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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury

GEORGIA ON MY MIND

On 28 May, Georgia adopted its controversial 'foreign agents law'. The government claims the law is about transparency in the funding of non–governmental organisations (NGOs) operating in the country. Critics argue that it is an instrument for suppressing civil society and moving the country back into Russia's orbit; these critics have dubbed the new legislation 'the Russian law' since they see it as being inspired by a similar law adopted by Russia in 2012.


The parliament initially passed the law a couple of weeks ago, which brought brawls among MPs in the chamber and injected extra indignation into weeks–long protests by angry citizens outside the parliament. Although the president vetoed the bill a few days later, that was never a serious obstacle. The ruling Georgian Dream party could overturn the veto with a majority vote in the parliament. That is what happened on 28 May.


The street protests


The protests began in April. Emotions were running very high and watching video footage, even from far away, made one feel indignant. It is hard not to have sympathy instinctively for the tens of thousands of (mostly young) Georgians who took to the streets of Tbilisi, especially when the riot police meted out violence. The protesters gathered night after night in the centre of Tbilisi where they were greeted with water cannon, tear gas and police truncheons.


The situation in Georgia remains tense following the law's adoption. An oppositional party reported yesterday that its offices were raided and protesters vow to keep up their pressure campaign against the law. Smaller protests have continued in the days since the law's adoption. They are likelier than not to fizzle out unless there is a stronger signal of support from outside the country though.


EU politicians expressed their 'concern' and spoke of 'standing with' the Georgian people; some even went to Tbilisi. There was talk of freezing Georgia's candidate status, a measure that, in my view, would be counterproductive. For the moment, the EU has issued a statement 'regretting' the adoption of the law and describing it as contradicting EU principles but it has not taken any measures changing Georgia's status in respect of accession ambitions. That could yet happen. Many Georgian protesters are looking to the EU for support, but they want to see this in the form of sanctions on their politicians rather than a closed door on EU accession.


For the time being, Georgian Dream has got its way. I made some comments in a previous blog about the NGO landscape in Georgia and nothing I've read since has disabused me of my previous comments. The volume of NGOs in Georgia seems unusually high and many liberal democratic governments would probably worry about their influence. Some NGOs have said that they will challenge to law in the country's constitutional court and possibly also the European Court of Human Rights. Legal challenges could be a slow process. The president, meanwhile, has called for a national referendum.


On the one hand...


I am left with a couple of questions that have not been answered to my satisfaction. Georgian Dream was formed, and came to power, in 2012; the very year Russia adopted its foreign agents law. The new party was initially very popular with the public and seemed to endorse a western path for the country, endorsing EU and NATO membership ambitions.


First of all, the claims that Bidzina Ivanishvili, the founder of the ruling Georgian Dream party, is operating in effect as Russia's agent today seem far from self–evident to me. He is a billionaire whose business dealings with Russia are well–known. At the same time, he didn't seem to want Georgia to become a Russian satrapy when he was prime minister, pushing ahead with the country's EU and NATO aspirations. Georgian Dream does not project the pro–Putin and Euroscepticism aura of populist parties like Slovakia's Smer. Moreover, it's unclear to me why Ivanishvili is seen as so influential today in his current role of 'honorary chairman' of the party. He may well be pulling the strings, but nothing I've read over recent weeks has firmly persuaded me that is the case.


I can see that the traditional conservatism of Georgian society is a concern of the protesters. Some argued to journalists covering the protests that the foreign–funded NGOs are the only support the LGBT+ community has. They see the new law as targeting these NGOs and appealing to the social conservatism of many Georgians. Whether the government really wants to trample on such communities in Georgia is beyond my knowledge, but – and this is my second unanswered question – it's hard to see how the law as described by reports stops any NGO activities in itself.


I am left thinking therefore that it remains to be seen whether the foreign agents law is as insidious as the protesters think. Will it actually be used to stifle civil society and/or political dissent? No one should deny that NGOs are an important part of the political culture in countries like Georgia and successfully engage many people in politics. Nor should anyone ignore the fact that democracy and freedoms in Georgia are fragile according to global rankings. Freedom House classified Georgia as 'partly free' in 2023 and sees room for improvement in political pluralism, electoral processes and government functioning. It reports similar shortcomings in civil liberties.


And on the other...


The question, then, is how the law will actually be used. Commentators have referred to its deliberately vague wording, implying that it grants the government flexibility in who can be targeted through its provisions. It is therefore possible that it will indeed be used to silence opponents and crush civil society. It that is the goal then, given the magnitude of Georgia's NGO landscape, it would surely become very obvious very quickly. If it is used in that way, then the 'Russia law' label is appropriate and the adoption of the law is ominous.


There do also seem to be indications that Georgian Dream is reorienting away from its western pathway. I noted that Georgian delegates attended the Iranian president's funeral recently, which raised an eyebrow given that no western officials were present. Also, last week, Georgia awarded a contract to build a deep–sea port to a Chinese–led consortium. These are not isolated details. According to study cited by RFE/RL, all major infrastructure projects announced in Georgia since 2021 have involved Chinese money. These details arguably point to a government reorienting geopolitically away from the west and increasingly sympathetic to an axis of autocracies.


The situation with the new law is clearly very far from its end. As I noted in my previous blog on this issue, there will be parliamentary elections in Georgia in October. Latest opinion polling shows that Georgians overwhelmingly want to join the EU and NATO; polling for the US National Democratic Institute in October and November 2023 found 79% in support of EU membership and 67% in support of NATO membership. Other interesting findings in the poll include that 54% of respondents thought the current government was doing 'a good job' (38% thought it was doing a bad job), with little difference according to age or gender. A significant number of Georgians (44%), however, do not think their country is a democracy today.


The coming months could be eventful if the incumbent government is pulling in a different direction from the popular will. If Georgia makes it to October without incident, that could be a fiery moment. The current generation of politically active Georgians has shown that it knows how to mobilise effectively.


The October elections may seem far off. But if Georgian Dream is moving the country closer to Russia then that, especially, is at odds with public opinion; the polling cited above found 10% of respondents supporting a 'pro–Russian' foreign policy orientation against 37% supporting an exclusively 'pro–western' path, and a further 36% opting for a pro–western orientation while maintaining good relations with Russia. What cannot be seriously doubted is the Georgian people's dreams of greater liberalism and democracy.



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Cover image: A festival in Georgia, by Genadi Yakovlev – downloaded from Pexels.com.

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