CAUCASUS BLOG: Where next for Georgia – revolution or elections?

CAUCASUS BLOG: Where next for Georgia – revolution or elections?
The Georgian government has passed a Russian-inspired foreign agents law and appears to be turning away from its EU accession aspirations. Will the protests continue or will the population wait until October and try to oust the ruling Georgian Dream party in the general election? / bne IntelliNews
By Ben Aris in Berlin May 15, 2024

What will happen now in Georgia after the controversial Russian-inspired “foreign agents” law was passed by the parliament on May 14?

Georgian Dream has accused the West of secretly funding the demonstrations and backing the opposition in what it believes is outside interference with Georgia’s sovereignty. In a bizarre conspiracy theory fuelled speech, the country’s éminence grise, oligarch and honorary head of Georgian Dream, Bidzina Ivanishvili, said an international Party of War was trying to undermine Georgian democracy and that the law “On Transparency of Foreign Influence” is necessary to protect the citizens’ freedoms.

Outside observers say the government is determined to rush through the law to make sure it wins a general election in October and stays in power. Ironically, Georgian Dream does genuinely want to join the EU and one of the main points of its programme is to bring Georgia into the EU by 2030.

Ivanishvili specifically singled out the leading opposition party United National Movement party (UNM) of former President Mikheil Saakashvili as one of the first organisations that would be subjected to the new law ahead of the general elections.

Demonstrations are likely to continue for now. Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili has promised to veto the law, but it will take a few weeks for the government to overturn her veto, using its large parliamentary majority, and protests are likely to continue while that hope is still alive.

A revolution is possible. The protests have already taken on a Maidan feel. Large crowds are determined to see Georgia join Europe and are marching into clouds of tear gas, facing down phalanxes of riot police and marching under EU flags. They sing the Ode to Joy, the EU anthem. Like the Ukrainian demonstrators, they are protesting against a government that is ignoring their wishes and turning to Russia for leadership, a mistake that cost then Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych his job, and nearly his life.

But if there is no attempt to storm parliament and throw Georgian Dream out of office, then the protests are likely to fizzle out before the autumn’s elections. Ivanishvili himself said that the current protests may work against the opposition.

“The energy that they [the opposition] should have accumulated by the autumn, they are now prematurely spending on the street,” Ivanishvili said in his "Party of War" speech.

This is the second time Georgian Dream has tried to push this law through. First introduced in February 2023, the law was withdrawn after massive public protests last year and the government promised not to reintroduce it. But the bill was resubmitted a year later.

Critics argue the law is a watered-down version of Russia's foreign agents legislation that Putin introduced in 2012. The Georgian version requires NGOs that receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad to register and report their financials once a year. The Russian version was originally similarly innocuous, but gradually more and more stringent requirements were added. After opposition figure and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny was arrested in January 2021, those requirements were rapidly beefed up to the point where most of the opposition media and civil society organisations were banned or bankrupted.

In Georgia violators of the law face hefty fines and for the pro-Western Georgian youth the legislation has become a symbol of Ivanishvili's attempts to usurp power and pivot Georgia away from the EU – despite the country having become an EU candidate in December 2023.

Ivanishvili argues that the law counters efforts by "external forces" to install their "agents" who would transform Georgia into a "second front" in the war against Russia. Despite Georgian Dream’s genuine desire to join the EU, business with Russia is flourishing as Georgia acts as a waystation for banned goods to flow to Moscow. The Kremlin has included Georgia in its list of friendly countries, despite its EU aspirations. Trade with Russia has exploded and Georgia has become more economically dependent on Russia than at any time since its independence. That is despite the two countries technically remaining at war, as there has been no formal peace treaty following Moscow’s invasion in 2008, and Russia still occupies a fifth of Georgia’s territory.

Georgia continues to have a complicated relationship with Russia. After the war in Ukraine started, Georgia became one of the main destinations for refugees fleeing potential conscription. Many Russians now residing in Tbilisi have joined the protests against the foreign agents law, but at the same time many of these expats remain sympathetic to Russia.

The passage of the law caused a hue and cry in Brussels, which has said the law is “incompatible with European values.” The European Parliament passed a non-binding resolution in April calling for a halt to Georgia’s accession talks until the law is revoked, and it seems clear that Georgia will not be allowed to join the EU as long as the foreign agents bill remains law.

The US, once one of Georgia’s most ardent supporters, has likewise warned it may "fundamentally re-evaluate relations" because of the bill and has hinted at potential sanctions. Ivanishvili has already had $2bn of his $7bn of total wealth frozen and was behind a recent change to tax code that allows for large sums offshore to be repatriated to Georgia tax free, in a move that suggests he is trying to bring his wealth back to Georgia and beyond the reach of sanctions.

For its part, the Kremlin does not appear to have played any direct role in promoting the law in Georgia and Ivanishvili has retained his distance from Russia. Nevertheless, the Kremlin has opportunistically backed Georgian Dream’s decision to score propaganda points in its showdown with the West.

"We see an unveiled intervention in the internal affairs of Georgia from the outside," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on May 14 after the law was passed, echoing the government that lashed out at Western “interference” on the same day. "This is an internal matter of Georgia; we do not want to interfere there in any way." Tensions remain high, but a revolution to oust Georgian Dream seems unlikely at this point. A poll conducted by an opposition channel found that two thirds (68%) of Georgians deem the law unnecessary, although state-backed media have very different poll numbers and Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze claimed this week that 80% of Georgians back the law.

The best hope is to get the opposition to unite and present a single front in the October general election. The largest opposition party, UNM, and Zourabichvili have already said they are ready to set aside party interests to form a pro-European front in those elections.

But their prospects of an election victory remain unclear and will depend on the ability of the various parties to unite. In the previous elections, Georgian Dream received 48.2% of the party lists, and the largest opposition coalition received 27.2%. Now, according to another independent survey commissioned by an opposition TV channel, 31.4% are ready to vote for the ruling party, and at least 30% are ready to vote for various opposition parties in total, but none of them gets more than 10%, The Bell reports. Polls carried out by pro-government media give a completely different picture adding to the confusion.

UNM has already announced its “renunciation of its party interests” and its readiness to unite, and Zourabichvili, who is half French, says she will play the role of “face of the pro-European front.

Georgia may not be at a crossroads, but the controversy over the foreign agents law highlights the contradictory forces that are pulling countries in the Former Soviet Union (FSU) in opposite directions.