Georgian protests become test of strength between government and civil society

Georgian protests become test of strength between government and civil society
Tens of thousands of protesters have confronted police outside the parliament building. / Tornike Mandaria/bne IntelliNews
By Tornike Mandaria in Tbilisi May 1, 2024

The two-week long protests over Georgia’s Russian-style “foreign agents” bill have escalated into a major challenge to the Georgian Dream government, as tens of thousands of protesters now regularly confront police outside the parliament building.

The protests have become a major test of strength between the semi-authoritarian government and Georgian opposition groups and civil society ahead of the general elections this October. On Sunday an estimated 100,000 people took to the streets in protest, followed by a nearly equal pro-government demonstration the next day.

The worst violence so far happened around 10pm on April 30, when police resorted to force, employing pepper spray for the first time against the predominantly peaceful protesters. This marked the beginning of a roughly six-hour crackdown, as police attempted to clear the streets. Throughout the night, police employed water cannons, stun grenades, tear gas and beat protesters. 

Several opposition figures sustained severe injuries, including Levan Khabeishvili, chairman of the United National Movement (UNM), who posted a photo of his bruised face on social media. Official reports indicate over 60 arrests and 11 individuals hospitalised, including six policemen.

The tension persisted until 5am when the security forces abruptly withdrew, leaving behind several hundred demonstrators in control of the streets.

Levan Ioseliani, the Public Defender of Georgia, criticized the police for trying to disperse the demonstrators, citing a breach of the "standard of necessary and proportionate intervention".

President Salome Zurabishvili called on the Ministry of Internal Affairs to halt the crackdown on peaceful demonstrators.

The police violence has also been criticised by Western politicians, including the European Union, which Georgia last December became a candidate to join.

Josep Borrell Fontelles, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, condemned the police violence against protesters.

“Georgia is an EU candidate country, I call on its authorities to ensure the right to peaceful assembly. Use of force to suppress it is unacceptable”, he said. 

Parliament is currently debating the second reading of the bill, which was interrupted on May 1 after fighting spread to the parliamentary chamber itself. Tensions are only expected to peak during the third reading of the bill, scheduled for May 17.

In recent years, tensions between the Georgian Dream government and the West have escalated as the party tightened its control and attacked organisations it could not control.

The government now appears to be trying to create further polarisation before October’s general election, hoping that the changeover at the European Commission this summer will preclude a resolute EU response.

Despite the widespread opposition, the government appears resolute in its determination to pass the legislation, initially proposed last year but withdrawn following mass protests.

The bill – which the opposition argues is based on a similar Russian-style law – mandates organisations receiving over 20% of funding from abroad to register as "foreign agents". Once registered, they have to endure special scrutiny by state bodies.

The legislation is widely seen as an attempt to cow NGOs and independent media ahead of the elections, and help secure Georgian Dream another majority. But the NGOs and media have rejected the label of "foreign agents" as derogatory and refuse to register as such.

Many civil society organisations and independent media rely heavily on Western funds. While the government professes aspirations to join the European Union, The government openly states that the target of the law is these Western funds, which it says finance unrest.

The government accuses these entities of serving Western interests, rather than contributing to the country's democratic development.

The EU and other Western nations have condemned the bill as incompatible with Georgia’s European path. 

To understand what motivates the government, we need to understand the man behind it.  

Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire founder of Georgia's ruling Georgian Dream party, amassed his wealth in post-Soviet Russia. Until 2012, prior to entering Georgian politics, he led a mysterious life, primarily focused on charity work. Even after he entered politics by founding Georgian Dream and leading it to an electoral victory in 2012, he remains enigmatic, seldom participating in public discourse.

During Georgian Dream's 12-year tenure, Ivanishvili withdrew and reentered formal politics three times. Throughout this period, he granted only a handful of interviews, often opting for sympathetic media outlets that avoid challenging him.

In a rare public address on Monday, Ivanishvili openly accused the West and the "global party of war" of interfering in Georgia's affairs. He portrayed Russia’s invasion of Georgia and Ukraine as orchestrated by external forces.

Speaking at a rally supporting the controversial foreign agent bill, where the ruling party mobilised thousands from rural regions, Ivanishvili's rhetoric was laden with conspiracy theories and threats of repression. 

Ivanishvili contends that the "global war party" is waging a battle against the Georgian government, for which “Georgia and Ukraine only have the price of hideous meat'".

"They [the “global war party”] first pitted Georgia against Russia, and in 2014 and 2022 they put Ukraine in an even more difficult position," Ivanishvili said.

He asserts that over the years, Georgia has amassed sufficient resources to fortify its sovereignty—a goal that the Transparency of Foreign Influence Law aims to achieve.

Despite the fierce rhetoric, Ivanishvili pledged Georgia's eventual accession to the European Union. "I promise you," he declares, "that we will overcome all obstacles, strengthen our sovereignty, maintain peace, bolster the Georgian economy, and join the European Union by 2030."

To many observers, however, Ivanishvili's speech marked a significant departure in Georgia's foreign policy, reflecting a clear shift towards authoritarianism and Russia, and a u-turn from the West—a worldview at odds with the sentiments of the majority of Georgians.

Nightly protests along Tbilisi's main avenue, primarily led by young people, echo a single message: "No To Russian Law, Yes To Europe!”