When Georgian lawmakers backed a controversial Kremlin-esque bill late Tuesday night, mayhem erupted outside Parliament. As the crowd of protesters grew larger and larger, riot police gathered at their flanks. All hell broke loose. The riot police fired tear gas canisters into the crowd. They used batons and water cannons. The images were remarkable. In one, a woman waving a European Union flag takes on a fire hose – an apt metaphor for Georgian democracy.
By Thursday morning those protests had proved a success. The ruling party retracted its “foreign influence” bill, which would have required organizations receiving 20% or more of their annual income from abroad to register as “foreign agents” or face heavy fines. Though after all the duplicitous justifications they gave for passing it in the first place, the move feels cynical at best. A similar law has been used to dismantle independent media and NGOs in Russia since 2012.
But Thursday was a reminder that the Georgian people have the power to reclaim their democracy. (That’s even if the ruling party ends up finding other rights to take away from its people in its desperate attempt not to lose in the upcoming 2024 parliamentary elections.) In the past several years, it appears that the Georgian government has been intentionally subverting its democracy in order to leave the EU and NATO with no choice but to reject it. Which is exactly how Moscow likes it.
The Georgian people have fought back at every turn. Whether it is about their government’s refusal to support Ukraine, raids on nightclubs or attacks on journalists covering LGBTQ demonstrations, thousands of Georgians have taken to the streets. The circumstances for these protests are always different. But the reason is always the same. Georgia’s ruling party is turning toward Moscow. Its people are not. The men, women and children who gather before Parliament are essentially sending a message: “We are Europe. If you intend to take away our democracy, you must first come through us.”
Georgians shouldn’t have to get beaten in the streets to exercise their democracy. But they will. Georgia’s informal ruler, the oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, is miscalculating his people just as Russian President Vladimir Putin underestimated the Ukrainian people. It may sound trite to compare those protesting a bill in front of the Georgian Parliament to the Ukrainian soldiers fighting in the slush and mud that was once a city called Bakhmut. But these fighters share what they see as a common enemy, and both know what is at stake.
As a journalist living here in Tbilisi for the last 15 years, one gets used to the tear gas. Despite having a chronic lung disease, or more likely on account of it, I get a strange high – an adrenaline rush at the first whiff of tear gas. In the bright police lights, things take on a cinematic quality. This is why I am here – to bear witness, while coughing my face off, to thousands of Georgians ready to take a tear gas canister to the face to keep the democracy for which they’ve fought for the last 20 years. As an American, I often get asked why I live here, most often by cynical taxi drivers. The reason is that I’ve always believed that in Georgia, especially as a journalist, one person can make a difference.
When Parliament tried to push through a law that would mean I’d have to register as a “foreign agent,” for the first time I questioned my decision to raise my family here. My wife is Georgian, and we have two young boys. I’m not alone in thinking this. I find little comfort in the fact that the law was revoked. For the first time in 15 years, I didn’t feel welcome in Georgia. But there is another thing too. It has taken me 15 years to realize that living in a place where one person can make a difference for the better means that one person also can make a difference for the worse. Still, Ivanishvili is losing his footing. He is making increasingly desperate decisions that indicate a growing animosity toward the United States. By some absurd calculus, Ivanishvili appears to believe that Putin is the only man who can help his ruling Georgian Dream party hold on to power in next year’s elections. He has chosen sides.
I don’t see how a country full of designated “foreign agents” could be good for tourism or any sector. Entire farms funded by organizations like USAID and the German development agency GIZ could be labeled foreign intelligence operations while growing tomatoes, blueberries and kiwifruit. There would be black-op asparagus harvests and clandestine apple collections. Perhaps vegetables would come with both non-GMO and non-foreign-agent-funded stickers. I wonder if they would taste any different. Ironically, the actual Russian intelligence agents in Georgia appear to be welcome. In the 10 years since Ivanishvili came to power, it seems that no actual Russian agent has been prosecuted. Hans Gutbrod, who studied similar laws in other countries for the Transparency and Accountability Initiative (TAI), calls it the “We can repress anyone we like law.” There are “clear tell-tale signs when a law has bad faith. This law here has all of them.” After the bill was withdrawn, Gutbrod told me, “Georgian Dream is greatly weakened. If it cannot project strength, it will struggle to command the loyalty of local elites, especially of police chiefs, that it needs to win elections.”
In response to the government’s violence, US State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said, “It is our strong hope that the Georgian Government listens to the Georgian people.” As of Thursday, that happened. In its attempt to explain why it retracted the bill, the ruling party claimed that “the radical forces were able to involve some of the youth in illegal activities.” Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili (who is politically independent though her campaign was originally funded by the ruling party), currently visiting the United States, told CNN that the draft law “looks very much like Russian politics.”
Elsewhere, Irakli Kobakhidze, the chair of the ruling Georgian Dream, thanked the police and called Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution “the Revolution of Spies.” It is abundantly clear which side he is on. Meanwhile, former president Mikheil Saakashvili, who led the Rose Revolution, is allegedly being poisoned in a Georgian prison (full disclosure, I was a media advisor to President Saakashvili from 2009-2011). Pro-Western Saakashvili also remains Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s chief reforms adviser, despite his arrest in Georgia in 2021. And as experts have observed, his prison illnesses are part of a familiar pattern in Putin’s Russia. Saakashvili is not inherent or essential to Georgia’s democratic future – but his death in a Georgian prison would be a blow capable of thwarting Georgia’s democratic aspirations and its relationship with the United States in particular. It would also be a gift to Putin.
Ironically, the Georgian Dream government was able to come to power through a peaceful election because of Saakashvili’s genuine commitment to democracy. The ruling party’s increasing hostility toward US and EU ambassadors and its refusal to support Ukraine have cost it a great deal with no apparent payoff. This week’s legislative retraction will make Ivanishvili only look weaker. Tomorrow, he may double down on even more inept legislation.
The retraction of this bill is a much-needed win for civil society. But it also comes with a warning. The ruling party has revealed who they are. The Georgian people should use this opportunity to demand that Saakashvili is pardoned before it is too late. Georgia – at its heart – is a democracy. Ivanishvili will learn this the hard way, as will Putin. In the meantime, Georgians will continue staring down fire hoses and tear gas canisters. It is the same reason why Ukrainian troops will prevail. They are fighting for something, not against something. Once you give democracy to a people, it is very difficult to take it away.