. There was the hope to put Georgia on the map again  —  making it more known among Europeans.”

Pieter Boeder holding a journalism workshop for students

In a world that is characterised by prolonged conflict and increasingly aggressive competition between different truth claims – propaganda, alternative and parallel realities, fake news – it is important to educate young people in ways that meaningfully facilitate and connect the development of students’ critical thinking and consensus creation abilities. Media competence is crucial for the new generation in order to gauge how issues of citizenship, race, gender, ethnicity and class are shaping the debate today.

Media competence is crucial for the new generation

Young Georgian citizens have expressed their wish for more international exchange programmes, workshops and events. Staff at the National Youth and Children’s Palace are rising to the challenge. Levan Dvali, dean of CDA and head of Project & Programme Management at the Youth Palace: “The Tbilisi Cultural Diplomacy Academy is a good example of how we are tackling this, bringing experts and young people together to create a dialogue and exchange ideas. It is interesting not only in terms of what teenagers can learn from our guest speakers, but also what these experts can learn from our new generation.”

In this year’s journalism workshop, we explored issues and debates such as the structural transformation of the public sphere, framing and spin doctoring, and the importance of media pluralism. In choosing group assignment subjects such as human trafficking, the Russian occupation of Abkhazia & South Ossetia, Syria today, and gender & minorities, students’ choices showed a sound level of ambition, a profound interest in the subject matter and, importantly, that they are unafraid to tackle these issues. With these qualities, they are well on their way.

Levan Dvali is Dean of Cultural Diplomacy Academy and Head of the Project & Programme Management Office at the National Youth and Children’s Palace in Tbilisi.

Pieter Boeder is a journalist and corporate communication specialist based in Athens, Greece.

Photos: Pieter Boeder Links: The National Youth and Children’s Palace

Stichting Caucasus Foundation

Arts Research Institute