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Why Georgia Has Erupted in Protest

The country is at risk of collapsing into a full Russian autocracy, and Georgians understand it as a make-or-break moment. The strength and resolve of the country’s civil society will decide the outcome.

By Ghia Nodia

May 2024

Once again, the Republic of Georgia finds itself in the middle of an escalating political crisis — a recurrent national condition over the last few years. This one has been triggered by the Georgian Dream (GD) government’s reintroduction in Parliament of its so-called Foreign Agents Law. Georgians routinely call it “the Russian law” because it is patterned on one that Vladimir Putin had his rubber-stamp Duma enact in 2012 to aid in crackdowns on civil society. In a halfhearted attempt at misdirection, GD presents the bill as inspired by the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938 (FARA), though no one is fooled and indeed GD itself does little to hide its Kremlin-like plans for civil society in Georgia.

The law first appeared as a parliamentary draft in February 2023, but large-scale protests forced its withdrawal. At the time, Georgia’s civil society thought that it had won a seminal victory; nobody expected to see the same draft reintroduced. This time the protests may be even larger, but so far GD shows no signs of giving in. At the time of this writing in the second week of May 2024, Parliament has passed the law at each of its two readings. The third and final vote is set for May 17.

Georgians see this as a make-or-break moment, and they are determined to keep protesting. The adoption of the Foreign Agents Law would imply giving up on the concept of being part of Western democratic civilization, an aspiration that has given patriotic Georgians their guiding and unifying idea since the second half of the nineteenth century. The aim of joining NATO and the EU has been at the heart of the Georgian political consensus for at least the last twenty years and in 2017 it was written into the constitution. Numerous polls show that large majorities of Georgians have consistently supported this policy.

There are several reasons why Georgians attach such great importance to pro-Western policies. One is national security: With neighboring Russia (population 145 million) unreconciled to the loss of its imperial possessions, the Western democracies are the best allies Georgia (population 3.7 million) has in its quest to safeguard its sovereignty. Internally, policies that aspire to make Georgia a full member of the West are also key to preserving existing liberal-democratic freedoms plus prospects for fuller democratic consolidation.

The drift by GD away from the world of Western liberal democracies and toward the “Russian world” of illiberal autocracies has been underway for several years. At first, though, basic democratic rights were left in place. And Georgia’s ambiguous stance on the war in Ukraine could be seen as a pragmatic attempt to balance pro-Western policies with the need to appease Russia (which invaded parts of Georgia in August 2008 and still has troops in the breakaway Georgian republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia). The adoption of the Foreign Agents Law would leave no such room for interpretation. Instead, it would make brutally clear the Georgian government’s rejection of the West and turn toward a bid to consolidate autocracy.

Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire and former premier who is GD’s “honorary chairman” and de facto leader, said as much at an April 29 rally that the government organized in support of the law. He put forward a preposterous conspiracy theory according to which the West is run by a “Global War Party” that wants to use Georgians and Ukrainians as cannon fodder in its fight with Russia. Ivanishvili casts himself as the main obstacle to this scheme, and charges the West with angling to use Georgia’s civil society to unseat him. To prevent this, he says, the flow of donor money from the West must be stopped, hence the new law. Ivanishvili also takes a GD victory in the 26 October 2024 parliamentary election for granted, and vows that he will launch a crackdown on the opposition as a “criminal” force.

This speech exposed Ivanishvili as Putin’s kindred spirit: This is how any Russian propagandist would speak about the West, and cast local civil society as its puppet. People are confounded as to why the 68-year-old Ivanishvili has opted at this moment to go so far with what appears to be a strategy with big risks for him. Is he being pressured by Moscow? That is possible but cannot be proven. Has he taken Russia’s improved combat performance against Ukraine as a sign that the West is weak and can be ignored? We cannot rule that out.

The likeliest explanation, however, is the simplest one: The richest man in Georgia wants to maintain the country as his personal fiefdom indefinitely, and knows that membership in the West would make this impossible. His best chance is to move the whole country in the direction of the autocrat-friendly Russian world. He has brought back the Foreign Agents Law now to allow enough time for it to weaken civil society in advance of the October election.

Keys to Victory

Ivanishvili’s maneuver was bound to provoke resistance, and resistance he got. Tens of thousands of citizens, most of them young, have taken to the streets. Despite numerous arrests, beatings, uses of tear gas, and other methods to disperse the demonstrations, the wave of protests is not subsiding.

Everybody asks the same questions: Who will win? Will the government withdraw the law, as it did last year? Will the protests develop into something similar to a new “color revolution” or EuroMaidan? How will all this affect the October election? Nobody knows. Georgia may be in the middle of a historical inflection point when the situation is at its most unpredictable. One way leads to a full autocracy — something independent Georgia has never experienced — and some sort of reintegration into a Russian world. Another leads to democratic renewal and a realistic prospect of a European future.

