Georgian oligarch Ivanishvili advocates repression, blames Western “Party of War” for country’s ills

Georgian oligarch Ivanishvili advocates repression, blames Western “Party of War” for country’s ills
Bidzina Ivanishvili blamed a global conspiracy by the Western “Party of War” for Georgia’s ills and promised to use the 'foreign agents law' to repress the opposition United Nation Movement in a speech straight out of the Kremlin’s playbook. / bne IntelliNews
By Ben Aris in Berlin April 30, 2024

Bidzina Ivanishvili, honorary chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream party, has blamed a Western-led “Party of War” for all the ills Georgia has suffered in the last decade and a half, and insisted that a planned "foreign agents" bill was needed to protect the country.

The  speech at a pro-government rally in the capital Tbilisi on April 29  was the oligarch's most direct intervention in politics for years, and his strong comments indicate that the Georgian Dream party that he founded is not planning to back down, despite big demonstrations against the bill over the past two weeks.

Leading regional specialist and political analyst Thomas de Waal of Carnegie Europe said in a post on social media: “An extremely dangerous speech that will chill anyone who cares about Georgia to the bone. There will be plenty of commentary but no summary can convey the full-on conspiracy-minded paranoia. Bidzina Ivanishvili seems to believe this stuff.”

Ivanishvili said that “[the] ‘Global War Party’ wields influence over Nato and the EU, stirring conflicts between Georgia and Russia and exacerbating Ukraine's situation.”

Ivanishvili claimed that “foreign agents still aim to restore a cruel dictatorship in Georgia, but Georgian Dream will prevent this, advocating for governance elected by the people, not appointed from outside.”

Georgian Dream is in the process of trying to introduce the so-called foreign agents law, also known as the “Russian law”, that will mark any organisation that receives more than 20% of its funding from abroad as a “foreign agent” and puts their operations under scrutiny. Putin has used the same law to crush the liberal opposition and press in a brutal crackdown that gathered momentum after opposition figure and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny returned to Russia in January 2021 and was arrested. Navalny died in prison on February 16.

While Ivanishvili is not overtly pro-Russia, his speech makes it clear the ruling party intends to use the foreign agents law in a similar fashion to Russia to crack down on civil society and repress the freedom of the press as it seeks to consolidate its hold on power.

“The important decisions in this world are taken by the global 'Party of War'. It is this global force that first forced the confrontation of Georgia with Russia and then put Ukraine in even worse peril. NGOs and radical opposition are acting on their behalf. The laws that we are proposing are there to expose those dark linkages,” Ivanishvili said, sowing conspiracy theories as a justification for the foreign agents law.

He also threatened that after the elections in October, Georgian Dream would launch a crackdown on the opposition, which is led by the United National Movement party (UNM) of former President Mikheil Saakashvili. He said the UMM would face "the harsh political and legal judgment it deserves".

The government bussed in thousands of workers and civil servants to Tbilisi on April 29 to hold a counter rally to demonstrations that have rocked the Georgian capital for two weeks against the foreign agents law.

In his keynote address Ivanishvili claimed that during 2004-2012 Georgia was under the control of “foreign agents” – foreign funded NGOs that form Georgia’s vibrant civil society that has flourished since the Rose Revolution that brought Saakashvili to power and aligned Georgia with the West.

“Georgia should be governed by people who are elected by Georgians. From 2004-2012 we were governed by a foreign-appointed revolutionary committee. They came to power as a result of an NGO-led revolution,” Ivanishvili said. Ivanishvili claimed that "all crimes committed by the Saakashvili regime were orchestrated from abroad".

The oligarch, who had in recent years kept behind the scenes, specifically assumed responsibility for the Russia-styled “foreign agents law” and new legislation targeting the LGBT community that has also received strong backing from the Georgian Orthodox church.

Georgia has been struggling to come to terms EU requirements to show more tolerance to its gay community, and has cancelled its gay pride march in the last few years due to the threat of violence from right-wing groups, which the police have made little effort to control. The government also cracked down on “LGBTQ+ propaganda” in March in another move that mirrors Russia’s anti-gay laws.

