Government Vs. The People In Georgia – Analysis


By Maia Otarashvili and Robert E. Hamilton

(FPRI) — In April of this year the Georgian government submitted to parliament a controversial “foreign agents law,” sparking massive anti-government demonstrations in Tbilisi. Tens of thousands of Georgians took to the streets protesting what has been dubbed the “Russian law,” resulting in clashes between the protesters and the police and leaving dozens injured, hospitalized, and arrested. Public demands that the Georgian Dream government rescind the problematic legislation only continue to grow as thousands of Georgians pour into Tbilisi from the regions, joining the mass demonstrations. The protest movement has also spread to other major Georgian cities. The public sees the new law as Georgia’s decisive turn away from its European path and towards one directly aligned with Russia. With pro-EU chants, EU flags, and anti-Russian and anti-government banners Georgia’s youth is making it clear that the country’s pro-Western path is a non-negotiable for them. 

The “foreign agents bill” has so far passed two of the required three readings in parliament, with all 83 deputies from Georgia’s ruling Georgian Dream party voting for it each time. If it becomes law, it will require all organizations receiving more than 20% of their funding from foreign sources to register themselves as “agents of foreign influence.” The law is indeed reminiscent of the Russian foreign agents’ law, which went into effect in 2012 and became the Kremlin’s justification for shutting down almost all Western-funded NGOs and independent media. Initially limited to NGOs that engaged in “political activity,” the Russian law’s reach has expanded inexorably to silence nearly all sources of non-government information and strangle civil society. In 2017 the law was first applied to media organizations; in 2019 it expanded again to include individuals or groups that produced “printed, audio, audiovisual or other reports and materials;” in 2021 it expanded again to include private citizens who report information on crime and corruption in state agencies. On May 6 2024, Russia made it illegal for anyone registered as a “foreign agent” under this law to participate in elections at any level. 

Georgia’s Western partners – and many Georgians – fear the Georgian government will follow a similar path. The rhetoric of Georgian government officials stokes these fears. On April 29th the Georgian Dream coalition held its own public event, featuring speeches from the party’s leadership, as well as the Georgian Dream (GD) party’s founder and current “honorary chairman,” billionaire oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili. In a typically Putin-like style, Ivanishvili spoke of “Georgia’s enemies” – the United National Movement (UNM) party – and its leadership’s wrongdoings while in power 12 years ago. But this time Ivanishvili’s anti-Western and anti-democratic rhetoric was no longer veiled. Rather, the oligarch directly accused the collective West of acting as the “Global War Party” and using the Georgian opposition forces to “open a second war front in Georgia” after Ukraine. “There is no greater enemy than pseudo-elites raised by foreign countries … Such people are easy to control from the outside because they are devoid of all principles. This is the face of today’s radical opposition, and this was the face of these people when they were in power.” 

In his speech, which in tone and rhetoric was suggestive of Russian politicians’ anti-Western narratives aimed at fueling anti-American conspiracy theories, Ivanishvili positioned himself as a leader fearing for Georgia’s sovereignty. “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. Accordingly, these funds have nothing to do with aid, and, on the contrary, their only goal is to deprive Georgia of its state sovereignty.”

And in an ominous warning, Ivanishvili explained that he expects full consolidation of his government’s power after the upcoming fall 2024 parliamentary elections:

“The Global War Party has the European Union destroying European values with its own hands, which is its hallmark. They were destroying Georgia in the same manner in 2004-2012, with the help of the Georgians who were in power. … The fate of Georgia should be decided by the Georgian people. Over these years, we have accumulated enough resources to begin to fully consolidate our sovereignty. This is precisely what the law ‘On Transparency of Foreign Influence’ serves. And after the elections, we will have the opportunity to give the collective National Movement the harsh political and legal judgment it deserves for the nine years of bloody rule and 12 years spent in the role of the ‘ruinous overseer’ [in opposition].”

