Robin Ashenden

Georgia’s ‘foreign agent’ law protestors won’t go down quietly

Protesters rally against the 'foreign influence' law outside the parliament in Tbilisi, Georgia (Credit: Getty images)

Following the introduction this Tuesday of Georgia’s notorious ‘foreign agent’ law by the ruling party Georgian Dream, there has been widespread popular protest in the capital Tbilisi. The law, proposed last year but postponed in the face of public resistance, demands that any non-governmental organisation receiving more than 20 per cent of its funding from abroad must label itself an ‘agent of foreign influence’ or face fines and even imprisonment.

While the government claims it’s simply a practical bid to create transparency in Georgian politics, critics, who call it the ‘Russian Law’, feel it’s a leap towards greater union with the Kremlin. They fear the legislation will simply be abused, as in Russia, to silence dissent and persecute critics of the government. It also puts Georgia’s future membership of the EU into grave doubt, with the independently elected President Salome Zurabishvili – a long-term Europhile and thorn in the side of the government – declaring that nothing less than ‘Georgia’s survival is at stake today’.

What good is peaceful protest against all the resources of a Kremlin-backed state?

Cue, therefore, the scenes we have witnessed this week: alarmingly unfettered brawls between delegates in Georgia’s parliament, thousands (or even hundreds of thousands) of Georgians out on the streets demonstrating against the government, and an army of balaclavaed and helmeted riot police out in full force to oppose them.

This is overwhelmingly a young person’s cause. Some 93 per cent of 18-34 year-olds (as opposed to 82 per cent of the general population) want to turn their backs on Russia and embrace EU membership, according to a 2023 study by the Caucasus Research Resource Centre. I spoke to three young Georgians in their early thirties – Kristine, 31, an educational organiser, George, 30, a software engineer, and David, 31, a political specialist. All three of them are set on the country taking a path to EU membership.

Europe, Kristine tells me, is a ‘mosaic of cultural diversity, democratic values, high quality education and economic prosperity’. For David, it ‘represents human rights, a strong economy, and the desire for a peaceful and better society’. (Will the EU live up to these standards for them, I can’t help wondering, when or if they end up belonging to it?)

Meanwhile Russia means ‘okupanti’ (occupiers), and, as Kristine describes it, ‘an oppressive force that you have to serve. It doesn’t respect your unique national identity, it is ready to cancel your state language and destroy the intellectual part of the nation…. By allying with modern Russia, we will gain nothing but a deterioration in the quality of life and an increase in repression.’ George is even more emphatic: ‘We have demonstrated with our lives that we want nothing from Russia; we don’t now, nor have we ever, shared the same beliefs, traditions, or lifestyle seen there. We’re a Western society, with Western ideologies and traditions. European democracy is not just a wish but a necessity for us. The only things Georgia has ever received from Russia are hostility, massacres, and occupation. For any young person, deviating from this trajectory is an existential threat.’

Given that such an overwhelming majority – especially among their age-group – seem to agree, why has the government passed a law that’s aligned it with the Kremlin in recent days? And can’t the Georgian people just vote Georgian Dream out at the general election scheduled for this October?

The answer to both those questions, it seems, is connected. It’s the very fear of being voted out, both George and Kristine tell me, that has galvanised the Georgian Dream party into returning to a law that, just a year or so back, they abandoned in the face of such widespread opposition. Quite apart from Georgian Dream’s desire to appease a Russia utterly opposed to ‘the development of a democratic country alone its borders’, it’s much easier for the government, in the face of wilting popularity, to retain power if elections are unobserved by suddenly defamed NGOs and media organizations. ‘This law is a direct suppression of critical opinion,’ says Kristine.

All three are clear too that Georgia’s new Foreign Agent law will follow the Russian course: moving on from organisations over time to targeting individuals the state perceives as opponents, whether they’re in receipt of actual foreign funding or not. Just as in Georgia today, Kristine reminds me, Russia 12 years ago adopted the law on ‘Agents of Foreign Influence’ under the banner of transparency for non-profit NGOS, but, with subsequent changes in legislation, the label has become a catch-all term applying to critical media organisations or simply individuals perceived as opponents of the regime, whether or not they’re in receipt of foreign money.

‘There’s no free media left in Russia,’ George points out, ‘No NGOs serving the public good… Just a few weeks ago, we witnessed another evolution of this law: people or organisations labelled as “agents” can no longer participate in elections.’ Such Russians can also, he might have added, neither work as teachers nor organise public events.

This is the grim trajectory all of them feel Georgia is now embarked on. ‘When the government doesn’t take into account the opinion of hundreds of thousands of people,’ says David, ‘unfortunately I have no illusions that they won’t use this law as a lever of intimidation.’

Look for stories of apparent state intimidation in Georgia this week and you can find plenty of them. There are reports of houses graffitied with the words ‘traitor’ and ‘foreign agent’, allegations that opposition leader Levan Khabeishvili was beaten up in police custody and protest organizer Dimitri Chikovani attacked by a gang of men near his house (they have the cuts, bruises and broken bones to prove it). Even the children of activists are said to have received threatening anonymous phone calls. A Telegram channel, George tells me, whose name translates to ‘Expose’ in English, was recently created by Georgian Dream’s propaganda media, listing the personal details of activists, even down to their phone numbers and addresses. In terms of moving down the route to Kremlin-style repression, ‘we’re already past step one’. Yet the protests go on with Kristine and George attending them eagerly.

All three are vehement too that the demonstrations must remain non-violent. George says ‘the protests have been extremely peaceful, and they must remain so. The only violence we’ve seen so far has come from the police, not the protestors… With support from the US and EU, our allies, and specific measures like sanctioning the oligarch [Georgian Dream founder and multi-billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili] and his cronies, we will win this fight peacefully.’ Kristine returns palpably moved from a rally the night before, declaring that, ‘We will not repeat the scenario of Ukraine or Belarus, in the fight for freedom. Georgia acts according to its own scenario, the scenario where the end of story is good, where we protect the country’s freedom and independence with peaceful protest.’

This sentiment, admirably idealistic, still rings alarm bells with me, thousands of miles away and well out of the orbit of what might be a nascent revolution. Is this scenario Kristine speaks of one of getting out, definitively, from under Moscow’s influence and control? Or will it turn out, however non-violent, to be a story of failing nobly and even awe-inspiringly – stamping your image on the world even as you go down ­– as in Czechoslovakia in 1968? What good is peaceful protest against all the resources of a Kremlin-backed state?

Yet the single-mindedness, self-sacrifice and bravery of the people I spoke to cannot be overestimated. George offered to let me print his surname if I wished (I demurred) telling me that he was a target now anyway, and it could scarcely matter much. Kristina told me: ‘The key is in our strength, at some point the police will come to our side, the main thing is not to get tired and not to betray our choice.’

But no one can watch that sea of people singing songs and waving banners, or the masked baton-wielding police opposing them, and not wonder where this is going. One thing is certain: the protestors are not going to back down and accept supinely that their government knows best; at least 83 per cent are adamant that it doesn’t and are going to be heard. As one young protestor’s banner puts it, believably: ‘You won’t shut us up.’

Watch Tina Bokuchava, Georgian opposition leader, and Natalie Sabanadze, former head of the Georgian mission to the EU, discuss more on Spectator TV:

Written by
Robin Ashenden
Robin Ashenden is founder and ex-editor of the Central and Eastern European London Review. He is currently writing a novel about Solzhenitsyn, Khrushchev’s Thaw and the Hungarian Uprising.

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