Written by Elene Kobakhidze
Although located on the brink of Europe and Asia, Georgia has been devotedly following a pro-Western, pro-European path. The driving force for its European integration, beyond strategy, has always been the identity of the people. The famous words of Georgia’s former Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania “I am Georgian, and therefore I am European” portray the significance of identity in Georgia’s European aspirations. As of the latest data, 85% of Georgians either “fully support” or “somewhat support” joining the European Union (IRI, 2022). Nonetheless, recently it has become obvious that the Georgian government led by the Georgian Dream party has deviated from its clear-cut path. The shift has caused quite a turbulence not only internally but also globally, especially for Georgia’s international partners.
The political orientation has been changing so gradually that a large part of the Georgian population had failed to notice it, although some European partners, together with the Georgian civil society, had been voicing their concerns. It may be argued that the cause behind the oblivion of the population has been the extreme political polarisation between the ruling party and the opposition. By focusing the resources on breaking down the political opposition, the ruling party has left the society without a desirable alternative, indirectly infringing upon Georgia’s democracy (Gegeshidze & De Waal, 2021). Throughout their 11-year rule, the main rhetoric of the Georgian Dream has been the villainization of the opposition, especially the United National Movement, the previous ruling party led by former President Mikheil Saakashvili. This is exactly why depolarization has been repeatedly stressed by Georgia’s partners and why it was one of the 12 recommendations given by the EU for granting Georgia candidacy (European Commission, 2022).
Many expected that the decision to grant candidacy status to Moldova and Ukraine before Georgia would result in a public outroar and a deterioration of the reputation of the ruling party. Nonetheless, such development would not ensue until just recently, when the People’s Power, an informal subordinate party of the Georgian Dream, initiated a bill similar in content to the Russian Law on Foreign Agents. The law would force all existing non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and media outlets that receive more than 20% of their funding from a foreign source to register as ‘agents of foreign influence’ and provide extensive financial information. Although marketed as a more humane version of Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), an American law on foreign agents enacted in 1938, the bill was viewed as an active step towards stigmatising and repressing civil society and free media. A prime exemplar of the consequences of such legislations was the Kremlin’s crackdown on Russia’s CSOs and media in 2012. “The law’s main aim is the same as when it was created: It is to silence civil society actors such as NGOs and members of the media and to make their life much more complicated”, said Daria Korolenko, a lawyer for the independent Russian human rights media project OVD-Info, in an interview with IPI (Salaru, 2022). Apart from state involvement, the connotation of the word “agent” would undoubtedly lead to public stigmatisation of affected parties. This has been proved by the state-owned Russian Public Opinion Research Center’s 2022 research, in which 61% of respondents agreed that the term “foreign agents” bears negative connotations (Salaru, 2022). The development of the law is alarming as well since its affected group has gradually expanded after its initial enactment and currently encompasses not only the CSOs but also individuals.
Apart from the clear example provided by the case of Russia, the series of protests that erupted on March 7-10 were fueled by the critiques and concerns from Georgia’s international partners. The protests began on March 7, as the draft law was being adopted in the first reading. Despite its large scale, the protest had remained entirely calm and peaceful apart from several instances of violence and vandalism by the main entrance of the Parliament. What followed, however, was an unjustified disproportionate use of force by the police. In a complete crackdown on the peaceful protesters, tear gas, pepper spray and water cannons were used. Even people who had fled the protest were pursued by the police, who went as far as throwing tear gas bombs into the metro and into the Kashveti Church, famous for its use by protesters for cover during anti-communist protests on April 9, 1989 that ended in 21 fatalities (Gegeshidze, 2019). As assessed by Georgia’s Public Defender Levan Ioseliani, at the time of the announcement of the warning by the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Georgia in the evening hours of March 7, 2023, the protest had a peaceful character and there was no reason to stop and use force against it. As for the lone instigators of violence, if there were any, individual-necessary and proportionate measures should have been taken against them (Ombudsman of Georgia, 2023).