Can history suggest what the outcome will be? Over the years since Georgia left the USSR and became independent in 1991, large protests against allegedly autocratic governments have been many. Each time, the public eventually prevailed. On four occasions in the last 34 years, people who had been leading street protests replaced the incumbent government. Whether by means of elections or through revolutions (peaceful or otherwise), Georgians showed that they would not tolerate autocratic rule.

Each change of government felt like a fresh democratic breakthrough, but none of them led to real democratic consolidation. Analysts routinely called Georgia a “hybrid regime” that combined elements of autocracy and democracy. After each change of power, there emerged a new dominant party built around a single strong leader: Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Eduard Shevardnadze, Mikheil Saakashvili, and now Bidzina Ivanishvili. The ruling government controlled all branches of power (including courts and local governments) and held sway over business and the most popular media outlets. But Georgia also had a combative (if fragmented) political opposition, vocal independent media, competent and vibrant civil society organizations, and a tradition of mass political mobilization. These added democratic elements to the mix, and were enough to at least partly curb incumbents’ autocratic tendencies.

What is different this time? First, the worthiness of closer relations with the democratic West has never before been directly in question. Leaders such as Shevardnadze and Saakashvili did not fully follow democratic norms, but neither challenged the idea that Georgia should join the family of Western democracies. On the contrary, each drew part of his legitimacy from his avowed embrace of this goal. This gave the West important leverage, and kept Georgia’s rulers from crossing certain red lines. In 2003, the Rose Revolution that Saakashvili led against his former mentor Shevardnadze remained resolutely nonviolent. In 2012, Saakashvili became the first leader of independent Georgia to leave office peacefully in response to an electoral defeat.

Ivanishvili, whose Georgian Dream bested Saakashvili’s party in that 2012 parliamentary election, is the country’s first leader to openly declare the West his enemy. This has implications for both his geopolitics and his domestic politics. While previous governments occasionally harassed the opposition and independent media, Ivanishvili has become the first to announce a comprehensive program to bring the entirety of civil society to heel. If implemented, his program would turn Georgia into a full Russian-style autocracy. He is prepared to ignore Western criticism, which he has already dismissed as subversion coming from a hostile power. Hence, no one can say how far he might go to defend his current position.

This raises the stakes very high, as both sides know this. The losing side stands to lose a lot; whether the law passes or fails is important, but it will not end the struggle for control of Georgia’s future. Parliament is expected to pass the bill, President Salome Zourabichvili is expected to veto it, and Parliament is expected to override her (it takes only a simple majority to do so). The actual task of taming civil society will be fraught with conflict, however.

What are the resources of the parties in this fight? Ivanishvili has at his beck the levers of state plus a mass of loyal GD apparatchiki. He also has considerable public support undergirded by: 1) fear of Russian aggression if Georgia is seen to be straying too far from what the Kremlin wants or will tolerate; 2) a belief that he is defending traditional culture and religion against permissive liberals; and 3) the relative economic success of recent years.

Ivanishvili is not guaranteed victory, however. A large chunk of Georgian society is outraged, and if it channels this outrage astutely, it might win. While Georgians often express disappointment at their country’s serial failures to achieve a properly balanced democracy, the thirty years of such a mixed system have also bred a generation that takes basic democratic freedoms as its due, has never been habituated to accept censorship, and assumes that the model of European-style democracy is the only acceptable one for Georgia. This is the generation that is leading the resistance movement.

The level of organization and the persistence shown by Georgian civil society, broadly understood, will decide the outcome. The weakness of political parties is, traditionally, society’s greatest structural challenge. The established opposition is fragmented and lacks popular leaders. In the current protests, it is hardly visible. The young people who are on the front lines want no association with political parties. The protests have no single organizing center. Instead, the several that do exist have more or less managed to coordinate with one another, though the lack of a long-term strategy may soon become a problem.

Such a mass mobilization can be seen as a source of prodemocratic strength insofar as it attracts wide participation and makes things unpredictable for the government. Yet some worry that the lack of clear leaders will hamper collective action’s effectiveness and harm the movement. In any case, mass protests are what Georgia is now experiencing, and these may give the country its best chance to stop a shift to full autocracy.

Ghia Nodia is professor of political science at Ilia State University and director of the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy, and Development in Tbilisi, Georgia. He is a member of the Editorial Board of the Journal of Democracy.


Copyright © 2024 National Endowment for Democracy

Image credit: GIORGI ARJEVANIDZE/AFP via Getty Images




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