‘No to the Russian law!’ Georgia protesters demand a ‘European future’

Violence has rocked Tbilisi as angry citizens fear Georgia will fall into ‘enemy hands’.

Georgia protesters
Protesters wear masks to avoid pepper spray and tear gas being used by police in Georgia's capital, Tbilisi [Stephan Goss/Al Jazeera]

Tbilisi, Georgia – Crowds of protesters have been braving tear gas and water canons after more than two weeks of protest against the Georgian government’s draft law targeting civil society.

The new law would require non-profit entities (NGOs and media outlets) receiving more than 20 percent of their funding from abroad to register as “organisations pursuing the interest of a foreign influence”, with tough penalties for noncompliance of up to $9,000.

Mass demonstrations last year forced the government to withdraw a similar bill. This second attempt has given renewed energy to thousands of young people, from school pupils to university students, swelling a tide of discontent.

They believe their government has fallen under the influence of the Kremlin and is sabotaging their dreams of being part of Europe. Each night, the rallies have begun with the Georgian national anthem, as well as the EU’s, Ode to Joy.

“This is where I live, where my son will live – I don’t want Georgia in the enemy’s hands. I want it free for everyone,” fumes 25-year-old Giga.

“No to the Russian law!” says Nutsa, 17. She’s holding up a placard which reads: “Northern neighbour, we don’t have anything in common with you”.

That northern neighbour is Russia, where Vladimir Putin’s 2012 law on foreign agents has eliminated dissent. In 2022, he expanded it to require anyone receiving support from outside Russia to register and declare themselves as foreign agents.

But the Georgian government has insisted its own law is similar to legislation in Western countries.

The EU disagrees that the law resembles Western transparency regulations, such as EU and French planned directives and the US’s Foreign Agents Registration Act.

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the EU Commission, warned on May 1 that Georgia was “at a crossroads”.

Washington is alarmed. It has provided almost six billion dollars in aid to Georgia since the 1990s. US Ambassador to Georgia Robin Dunnigan said in a statement on May 2 that the US government had invited Georgia’s prime minister, Irakli Kobakhidze, to high-level talks “with the most senior leaders”.

According to Georgia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs later that day, that invitation was declined. Instead, Kobakhidze accused the US of supporting “revolutionary attempts” by non-governmental organisations working in the country, such as EU-funded organisations Transparency International Georgia and ISFED, which often call attention to government corruption and abuses of power.

The government may fear that these organisations could influence the outcome of a general election in October in which the governing Georgian Dream (GD) party hopes to secure a majority.

Kornely Kakachia, director of the Georgian Institute of Politics, said he believes the government’s rhetoric reflects the opinion of Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire founder of the governing party.

Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, he adds, has changed Ivanishvili’s calculus.

“Ivanishvili and GD leaders believe that Russia is winning in Ukraine and he just thinks [of] how to be friendly with [Russia], to find his place in this geopolitical new order,” says Kakachia.

In tandem with its foreign funding law, GD has promised to curb LGBT rights and has passed amendments to the tax code that will make it easier to bank money from overseas in Georgia.

“That’s an attempt to try to lure Putin and the Kremlin basically to give them a new model of Georgia, which will be a kind of offshore zone for Russian oligarchs,” says Kakachia.

Georgia protesters
Protesters who oppose a new ‘foreign influence’ law clash with police in Tbilisi, Georgia [Stephan Goss/Al Jazeera]

Hired thugs and ‘Robocops’

The nightly protests over the past two weeks have seen some of the largest turnouts in the 11 years of GD’s government.

On Thursday, protesters blocked a key intersection known as Heroes Square. But a group of unknown men in civilian clothing appeared and began to beat people.

Known as Titushky, hired thugs were deployed by the Ukrainian security services during Ukraine’s Euromaidan protests in 2013 and 2014 in which people called for closer relations with the EU and protested against corruption.

Professor Ghia Nodia of the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development said the moment feels similar to Ukrainian President Yanukovych’s decision a decade ago to use violence to put down protests.

“The feeling is that this time, Ivanishvili went too far and people have to fight. There are relatively small-scale violent crackdowns almost every day, but so far, the tide of protest didn’t go down.”

The protests have been mostly peaceful, though some protesters have tried to enter parliament where legislators have been debating inside.

Defiant men and women wave EU and Georgian flags in front of units of black body-armoured riot police dubbed “Robocops” who are armed with truncheons, mace and shields.

Other masked police officers without identification badges have been filmed punching, kicking and dragging protesters by the hair into custody.

Hardware stores have been emptied of face masks. Pepper spray and tear gas quickly incapacitate those without protection, their eyes and noses streaming from the chemicals, many of them retching or struggling to breathe.

The country is heavily polarised. Mikheil Saakashvili, whose reforms did much to modernise Georgia after 2003’s “Rose Revolution’” is serving a six-year prison sentence. He was found guilty of “abuse of power” and organising an assault on an opposition lawmaker. His party, the United National Movement (UNM), is the most powerful party in opposition, but it is deeply unpopular because of its own track record from its time in office from 2004- 2012.

Georgia protests
Protests have rocked Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital city, for the past two weeks [Stephan Goss/Al Jazeera]

‘Backsliding on democracy’?

Many of today’s protesters do not identify with either the UNM or any other political party in opposition.

MEPs have repeatedly voted on resolutions in Strasbourg and Brussels condemning GD’s “backsliding” on democracy in recent years and its treatment of the former president.

But one group of protesters told Al Jazeera that the European Parliament was wrong to call for sanctions against Ivanishvili while simultaneously demanding Saakashvili’s release.

In power, GD has taken credit for winning the right for Georgian citizens to travel to Schengen countries within the EU without a visa. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it submitted its application for EU candidacy.

EU leaders are beginning to doubt that it is a serious partner, however. They have called on the Georgian government to enact reforms aimed at preventing any takeover of the state by oligarchs.

But that is unacceptable to Bidzina Ivanishvili. On April 29, he addressed tens of thousands of people who, by a GD leader’s admission, had been bussed in from other parts of the country to attend a counterprotest.

It proved that the government can command large numbers of supporters when it chooses, though the tired-looking attendees showed little energy or enthusiasm for being there.

In his address, reading from an autocue, Ivanishvili outlined his government’s new narrative: That a global force led by the West has tried to strip Georgia of its autonomy and goad it into another war with Russia.

“The funding of NGOs, which they often begrudge us and count as aid, is used almost exclusively to strengthen the agents and bring them to power,” he said. “Their only goal is to deprive Georgia of its state sovereignty.”

‘Slave law’

On one evening during the protests this week, printouts of Ivanishvili’s image with the word “Russian” across his forehead are lying scattered across a park close to the parliament building in Tbilisi.

As protesters make their way to a rally outside, they scuff and tear at the paper beneath their feet. Bikers roar through the streets and the crowd cheers and chants “Sakartvelo!” (“Georgia!”).

Twenty-year-old Shota is carrying crates of mineral water to hand out to the protesters. He says he paid for them himself.

“For us, for our generation, the European future is first of all,” he says. “That’s why we stand here with our finances, with some strength, and we will stand until the politicians withdraw the slave law they want to pass.”

GD looks set to pass its law on foreign agents in a third reading on May 17, and it remains unclear whether the government or its opponents are willing to risk a dramatic showdown on the streets.

But if hitherto fractious opposition parties find a way to unite now, that could make a victory in October’s election harder to attain for the government. The summer heat came early to Tbilisi. And it will only build as the election countdown continues.

Source: Al Jazeera