The protest on March 8 was the largest the Parliament has seen in over a decade. Several factors contributed to its magnitude and resilience. First and foremost, Georgia’s democratic allies, including the United States, European Union and the United Nations, issued alarming statements regarding the bill and the actions of the ruling party. Especially striking was the statement by the US Embassy in Georgia, which stated “Today is a dark day for Georgia’s Democracy. Parliament’s advancing of these Kremlin-inspired laws is incompatible with the people of Georgia’s clear desire for European integration and its democratic development.” This was the initial push that brought thousands to the first rally by the Parliament on March 7. The second reason was the law’s resemblance to the Russian Foreign Agent Law, as well as the nearly identical rhetoric of the ruling party and the Kremlin. In response to the matching rhetoric, Georgian MP Irakli Kobakhidze said “who repeated what is not interesting, facts are interesting…” (Apriamashvili, 2023). The third reason appeared during the first night of the protests, as the violent crackdown on the protesters led even supporters of the ruling party to take a stand against the bill the following day. However, the most significant reason was that with nascent student organisations at the core of the driving force, the protests were, for the first time in decades, void of the curse of political polarisation. As mentioned before, the ruling party’s efforts to demonise the opposition have resulted in a weak protesting force, a people unwilling to stand beside opposition representatives. However, the March protests set a precedent and manifested an up-and-rising “Gen Z” force. Professional politicians were kept out of the protest, and the speakers of the masses were exclusively students and CSO and media representatives. Secluded from the political arena, the protest was entirely civil.
Such development of events resulted in the bill being formally dropped. Undoubtedly, the ruling party did not expect the outroar it witnessed. Despite the young protesters’ victory, a new propaganda campaign against them has already commenced, labelling them as “Satanists” or as “being under the influence of the United National Movement party” (Dalakishvili, 2023). The ruling party went as far as replacing the Minister of Education, possibly for a tighter, repressive grip on students. This is a developing story, as the momentum provides hope for a return to the pro-European track for Georgia. As young, politically energised Georgians gradually reach the age barrier for voting, the outcome of the 2024 Parliamentary elections becomes more and more obscure. Only time will tell.
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International Republican Institute. (2022). Public Opinion Survey: Residents of Georgia. https://www.iri.org/resources/public-opinion-survey-residents-of-georgia-september-2022/
European Commission. (2022). EU-Georgia relations: Questions and Answers. https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/QANDA_22_3800
Salaru, D. (2021). Ten years of Russia’s “foreign agent” law: Evolution of a press freedom crackdown. International Press Institute. https://ipi.media/ten-years-of-russias-foreign-agent-law-evolution-of-a-press-freedom-crackdown/
Apriamashvili, S. “Who repeated what, is not interesting” — Kobakhidze on the concurrence of his position with Putin. (2023). Netgazeti. https://netgazeti.ge/news/657050/
Dalakishvili, N. (2023). “People in Satanist uniforms” – Prime Minister Gharibashvili. Amerikis Khma. https://www.amerikiskhma.com/amp/irakli-garibashvili-premier-satanists-meeting-georgia/7002814.html?fbclid=IwAR0ZwV51eijCb7WqbtM5gk5f0wpPE_INks2pb6U8FsqcaL2uRso99dYlRFs
Gegeshidze, A. (2019). The 9 April tragedy — a milestone in the history of modern Georgia. Observer Research Foundation. https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/the-9-april-tragedy-a-milestone-in-the-history-of-modern-georgia-49801/
Public Defender (Ombudsman) of Georgia. (2023). Public Defender of Georgia Echoes March 7-9 Developments on Rustaveli Avenue. https://ombudsman.ge/eng/akhali-ambebi/sakartvelos-sakhalkho-damtsveli-rustavelis-gamzirze-2023-tslis-7-9-marts-ganvitarebul-movlenebs-ekhmianeba