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8 March 2023

Riot police crack down on Georgia’s anti-Russia protests

Thousands took to the streets to protest the government’s Kremlin-inspired “foreign agent” bill.

By Ido Vock

BERLIN – The largest anti-government demonstration in years erupted in Georgia yesterday (7 March), and ended in violence as security forces used tear gas, water cannons and mass arrests to quell the protesters. People had taken to the streets over fears that a proposed bill will undo decades of democratic progress in the South Caucasus nation – and more closely align it with Russia. 

The bill, proposed by People’s Power, a parliamentary faction that recently split from the ruling Georgian Dream party, passed its first reading earlier on Tuesday, prompting thousands to demonstrate outside parliament in the capital Tbilisi. The bill would label all non-profit organisations and companies that receive at least a fifth of their funding from abroad as foreign agents. It would means swathes of independent media, rights and corruption organisations, and international development firms would find their work stigmatised and restricted.

Georgian Dream justifies its support for the bill by arguing that it’s an analogue of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (Fara) passed in the US in 1938. But the parallel is misleading: Fara imposes obligations on people representing the interests of foreign governments, not all organisations that receive some funding from abroad. 

Protesters argue Georgian Dream is instead copying an infamous 2012 Russian law on foreign agents, which helped criminalise dissent and opposition in the country. As MPs were voting on the measure, demonstrators outside marched on the street and shouted “no Russian law”. 

[See also: “Russia cannot afford to lose, so we need a kind of a victory”: Sergey Karaganov on what Putin wants]

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Mari Nikuradze, a co-founder of the Tbilisi-based independent news outlet OC Media, told me, “We’ve seen how the foreign agent law in Russia started, and where that is now. Media organisations had to shut down and go into exile. I am afraid we could face a similar future if we don’t stop this now.”

Some of those opposing the law see it as an attempt to entrench the power of Bidzina Ivanishvili, the country’s sole billionaire and founder of Georgian Dream. Ivanishvili, who was prime minister from 2012 to 2013, currently holds no formal position in the government but is thought to wield immense influence over the structures of the state and ruling party. He also has close ties to Russia, having made much of his estimated $5.9bn fortune in the country after the Soviet collapse. 

Kakhaber Kemoklidze, a former government official who is now political secretary of the opposition For Georgia party, told me that the bill would neuter critical media and watchdogs by rendering them reliant on money from Ivanishvili. “He wants to be the only financial provider for everybody,” Kemoklidze said. “He will say: if think tanks, experts, journalists or media want money, they can have it on condition that they do not criticise the government, myself or the business elites.”

Although formally still a Western ally that aspires to join the EU and Nato, the Georgian government has in recent years taken an increasingly pro-Kremlin line. Since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, the government has not imposed sanctions on Moscow and refused to provide military aid to Ukraine. Georgia has much to gain financially. In maintaining economic ties with Russia and welcoming tens of thousands of affluent Russians fleeing the country, the economy grew an estimated 10.1 per cent in 2022 – its strongest expansion for years.

[See also: Why size does matter for Europe and Brexit Britain]

Although it may have proved economically wise, Tbilisi’s friendliness towards Moscow has alienated its Western partners. While Ukraine and Moldova were granted EU candidate status last year, Georgia was not – a move seen as a rebuke of Georgian Dream’s authoritarian turn. The EU and US have also strongly condemned the foreign agents law, arguing that if passed it would all but end Georgia’s prospects of EU membership.

It’s still not clear that the bill will pass. Opposition leaders have encouraged more protests from the public. Meanwhile the president, Salome Zourabichvili, one of the country’s most pro-Western senior politicians and who is independent but was supported by Georgian Dream, has vowed to veto the bill if it is passed by MPs, on the grounds that it threatens Georgia’s European prospects and is unconstitutional. Her veto can be overridden by parliament, however. 

Nikuradze added that she is afraid of the consequences of the bill. “There are many parts of these drafts which are extremely vague. For example, the Justice Ministry will have the right to ‘monitor’ organisations twice a year, but it is not clear what this monitoring would entail,” she said. “We are afraid it could mean they would be able to demand we hand over the personal information of our employees, of our sources, or our internal communications.”

After years of democratic backsliding and what critics of the government call state capture by Ivanishvili’s allies, the foreign agents law may be the decisive moment when the country’s government fully breaks with the West.

[See also: If the EU could speak, what would it say?]

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