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Protesters brandishing a European Union flag brace as they are sprayed by a water canon during clashes with riot police near the Georgian parliament in Tbilisi on March 7, 2023. AFP via Getty Images

Donnacha Ó Beacháin 'Young people are fighting to reverse Georgia’s authoritarian trajectory'

As protests erupt in Georgia, the DCU Professor of Politics says the country is at a crossroads but wants to lean into the West.

LAST UPDATE | 9 Mar 2023

THE COLLAPSE OF the Soviet Union liberated Georgia from the imposed communist experiment that had tucked it away far behind the Iron Curtain.

But the Soviet collapse and national independence movement simply created the opportunity, as in other former Soviet republics, for Georgia’s “return to Europe”, but they did not guarantee it.

Georgia’s starting point, at the dissolution of the Soviet Union, was extremely low. Within its first years of independence, it had to contend with secessionist wars, internal power struggles, civil war, and a coup d’état.

For centuries, Georgia had been ruled from Moscow and since regaining independence the country has regularly clashed with the Kremlin, most notably in 2008, when Russia decimated Georgian forces in a brief but decisive war.

Georgia’s bid to join the EU, and indeed NATO, have been largely motivated by a desire to remove the country from Russia’s shadow.

Georgia’s European identity has played a major role in defining the country’s sense of self and imagining its destiny. You’ll find more EU flags flying in Tbilisi than in Dublin. Most Georgians believe Europe can help transform their country, in terms of democratic development, prosperity and security.

When Ukraine decided to apply for EU membership within days of Russia’s full-scale invasion, Georgia quickly followed suit. However, while the applications of Ukraine and Moldova for candidate status were quickly approved, Georgia’s was not. Instead, it received a weaker substitute, which involved acknowledging the country’s “European perspective”.

Georgia was given a shopping list of reforms to carry out before it could be considered a candidate for EU membership.

For many in Georgia, the EU decision was interpreted as a rebuff and evidence of the reputational damage caused by successive Government policies, not least those that had undermined democratic values and minority rights. This setback provides a vital context for understanding the current conflict between government and civil society in Georgia.

The Government has also come under fire for not reflecting the popular pro-Ukrainian mood in Georgia. Rather than participating in sanctions against Russia, the Georgian government has opted to benefit economically from the war. There have been numerous high-profile spats with President Zelenskyy’s government and diplomatic relations between Georgia and Ukraine are at a very low ebb.

Cause of the current crisis

The most recent crisis that has overwhelmed Georgia in recent days centres on a controversial and polarising law which would require civil society organisations in receipt of funding from outside of Georgia to register as foreign agents. Critics of the bill maintained the law was designed to marginalise and discredit NGOs devoted to the protection of human rights, democracy and rule of law.

As a relatively poor, developing society, most Georgian NGOs rely on external funding to survive. The Government has little interest in promoting organisations that will critique its performance. When similar legislation has been introduced in countries such as Russia, Belarus, and Azerbaijan the space for non-government-controlled activity has vanished.

file-in-this-monday-dec-11-2017-former-georgian-president-mikheil-saakashvili-gestures-during-a-hearing-in-a-court-room-in-kiev-ukraine-the-tbilisi-city-court-in-georgia-on-jan-5-has-found-sa Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili gestures during a hearing in a court room in 2017. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Civil society is all the more valued because of the tight grip on power exercised by the Georgian Dream party, which has governed the country for more than a decade. Its de facto leader, the reclusive billionaire oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, made his fortune in Russia during the 1990s.

Because of the administrative resources at Georgian Dream’s disposal and the staggering wealth of its founder Ivanishvili it has proven very difficult for opposition parties to challenge the Government.

Not only is the parliamentary opposition fragmented but its best-known leader, former president Mikheil Saakashvili, languishes in prison and has lost 45 kilos while on hunger strike. Saakashvili’s emaciated image is, for many, symbolic of the hollowed-out pro-EU aspirations he so loudly championed.

a-protester-holds-a-photo-of-former-president-mikheil-saakashvili-during-a-rally-in-front-of-the-prison-where-the-former-president-is-being-held-in-rustavi-about-20-km-from-the-capital-tbilisi-geor A protester holds a photo of former president Mikheil Saakashvili during a rally in 2021 over the imprisonment of the former president near Tbilisi, Georgia. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Georgian Dream leaders made little effort to disguise the intent of the bill. According to the chairman of the ruling party, the law would allow the Government to draw up a list of “groups opposing the country and the Church”. In so doing it would have a “preventative effect” as funding for these organisations would dry up.

With added menace, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili proclaimed that with the passage of the bill Georgia’s future no longer belonged to foreign agents but to patriots who supported the Government. He attacked civil society organisations, describing them their activities as “directly fighting against statehood and state interests.”

Huge protests

As has been so often the case in Georgia, its Government miscalculated and underestimated the strength of civil society. Mass protests have long been a catalyst for ousting governments in Georgia. On several occasions during recent decades street protests led to revolutionary upheaval and, ultimately, regime change. The protests invariably take place outside the national parliament on Rustaveli Avenue – the main thoroughfare of the capital Tbilisi. This is where the most recent clashes have also taken place.

It is perhaps in part because of the demonstrated power of protest in Georgia that the Government reacted with indiscriminate and disproportionate violence, using water cannon and CS gas to disperse huge crowds of young people, who defiantly waved a combination of EU, Georgian and Ukrainian flags.

Georgia’s historical experience suggests that power is not consolidated by such wanton displays of force but rather it is diminished and jeopardised. In these politically volatile situations, oppositions don’t necessarily win power, governments lose it.

International response

The confrontation between Government and civil society feeds into a much larger and more complicated narrative of Georgia’s relations with Russia and the West.

Describing the foreign agent bill as “incompatible with EU values and standards”, the EU’s chief diplomat, Josep Borrell, said it countered Georgia’s stated objective of EU membership and would have a “chilling effect on civil society and media organisations”. Consequently, there would be “serious repercussions” for relations between Georgia and the EU.

The US Government response was also remarkable in both tone and substance. It decried the passing of the “Kremlin-inspired” law as “a dark day for democracy” which raised “real questions about the ruling party’s commitment to Euro-Atlantic integration”.

The Kremlin for its part accused Borrell of “crossing the limits of decency” and “putting pressure on Georgian citizens.”

What now?

For some years Georgia’s main pitch to the EU has been that it is an oasis of liberal democracy in a desert of authoritarian regimes. Consequently, democratic backsliding risks tarnishing that brand.

If Georgia becomes just another post-Soviet autocratic state the EU will rapidly lose interest in any membership bid.

The mainly young protesters on the streets of Tbilisi were motivated by a desperate need to reverse Georgia’s authoritarian trajectory and to re-chart the country’s destiny so that a strong state, protecting democratic and liberal values might win the confidence of the EU.

The draft law has been removed but the underlying issues remain. The Georgian Government appears to have learned little given it blames only “the machine of lies” for the reversal rather than the content of the bill itself. This suggests a tactical retreat but no change in overall strategy.

In sum, the attempt to push this divisive law through parliament has been a damaging own-goal, exposing deep divisions in Georgian society and unresolved tensions between Georgia’s government and the EU.

Donnacha Ó Beacháin is Professor of Politics at Dublin City University. For more than two decades he has worked and researched in the post-Soviet region and has been published widely on the subject. 

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