Georgian government accuses USAID of funding training for protests

Georgian government accuses USAID of funding training for protests
A protest outside the parliament last year. / bne IntelliNews
By Tornike Mandaria in Tbilisi October 3, 2023

The Georgian Security Service (SSSG) has accused the US Agency for International Development (USAID) of funding training for Georgian activists aimed at  inciting unrest and the overthrow of the government. 

Serbian citizens Sinisa Sikman, Jelena Stoisic, and Slobodan Jinovic of the Canvas organisation had been invited to Georgia by the East-West Management Institute under the US Agency for International Development (USAID). The SSSG alleges they recruited activists for disruptive actions between October and December.

They claim the trainers gave lessons on violent protests, picket lines, traffic disruptions, and government building occupations. Activists were reportedly trained to resist arrests, disrupt broadcasts, seize power and subvert the government, using comparative examples of revolutionary processes from Serbia. 

The accusations are part of a larger narrative suggesting a conspiracy of Ukraine, the USA, and the West to involve Georgia in a conflict with Russia following Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Georgia has not joined Western sanctions against Russia and in fact has deepened its relations, recently restoring direct air links.

Irakli Kobakhidze, chairman of the ruling party Georgian Dream, expressed deep concern over the fact that USAID had financed this training, characterising it as a disturbing development. He called for an explanation from the United States.

“The scenario involves chaos, revolution, and the ultimate objective, as we are aware, is the elusive 'second front,' which has been pursued since the beginning of the war in Ukraine in 2022”, he said during a briefing held at the party's office on October 2. 

The Georgian Dream government has claimed that the opposition is planning renewed protests this autumn to coincide with the expected decision of the European Union on whether to make Georgia a candidate country for accession. Georgia was rejected as a candidate last year because of the government's backsliding on democracy, prompting violent demonstrations.

The Serbian trainers were questioned by investigators on September 29, 2023. The SSSG reported that they attempted to conceal the true purpose of their stay in Georgia, and their statements contradicted the evidence gathered during the investigation. Despite this, they were allowed to leave Georgia and have since returned to Belgrade on September 30.

The training course funded by USAID, as indicated on the Civil Society Engagement Program website in August, aimed to introduce members of cultural and arts movements and initiative groups to various nonviolent activism strategies, self-organisation methods for driving change, and mobilising supporters.

In response, USAID-Georgia defended its partnership with Canvas, stating that it supports civil society in Georgia and advocates for various causes. The US Embassy in Georgia declared the allegations false and emphasised its commitment to the democratic values of freedom of speech and expression.

Canvas Georgia has characterised these allegations as a "pressure campaign" and urged international human rights organisations to take notice of the situation.