Culture minister: Litera Prize will not be resumed after ministry "did everything" to save contest

Culture minister Thea Tsulukiani made comments about the Litera Prize and its organising institution the Writers' House of Georgia during her report on the ministry's work at the Georgian parliament. Photo via Thea Tsulukiani social media page on Facebook., 06 Dec 2021 - 16:12, Tbilisi,Georgia

Thea Tsulukiani, the Minister of Culture, Sport and Youth, has said her ministry will not resume its support of the Litera Prize, one of two principal awards for literature in Georgia, adding the culture body "did everything" to reach an agreement with organisers of the annual competition following a protest by authors, publishers and most of the jury panel led to a cancellation of the 2021 edition.

In comments made during her turn for the Minister's Hour address to the parliament on Friday, Tsulukiani said the prize had been "appropriate by a private structure" and called the awards "a Kezerashvili prize", referring to the former Minister of Defence of Georgia from the United National Movement government.

While making no specific references to the relation of the prize to the former official - found guilty in absentia of misuse of state funds between 2007-2008 earlier this year - the culture minister said her ministry had planned to go to courts after an "appropriation" of the contest by a "private structure", however it had discovered "no state-level decree confirming the prize as a state award."

In her remarks, Tsulukiani added the culture ministry would decide against regaining control of the prize and organise a new competition. The minister revealed a new literary prize - entitled Best of the Year - last month.

While speaking about the Litera Prize and its organising venue the Writers' House of Georgia at the parliament, the culture minister alleged the organising institution had turned into an organisation that "denies access" to some writers, alleging a storming of its premises during the UNM government in 2007 and their "expelling" of writers from the venue.

Tsulukiani said the policy of preventing access to the unnamed authors continued under the current management of the venue. Natalia Lomouri, the manager of Writers' House, told the allegations were unfounded and there was "not a single author" that would confirm the allegation of denial of access to the institution.

Lomouri said the Writers' House was "for all writer unions and free creators", explaining a change made at the venue that repurposed some rooms previously used for writer residencies into memorial museums. The literary institution's manager said she hoped "this [change] is not what is meant under [the allegations of] writers not being let in".

Comments by the culture minister follow controversy around the Litera Prize and Writers' House that was sparked earlier this year, following the ministry's appointment of its representative in the jury panel to the 2021 edition of the awards.

The appointment led to a protest by nominees and the rest of the judges, who had perceived the decision as an interference in the independent organisation of the awards, and led to a cancellation of the latest edition after authors and publishers pulled their nominated submissions and the jury panel - with the exception of the ministry-appointed judge - resigned in protest.

In comments about the protest and the subsequent cancellation of the competition, Writers' House said "[t]he public has viewed the ministry's decision as interference in creative activity". PEN Georgia, a collective bringing together over 70 Georgian writers, later said the move had been seen by the longlisted authors as having the outlines of the USSR-era "appointments of representatives of Soviet state [authority] to contest juries, mandated to reject submissions incompatible with party ethos".

In October, the latter collective launched a crowdfunding drive in a bid to host an alternative literary award, with the intended event aiming to replicate the format of the cancelled prize, hosted since 2015.

Following the protest that led to the 2021 Litera Prize cancellation, the ministry also announced the annual Iakob Gogebashvili Prize for Children's and Youth Literature, launched in 2017 and previously organised by the Writers' House, would be moved under the organisation of Creative Georgia, a culture agency working to support creative industries in the country. Lomouri told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Georgian service she had received "no answer" from the ministry to why the change had been made.