Part of this power consolidation for GD will come thanks to the fact that a major legislative change is set to take place in the fall of 2024. The president, who was until now directly elected through popular elections, will now be appointed by the parliament. This means that the outgoing president, Salome Zurabishvili, will no longer pose as a counter-weight to GD’s anti-democratic and anti-Western policies. So far, she has vetoed multiple problematic bills and pardoned dozens of political prisoners, including the former head of the Mtavari opposition TV channel Nika Gvaramia, and an LGBTQ rights activist Lazare Grigoriadis. On the global stage, to GD’s chagrin, president Zurabishvili has also acted as a messenger of the Georgian people’s staunchly pro-Ukrainian stance. This too, has contrasted with Ivanishvili’s government’s anti-Ukrainian posture in the Russia-Ukraine war. Georgian Dream leaders have been openly feuding with president Zelensky and his team while also refusing to join the Russia sanctions regime. Should GD win the 2024 parliamentary elections, they will be able to replace president Zurabishvili with their own candidate, removing what little counterbalance remained against the oligarch’s rule.

Georgia at a Crossroads

For some time, Georgia has been engaged in an internal tug-of-war between its staunchly pro-Western society and the ruling Georgian Dream coalition government that has become increasingly authoritarian and anti-Western. This stark divide regularly leads to mass anti-government protests, where the Georgian society expresses its preference for the country’s EU and NATO membership, support for Ukraine, and ceaseless disapproval of Russia’s influence over the small Black Sea nation. For decades, the Georgian people have consistently expressed their pro-Western views: the latest public opinion polls show 88% of Georgians supporting EU membership, against only 10% opposed. For NATO, 75% supported membership, with 20% opposed.

This is not the first time Georgia’s government has defied the will of its people. In early 2023, the government also attempted to pass the “foreign agents law”, only to withdraw it in the face of backlash from the public. Earlier this year, it introduced a law against “LGBT propaganda,” closely modeled on the Russian law of the same name. Although this law did not provoke much outcry among the deeply conservative Georgian public, many in the West see it as incompatible with Tbilisi’s expressed desire to join the EU. With elections looming in October and the Georgian Dream government’s popularity eroding, the current clash over the “foreign agents law” has taken on an existential aura for both sides. Increasingly, Georgians and those who study the country believe there is room for either a robust, Western-oriented civil society or an authoritarian, anti-Western government, but not both.

Russia has, predictably, reacted to Georgia’s dilemma by blaming the West and accusing it of hypocrisy and “Russophobia.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, “no sovereign state wants interference from other countries in domestic politics” and claimed, “the first country that came up with a system for combating foreign agents is the United States.” This is typical Kremlin obfuscation. While the US Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) is indeed one of the first – it was passed in 1938 – it is expressly directed at lobbyists paid with foreign funds, not meant to stifle civil society or independent media. FARA has also been used quite sparingly and has specific protections for media outlets, both of which set it apart from the Russian law and the one being proposed by the Georgian government. 

Georgia’s “foreign agents law” puts its European future in doubt. Officials from NATO, the EU, the Council of Europe, and many member states of those organizations have roundly condemned the law, calling it, among other things, an attempt to “sabotage Georgia’s European path,” “autocratic,” “anti-Western,” a turn toward “Euro-Asian tyranny,” and a “cut and paste version of the Russian Foreign Agents Bill.” In the end, the choice Georgia must make is whether it desires rule of law or rule by law. In other words, if it wishes to join the Western clubs its people so ardently aspire to, its government must see the law as the supreme authority of the land applied equally to those who agree with its government’s policies and those who do not. If it chooses to pass a law that it uses as an instrument to punish its enemies, Georgia’s hard-earned role as an inspiration for its region will end. In that case, it will be just one more small, authoritarian country that has chosen the Russian path. While Georgia’s Western partners will not attempt to pull it away from this path, they will also not fund Tbilisi’s authoritarian turn. Western aid and Western attention will quickly be diverted elsewhere, and Georgia will find itself an unhappy de facto appendage of its neighbor to the north.

About the authors:

  • Maia Otarashvili is the Director of the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
  • Colonel (Retired) Robert E. Hamilton, Ph.D., is the Head of Research at the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Eurasia Program and an Associate Professor of Eurasian Studies at the U.S. Army War College.

Source: This article was published by FPRI

Published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute

Founded in 1955, FPRI ( is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization devoted to bringing the insights of scholarship to bear on the development of policies that advance U.S. national interests and seeks to add perspective to events by fitting them into the larger historical and cultural context of international politics.

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