Second time lucky

Following the Rose Revolution, Georgia was seen as the poster boy for liberal reform in the Former Soviet Union (FSU). Saakashvili famously sacked the entire traffic police force and ended the rampant bribes taking place overnight. Under another former Georgian-born Russian oligarch, Kakha Bendukidze, the entire legal framework was overhauled and streamlined, sending Georgia shooting up the World Bank’s “Ease of Doing Business” ranking.

But Saakashvili was also accused of authoritarianism and Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream defeated his United National Movement in the 2012 elections. Saakashvili was forced to flee the country, but returned later only to be arrested on abuse of power charges. He is now in jail, where supporters fear for his life as his health deteriorates.

In his speech, Ivanishvili called out the United National Movement by name and linked it to the "Party of War", indicating that he intends to use the foreign agents law to suppress Saakashvili’s party.

“Today, these foreigners are motivated by the desire to bring back the inhumane and sadistic dictatorship of the same people to Georgia, which we will not allow at any cost. When we talk about greenlighting, we should also remember that the [UNM] regime’s sadism enjoyed the full support of the NGOs,” Ivanishvili said.

Tensions in the Georgian capital are high and rising as the law has already passed the first of three readings. A day earlier an estimated 20,000 protesters gathered in front of the parliament building to call on the government to abandon its effort to pass the law for a second time.

The EU has warned Georgia that foreign agents bill could block the country’s accession hopes. The European Parliament passed a resolution last week calling for the accession talks to be frozen as long as the foreign agents law remains on the books.

Brussels is not yet ready to abandon Georgia, which it wants to include in the Western-allied bloc to counter Russia’s influence in the region. Russia has already de facto annexed two of Georgia’s regions – Abkhazia and South Ossetia – following a short war with Georgia under Saakashvili in August 2008. However, the EU is becoming increasingly unhappy with Ivanishvili’s Russian proclivities.

For his part, Ivanishvili remains lukewarm but still officially in favour of accession to the EU and Nato. But at the same time, he, like Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, wants to retain political autonomy and is accusing the West of meddling in Georgia’s internal affairs.

Ivanishvili made his billions in Russia, before returning to his homeland in 2002 to go into politics. He is Georgia’s richest man and has wielded considerable influence in Georgia for a decade.

Anti-government protestors have marched under Georgian and EU flags, in demonstrations some see as reminiscent of the start of the EuroMaidan protests in Kyiv in 2014 that eventually caused the then President Viktor Yanukovych to flee the country after he likewise abandoned a path to the EU by rejecting the Association Agreement and took a large loan from Russia instead.

The government tried to pass the same law last year but was forced to abandon the attempt in the face of mass protests. It promised to refrain from introducing the law again, a promise it has since reneged on.

Renta crowd

Roads to Tbilisi were choked by an armada of buses and minivans as the government bussed in people from all over the country to make up the numbers. An estimated total of 53,000 pro-government supporters attended, according to eye-witness accounts posted on social media.

In a sign of the orchestration the government was putting into its rally, pedestrians in central Tbilisi were surprised during the day when the public tannoy system suddenly played a loud round of applause for no reason. According to reports on social media, officials were preparing for the evenings rally and intended to use canned applause to bolster the crowd’s reaction to planned speeches by Georgian Dream leaders.

In the event, the crowd was lacklustre and listened to the speeches by the leaders of Georgian Dream without enthusiasm, according to reports from members of the crowd. There were virtually no EU flags amongst the pro-government crowd, which carried Georgian flags and the blue banners of the Georgian Dream party.

Key slogans chanted sporadically by the crowd included: “Language, Fatherland, Faith! Long live Georgia! Long live Bidzina!”

Meanwhile, President Salome Zurabishvili criticised the ruling party's actions as a "real Putin move" in Tbilisi. She illustrated her post with a video showing thousands of buses transporting people to Tbilisi for the ruling party's rally.

She highlighted the 15-day-long spontaneous protests against the "Russian foreign agents bill" and advocated for a European future for Georgia.

During the ruling party's rally, thousands of students gathered in another part of the city, on Chavchavadze Avenue, in an anti-government protest against the foreign agents bill.