Georgia’s government turns to Moscow. Its Gen Z protesters aren’t having it

 A protester holds an EU and Georgian flag in front of riot police at a demonstration against the proposed 'foreign agents' law in the capital Tbilisi, on May 14. Zurab Tsertsvadze/AP
A protester holds an EU and Georgian flag in front of riot police at a demonstration against the proposed 'foreign agents' law in the capital Tbilisi, on May 14. Zurab Tsertsvadze/AP

Riot police in gas masks and balaclavas emerge like a dystopian infantry in the haze of tear gas that envelops Rustaveli Avenue, the Georgian capital’s main thoroughfare. They snatch protesters from the crowd and drag them back into a mass of black uniforms. Inside their ranks, the beatings continue.

Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets across Georgia in recent weeks to protest the government’s adoption of a Kremlin-inspired “foreign agents” bill. The legislation is a primer for autocracy.

The bill requires NGOs and media organizations who receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad to register as “agents of foreign influence”. The law mirrors legislation passed by Russia in 2012 in response to protests against Vladimir Putin’s presidency. Putin used the law to dismember civil society, independent media and political opposition. The same happened in Belarus and recently in Kyrgyzstan.

The new law is the latest in what looks like a concerted attempt to sabotage Georgia’s relationship with Western partners, polarize the population and allow the ruling party to remain in power.

Hans Gutbrod, a professor of public policy at Ilia State University in Tbilisi, told me that this “repress anyone we want” law will give the government power to “monitor anyone they allege to be associating with foreign influence” and “request the most private information from any citizen or entity, including access to emails”.

On Tuesday, the bill was approved by lawmakers. As expected, President Salome Zourabichvili vetoed the bill days later, calling it unconstitutional, Russian “in its essence and spirit”, and an obstacle to European Union membership. Her move will only buy time. Parliament has the votes to override her veto.

Georgians aren’t taking this lying down. Protestors – including many from Gen Z who were born in a newly independent Georgia and see their future with Europe – have staged mass demonstrations, the scale of which I have not seen in my more than 15 years living here.

Indeed hundreds of students from at least 40 universities declared a strike and joined the protest.

In response, riot police have unleashed a torrent of violence, using tear gas, rubber bullets, stun grenades, water cannons and bare fists – all to no avail. The pro-democracy protests have only grown in size and frequency.

Peddling misinformation

But there’s another bill tailored to the needs of the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, founder and honorary chair of the ruling Georgian Dream party. Last month, his party fast-tracked a bill that eases the process of bringing offshore capital into Georgia. As with the foreign agents law, the bill’s authors claim it promotes transparency, an absurd notion.

Ivanishvili and his cohort chronically peddle misinformation to maintain their brand of populism. The Georgian Dream party’s false claim is that NGOs and protestors are Western-funded provocateurs of “the Global War Party” – apparently intent on regime change to open up a second front in Ukraine’s war with Russia that will render Georgia nothing more than “cannon fodder”.

Last month, the head of the Georgian Dream party in parliament, Mamuka Mdinaradze, claimed that Western NGOs are a front for a “Soviet-style campaign” to discredit the Georgian judiciary, disseminate “pseudo-liberal ideology” and “so-called LGBT propaganda”, and undermine “public trust in the Georgian Orthodox Church”. It’s a lot to take in.

Then there’s the Speaker of Parliament, Shalva Papuashvili, announcing earlier this month that the government was compiling a “database” – essentially a blacklist for any opposition – “involved in violence, blackmail, threats and other illegal acts”, or “who publicly endorse these actions”. In other words, attending protests.

Upon US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, James O’Brien’s arrival in Tbilisi last week, Ivanishvili refused to meet with him saying, “we won’t bow to Soviet-style instructions from abroad”.

Perhaps he should also tell Russia, which occupies 20% of Georgia’s territory.

US must also shift course

The Georgian government has changed. And if US policy does not reflect this change, then advocates for democracy will suffer the consequences.

Zviad Adzinbaia, a Doctoral Fellow at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, told me that if the US and EU sanction Ivanishvili, it’s crucial that they “clearly communicate the reasons to prevent Ivanishvili from blaming a nonexistent ‘Global War Party.’ He should understand that the Georgian people are not defenseless against their own government and Russian occupying forces”.

For Georgia’s ruling party, it is far more convenient to blame foreign powers than address why thousands of one’s citizens are standing in the street in helmets and gas masks. Ivanishvili’s obsessive fears may soon be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

For more than 20 years, some 80% of Georgian people have supported joining both NATO and the EU. In response, the United States has shared intelligence and poured resources into Georgia for joint military exercises, Combined Special Forces Exchange Training (JCET), counterterrorism efforts, anti-corruption coordination and $6 billion in investment.

Despite their strategic partnership, Brussels and Washington can no longer assume Georgia’s alignment, much less a safe place for Western officials to reside. Only Moscow benefits from the current discord. Western governments must recognize what remains: an exposed flank in an ongoing and accelerating conflict with Russia.

The foreign agents bill is a symptom of a deeper issue – money. Ivanishvili’s political investments and appointment of close friends and former employees to top cabinet positions seems to ensure loyalty to him rather than to the Georgian public. If the US and EU are to genuinely support the Georgian people, their policies must reflect the harsh realities of Georgian Dream’s transformation.

The Georgian government has turned away from the West. The Georgian people have not.

The pressures of authoritarian intimidation and systematic violence have hardened Georgia’s young protestors like diamonds. They are organized and optimistic. They see themselves as European. And they are not afraid.

Another generation of Georgians have learned their own strength. Georgia’s democratic future rests firmly in their hands.

Will Cathcart is an American freelance journalist based in Tbilisi. He was previously a media adviser to Mikheil Saakashvili, former president of Georgia. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

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