Wave of protests evolves into a serious challenge to Georgian Dream rule

Wave of protests evolves into a serious challenge to Georgian Dream rule
Many anticipate the ongoing resistance, mainly led by young people, will evolve into a wave of disobedience and resistance that will paralyse the government. / bne IntelliNews/Tornike Mandaria
By Tornike Mandaria in Tbilisi May 3, 2024

Weeks of protests against the Georgian government’s Russian-style "foreign agents" bill have created a spirit of resistance that now poses a serious challenge to the country’s increasingly authoritarian regime.

Up to 100,000 protesters in this country of less than 4 million people have flooded the city streets night after night, despite being faced with police deploying tear gas, pepper spray, and water cannons. 

The trajectory of the protests remains uncertain but many anticipate that this ongoing resistance, mainly led by young people, will evolve into a wave of disobedience and resistance that will paralyse the Georgian Dream government.

The people rallying against the bill on the streets are predominantly young—Generation Z. University and high school students have marched, singing, dancing, and expressing themselves freely and creatively.

These movements lack a clear leader or influential organisers – people join spontaneously. Nearly every day, actions are organised by various groups, with additional groups often joining in. But often the actions morph into something quite different. 

On May 3, for instance, when opposition political parties called for people to gather at the parliament, a demonstration unfolded in the opposite direction. Approximately 200 individuals proceeded to block one of Tbilisi's most crucial transport junctions, only to be thwarted by the police. Within minutes, thousands more assembled at the site. Heroes Square was sealed off, effectively paralysing the entire city for the first time. 

For hours, amidst rain, thousands of people fervently chanted "No to the Russian law! And Europe!" while numerous cars stood by, with many drivers honking in support, some even exiting their vehicles to join.

The protesters have displayed adaptability, swiftly learning to contend with tear gas and pepper spray. At every rally, they equip themselves with special liquids to counteract the effects of tear gas. They also come prepared with water, food, emergency supplies, and first aid kits. Instantly, as the tear gas disperses crowds, the protesters vanish, only to reappear minutes later when the air clears.

They organise digitally and with remarkable efficiency, forging volunteer groups.A Facebook group named "Host" has emerged, in which residents of the capital offer accommodation to those from the regions, enabling them to stay overnight.

Many demonstrators want a opposition-led coalition government to replace Georgian Dream at the elections due this autumn.

"There's a revolutionary spirit in the air. However, we don't seek revolution but rather change of government through elections, in line with democratic processes," says queer activist Ana Subeliani.

Despite government propaganda attempting to portray the youth as forsaking their traditions, rally participants engage in traditional Georgian dances, including the Khorumi—a war dance.

Similarly, as government propaganda portrays demonstrations as antithetical to faith and tradition, the demonstrators purposefully journeyed to one of Tbilisi's central churches to observe Orthodox Easter. They spent the night there, taking part in Georgian church chants.

Russia trajectory

The government's draft law on transparency of foreign influence would mandate organisations with over 20% foreign funding to register as "carrying the interests of a foreign power". If they refuse to register, the organisations are liable for fines; but if they register, they then are subject to invasive government oversight.

While authorities contend the law solely deals with financial transparency for NGOs, citizens fear a trajectory akin to Russia, where a similar law enacted in 2012 stifled and stigmatised advocacy groups and independent media critical to the Kremlin, leading to civil society effectively disappearing or being driven out of the country.

Mass protests forced the original bill's withdrawal last March, with ruling party leaders pledging not to revive the initiative, but this spring the ruling Georgian Dream party brought back the "foreign agents" law, replacing the controversial term "foreign agent" with the less direct phrase "carrying the interests of a foreign power". Yet, despite this change, the law is still commonly still known as the "foreign agents" law.

“They lied to us, betrayed us! I won't forgive!" says Ana Gabashvili, a rally participant.

"I won't comply. This is a deliberate attempt to label and stigmatise us," says Subeliani.

Most rally participants interviewed by bne IntelliNews advocate against what they perceive as a threat to democracy and  Georgia's European aspirations.

"We reject a law that distances us from the European Union," one protester says, adding, "It's enough that only the Kremlin favours this law."

The EU, US, and UK have unequivocally stated that Georgia's government initiative "on the transparency of foreign influence" contradicts Georgia's European trajectory.

The Kremlin and Russian media are the sole supporters of the Georgian government's initiative, saying that "Georgia has become wise".

Many protesters believe Georgian Dream is merely executing Moscow's orders in reintroducing the law. What the Georgian Dream government calls  balancing Georgia's international relations and avoiding irritating Russia has become increasingly difficult after Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Georgian government rhetoric has recently become markedly confrontational towards the West.

In a rare public appearance on April 29 at a pro-government rally, Bidzina Ivanishvili – the oligarch who founded Georgian Dream and is said to run the government from behind the scenes  – accused pro-Western organisations of attempting to seize control of Georgia to provoke a conflict with Russia.

In a 20-minute address, 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.

"It's evident he's under Putin's control," protester Giorgi Beraia says, while struggling to breathe amidst police tear gas.

Footballers come out in support

Beyond the streets, the bill has already ignited widespread opposition, with numerous prominent figures from sports and culture publicly denouncing it.

Now, some players in the Georgian national football team – which has qualified for the European Championships this summer for the first  time – are speaking out against the reintroduction of a draft law on "foreign agents" and the violent police crackdowns on protests against the bill.

"It's difficult for me to see how they are confronting my compatriots, especially women and children. Nothing is worth more than our people, no law is more important than them… No to Russia and full speed ahead to Europe!" national team midfielder Giorgi Chakvetadze wrote on Instagram on May 2.

Rugby players have also joined in. "Georgians are people who have always stood on the right side of history," rugby star Davit Niniashvili wrote on Instagram.

UFC featherweight champion Ilia Topuria, too, spoke in support of the demonstrations. "It is important that the voice of the Georgian people should be heard and respected. It is a pity that the Georgian people still have to fight for it," Topuria wrote on Instagram.

Many of the most prominent nightclubs have joined and cancelled events in solidarity with the protests.

"Georgian Dream is ready to realise its own political and personal interests, to endanger the country's European future and to direct Georgia's political course towards Russia... We will meet on Rustaveli Street!" Club Khidi said.

Furthermore, more than 40 YouTubers, with quite large channels and audiences in the tens of thousands, released a joint video appeal condemning the bill and supporting the European course.

Despite this growing resistance, the government shows no signs of concessions; if anything, it has become more entrenched. 

“This will trigger a sharper reaction", says Subeliani.