Backlash against Georgian wrestlers follows month of ‘Russia controversies’

17 August 2018

Georgia’s national wrestling team made headlines on Friday after a photo was published online of the team wearing T-shirts of a North Ossetian MP to the background of the Russian flag. The backlash follows a series of controversies around the 10th anniversary of the August War, including in restaurant chain Machakhela, nightclub Bassiani, and with Radio Free Europe’s Georgian service.

The photo was first published by Georgian news website On.ge on Thursday. It showed several wrestlers and team’s head coach wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the face of Dzhambolat Tedeyev, an MP in North Ossetia’s parliament who is also head coach of Russia’s national wrestling team, to the background of the Russian flag.

Initial reports suggested Tedeyev was a ‘South Ossetian MP’, but the controversy did not fade away after this was debunked.

Head coach Giorgi Iantbelidze, who was at the centre of the controversy, told On.ge that the T-shirts did not represent the Russian flag, but Tedeyev, who he said had asked them to wear it. ‘He is our friend, he was born and grew up in Georgia. He asked if we could put it on and we said no problem’, Iantbelidze said. Tedeyev was born in Tskhinvali, South Ossetia, then part of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Iantbelidze later posted on Facebook explaining that the picture was taken in Daghestan at the European Championships, and that the organisers had asked them to wear it. ‘It’s sad that this was linked with politics’, he said, and apologised. ‘Trust me, this happened because of our lack of consideration, it was not done on purpose’, said Iantbelidze.

Around a dozen people gathered outside the office of Georgia’s National Wrestling Federation on Friday afternoon, posting stickers saying ‘Russia Is Occupant [occupier]’, on the stairs leading to the building. Police charged one person for ‘defacing’ the building.

After facing widespread backlash online, Georgian Wrestling Federation President Gega Gegeshidze defended the team, saying ‘it’s nobody’s business what our boys put on’.


Gegeshidze told Rustavi 2 that there are foreign sportsmen who wear the T-shirts of Georgian wrestlers, and that ‘nobody talks about this’. He added that people should instead be concerned about the poor conditions Georgian wrestlers have to train in.

‘The whole world is waving our flag, the whole of Europe has learnt our anthem. We have brought home so many medals and our federation is so successful. Is anybody asking about this?!’, Gegeshidze asked.

‘Fuck off Putin’ leads to staff firings

On 7 August a video was posted on Facebook taken in Georgian restaurant chain Machakhela in which, according to the author, the restaurant’s management requested they remove an ‘anti-occupation’ poster she and her friends had set on their table. The poster displayed a picture of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s face accompanied by the text ‘Fuck Off’ in Russian.

Ani Gvatua, who posted the video online, said they had taken the banner from a rally they attended earlier that day outside the former Russian Embassy in Tbilisi.

[Read on OC Media: Georgians and Ossetians mark 10th anniversary of August War]

‘On the 10th anniversary of the occupation of Tskhinvali Region [South Ossetia], Machakhela’s management sent a waiter, then a manager, then security, than the head of security, to request we take the poster we took from the rally off the table. And this is the reason they gave: “Machakhela is not a place to express protest, maybe some Russian ‘patriot’ will come in” ’, Gvatua wrote.

She warned it would cost them more than offending a few ‘patriotic Russian guests’. The video went viral online with hundreds of people decrying the staff’s behaviour and calling for a boycott of Machakhela.

Soon after, the restaurant issued a an apology and said they had fired every employee involved in the incident.

‘Several of our employees attempted to restrict the protest exposing the occupying country [...] We feel our responsibility and immediately halted our business relationship with every employee who incorrectly and wrongly expressed our position. We hope this will prevent such a thing from happening again. We would also like to say that we share the pain and the outrage of the people caused by the occupation of our territories by Russia’, Machakhela’s statement said.

The chain faced criticism for blaming the incident on low-level employees, firing only them. The second day, Machakhela put up anti-occupation posters at its restaurants’ doors, but the controversy remained.

Bassiani’s DJs cancel trip

On 9 August Georgian nightclub Bassiani faced backlash after revelations that several of the club’s resident DJs were to perform at the Red Bull music festival in Moscow. The festival said they would be in Moscow to ‘reconstruct the freedom-loving and unconstrained atmosphere of the techno parties of the Tbilisi club’.

Many Georgian club-goers, stood by and defended the club after police raids on 12 May, protested the club’s decision to play in Moscow. Some questioned online why was it was OK for them ‘to play in the occupier country’ while other artists who have faced harsh criticism for doing so in the past.

After public protests, the club owners cancelled the Moscow performance. They said the DJs had been scheduled to perform on 15 September in the underground club GASGOLDER, whose owners wanted ‘the headliners of the night of resistance to be Bassiani, as a symbol of fighting against and winning over the system’.

‘Our sincere will to participate in the night of resistance was followed by mixed reactions from our supporters, friends, and society. We completely share the heartache expressed by citizens towards the club. We also understand that the event was announced in the hardest period for Georgia — the 10th anniversary of the August War — which definitely intensified the public heartache. Because of the sincere public protest, our team made the decision to cancel the event, which because of distrust has become a tool for confrontation’, the club wrote.

Bassiani hinted that its intentions had been misunderstood, and their statement said that ‘a major part of Georgia’s territory is occupied by Russia, because of which a large quantity of Georgian people are cut off from their homes’.

‘Our voice should be heard worldwide — no to occupation’, the statement concluded.

Despite the cancellation, some criticism towards the club remained, with some club-goers vowing to never again go to Bassiani.

Radio Tavisupleba’s ‘fake news’

The Georgian service of Radio Free EuropeRadio Tavisupleba faced criticism after it published a first-person account of the August War from the perspective of an ethnic Ossetian resident of Tskhinvali. The piece, titled ‘The night felt like a year’ was published on 7 August.

In it, Milena Gogicheva tells the tragedy of war in her own words, saying she couldn’t imagine ‘Georgians would dare to attack’. Soon after the piece was published, it faced intense online criticism and calls for a boycott, with many claiming Radio Free Europe was contributing to the ‘Russian narrative’ by publishing a story they said had not been fact-checked and which reiterated Russia’s claim that Georgia started the war.

Media watchdog Media Checker criticised the publication, arguing that while human stories were important, the accuracy of information must be prioritised given the ‘harsh accusations the publication includes’.

Following the backlash, Radio Tavisupleba was forced to put a disclaimer at the beginning of the story, which said that any opinions expressed were not confirmed facts and did not reflect their editorial policy. It said that the piece was published in order to show ‘the narrative which exists beyond the occupation line’ on the 10th anniversary of the war.

‘It is also part of a bigger picture that after 10 years, it is only possible to record such an interview in Tskhinvali. Our co-patriots do not have the ability to have direct contact with us. Once again: We do not share the opinions expressed in the interview. We also declare that facts provided in the interview are not proven’, the disclaimer said.

[Read first-person voices from both sides of South Ossetian conflict on OC Media: Cost of Conflict: Untold Stories — Georgian–Ossetian Conflict in Peoples’ Lives]