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24 May 2024

The democratic battle for Georgia’s soul

Protests against the government’s “foreign agents law” are just part of the story.

By Lewis Goodall

When I set off for Tbilisi in mid-May with a team from The News Agents, having seen the images of protesters trying to storm the gates of the Georgian parliament, I was confident we would be telling a familiar tale. For weeks, young protesters had been demonstrating against the government’s “foreign agents law”, a bill which would in practice give it the power to shut down media and other organisations it did not much like. I was expecting to report on a geopolitical struggle between Russia and the West over a country physically, politically and psychologically trapped between the two. 

In many ways that is the story: the rocky Caucus state is a front line in the great-power competition that envelops the early 21st century. You don’t need to tell Georgians about Russian revanchism – they experienced it first hand when Vladimir Putin invaded the provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008. But what I hadn’t appreciated is how many other frontiers of our contemporary politics on which Georgia finds itself. It sits at the heart of the disinformation war, the culture wars, and the fight to define what democracy means. 

To walk Tbilisi’s streets is to see a city almost physically yearning to be somewhere else. Every few paces, you see a new mural mixing the Nato, Ukrainian, EU and Georgian flags. The Gen-Z protesters taking to the streets in their thousands, may ostensibly be protesting the foreign agents law – a law which mimics Russia’s draconian restrictions on society. But in reality, the protesters are fighting a proxy battle about the tilt of Georgia itself, afraid of the country turning north to Russia, rather than towards the West. 

Talking to a diplomat over dinner, they say they’re unconvinced Russia is even that interested in Georgia anymore. Moscow remains distracted, and the Russians have already achieved what they want to do – which is to terrify the ruling Georgian Dream party that they might invade again.

That’s not to say that the government doesn’t have reason to be wary of the Western promise. The deep will of most Georgians to join the EU, at least in theory, is beyond doubt. What is more contestable is the EU’s seriousness about letting them in. The bloc has long talked a good game, and Georgia did recently gain candidate status. But a sceptic would say the EU and Nato have never really been serious about the European periphery – just ask Ukraine.

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There’s no doubt that the sudden hardline shift in the rhetoric and disposition of Georgian Dream, occurred at roughly the moment of Putin’s full invasion. They’re terrified of losing power, whether it be via ballot box or gun barrel. And deep down they don’t think Europe will be there for them when push comes to the hardest Russian shove. 

Striking a balance between two powerful neighbours is hardly ignoble. The Finns perfected it and thereby protected their independence for the whole of the Cold War. But the Georgian government is not really attempting to strike a balance; instead, it has embraced the Kremlin model, as all those young people perched on parliament’s steps are keenly aware. 

This is where the politics of conspiracy comes in. In a suburb of Tbilisi, I interviewed a man who had been subjected to appalling police violence only a few nights before. What was striking was that he didn’t find the violence itself shocking, but rather the apparent radicalisation of the police officers. As they beat him, he said, the officers screamed that he was a US shill, a “faggot”, a cipher of the “Global War Party”. 

This Global War Party rhetoric is conspicuous. The government is making the case that the EU, the US and the protesters themselves are all victims of this shadowy force’s machinations. It also argues that this same force is responsible for the war in Ukraine. It is exactly the theory put forward by the Putin regime. As one Georgian journalist put it to me: “The government has gone mad, or at least, it sounds like they’ve gone mad.” I asked a senior Georgian Dream parliamentarian, Mariam Lashkhi — the chair of the foreign affairs committee, no less – who exactly the Global War Party was. She replied that Freemasons were probably involved. When I enquired as to who else, she said that we couldn’t know, and that that was the point.  

Georgia is being pumped full of Russian disinformation of this kind, and the government is amplifying it. Thus the generational cleavage which is gripping Georgian politics is not simply a matter of youthful idealism vs world-weary pragmatism. Rather, it is about two competing versions of reality. Georgia’s younger generations, who have grown up after the USSR’s fall, have almost uniformly learned English at school. Their sources of information are primarily Western. As one protester put it to me: “We can see through the Russian bullshit.” Older, more culturally conservative parts of the Georgian population, upon whose support Georgian Dream relies, tend to speak Russian and are far more credulous when encountering fake propaganda stories on Facebook. This disinformation involves not only stories about global power politics but also socially conservative conspiracies about gender ideology and Western cultural liberalism seeking to undermine the traditional Georgian way of life.  

This is why the political upheaval in Georgia is so complicated. It isn’t simply a case of a pro-Russian and pro-Europe schism in the population, as it was with Ukraine before 2014. The whole nation, for the most part, wants to join the EU, in theory. It is the type of accession that is contested. On our last day in Georgia we saw a very different face of the country. It was a rally for the “Day of the Family”, an event set up initially by the Georgian Orthodox Church and quickly converted by the government to a public holiday. Out were the conga lines, vuvuzelas and Gen-Z crowds; in were the older, rural voters and priests in Orthodox cassocks. This group were sanguine about the foreign agents law. They were more worried about maintaining their traditions. 

Georgia remains a conservative state. Their fears are not so different from the anxieties that have shaped the politics of many post-Soviet successor states, from Viktor Orbán’s Hungary to Poland under the Law and Justice party. Georgian Dream is using this playbook: there is a cosmopolitan force coming to take your identity and way of life; only we can stop them.

The battle within Georgia is not so much whether its people want to be a European country or not, or a democracy or not, but whether they want to be a liberal or illiberal one. And on that, Georgia is far more divided than it appears. It is a division Georgian Dream hopes to exploit.  

[See also: Has Georgia’s Russian drift come to an end?]

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