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Russia Is Furious at Georgia’s Protesters

Moscow issues ominous threats as Georgians fight for their imperiled democracy.

By , the senior vice president for democracy at the German Marshall Fund.
Protesters raise a European Union flag as they are sprayed by a water cannon during clashes with police near the Georgian parliament building in Tbilisi on March 7.
Protesters raise a European Union flag as they are sprayed by a water cannon during clashes with police near the Georgian parliament building in Tbilisi on March 7.
Protesters raise a European Union flag as they are sprayed by a water cannon during clashes with police near the Georgian parliament building in Tbilisi on March 7. -/AFP via Getty Images

Last week, the Georgian parliament, led by the Georgian Dream (GD) party, advanced new legislation that would label civil society and media organizations that receive at least 20 percent of their funding from foreign entities as foreign agents. In addition to the stigma of such a label, the government would be able to conduct investigations, access personal data, demand detailed reporting, and levy restrictions, fines, and prison sentences on media and civic groups deemed to be non-compliant. The legislation closely resembles the Russian Foreign Agents Act, which the European Court of Human Rights found violated freedom of association and assembly and effectively handicapped the country’s civil sector.

Last week, the Georgian parliament, led by the Georgian Dream (GD) party, advanced new legislation that would label civil society and media organizations that receive at least 20 percent of their funding from foreign entities as foreign agents. In addition to the stigma of such a label, the government would be able to conduct investigations, access personal data, demand detailed reporting, and levy restrictions, fines, and prison sentences on media and civic groups deemed to be non-compliant. The legislation closely resembles the Russian Foreign Agents Act, which the European Court of Human Rights found violated freedom of association and assembly and effectively handicapped the country’s civil sector.

Understanding the new law for what it was—an attack on democracy and act of repression—tens of thousands of Georgian citizens took to the street in Tbilisi, the capital, and other cities to peacefully protest. Security forces assaulted them and arrested participants. It was a familiar chapter from the autocrat’s playbook.

The public outrage worked, for now. Two days after the law passed its first hearing in parliament, the government withdrew it—at least temporarily—and has since released the arrested protesters.

The reversal has sparked outrage in Moscow, which has been trying to return Georgia to the Kremlin’s orbit. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called the protests an “attempt to change the government by force” that looked “very much like the Kyiv Maidan.” Lavrov said the demonstrations were being “orchestrated” from abroad, with the aim of creating “irritants on Russia’s borders.” Some of the Russian propaganda social media accounts tracked by the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy issued ominous threats. The popular MFA in Crimea account, for example, warned Georgians to “recall a similar situation in Ukraine in 2014 and what it finally led to!” State propagandist and RT Editor in Chief Margarita Simonyan went on television to call for a rocket strike on Tbilisi.

In Tbilisi, the Georgian government clearly considers the protesters’ victory only a temporary setback—and has doubled down on its war against Georgian civil society. GD leaders echoed the Kremlin’s narrative that the protests were an attempted coup instigated from abroad. On March 12, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili called the protesters “destructive anarchists” dressed in “Satan’s clothes” and accused the West of a supposed coup attempt designed to drag Georgia into a “second front” in the Russia-Ukraine war. GD Chair Irakli Kobakhidze said the protests were a “liberal fascist campaign” driven by “LGBT propaganda.” This is not the language of a government giving up on its goal of crushing civil society. It is likely that the government has only paused before it will try to ram the law through parliament again.

The reversal has sparked outrage in Moscow, which has been trying to return Georgia to the Kremlin’s orbit.

Georgia was once the West’s democratic darling in the Caucasus region, but the country’s democracy has been deteriorating for years. A key source of this decline is the shadow rule of former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, once a Russian oligarch who continues to control key levers of power within GD. The party has consolidated its grip over state institutions, including the civil service, security forces, and police, and chipped away at various facets of democratic governance, including judiciary independence, the election process, and parliamentary oversight. Mikhail Saakashvili, the former president who set Georgia on its Western, pro-European course, is languishing in a prison hospital. The final check remaining on the government is the country’s vibrant and critical civil sector. Hence the new law.

In my experience, the introduction of a non-governmental organization (NGO) or media law usually provokes the last gasp of a dying democracy. When I lived in Cambodia in the 2010s, the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen already had a stranglehold over all facets of government and business. But an active civil society sector served as a critical watchdog and irritant. It was partially financed by development aid. The government tolerated this for years before finally moving to crush this last threat to its power by passing an NGO law similar to the proposed Georgian one. The law ended any pretext of democracy. Brave democrats there fight on, some from inside prison.

The Georgian government has repeatedly—and incorrectly—claimed that the legislation is modeled after the United States’ Foreign Agents Registration Act, a talking point also used by the Kremlin when it describes the Georgian law. The U.S. law requires lobbyists for foreign governments to register, but it does not label civil society groups or media as foreign agents. It takes no more than a cursory review to note that countries that already have legislation similar to Georgia’s and Russia’s—including China, Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia, and Bangladesh—are not exactly beacons of freedom.

Russia has been thrilled about Georgia’s democratic decline, which could sabotage the country’s aspirations to join Euro-Atlantic institutions such as the European Union and NATO. To Moscow’s delight, GD leaders have hurled insults at EU parliamentarians, U.S. diplomats, and NATO leaders; criticized reforms required to qualify for EU membership; abandoned agreements made with European negotiators; and accused the West, particularly the United States, of trying to drag Georgia into the Russo-Ukrainian war. Rather than expressing allegiance and solidarity with Ukraine, as previous Georgian governments have done, the current leadership has adopted a frosty stance towards Ukraine and neutral position in the war. Georgia has also served as a major conduit for Russia to evade Western embargos on technology and other goods.

Georgian civil society may have pulled the brake on GD’s anti-NGO bill, but the Georgian government has shown no indication of leaving its current track. Implementing democratic reforms required for EU membership, including a de-oligarchization provision, would threaten Ivanishvili and GD’s power. With the NGO law on ice for now, GD is already doubling down on its campaign against Georgia’s democrats, accusing them of being threats to Georgian culture and Christian religion—a typical appeal to illiberal grievances that has been such a successful tactic for strongmen like Hungarian President Viktor Orban. These are also the same themes Russian propaganda has been peddling in Georgia for years, helping support not only GD’s authoritarian course but also far-right movements such as Alt-Info, Georgian March, and the Union of Orthodox Parents.

The protests have shown that an angry citizenry is clearly not afraid to fight for Georgia’s democracy. But this is not only a domestic struggle. Russian imperialist ambitions are expansive, and the Kremlin will continue its influence operations to ensure Georgia stays on a track away from democracy and the West. U.S. and European leaders, in turn, should raise the pressure on the GD government to implement reforms and, at the same time, find ways to support and encourage Georgia’s civil society, including independent media and democratic activists. Ultimately, however, responsibility will lie with Georgian voters, whose next chance to reject their anti-democratic government comes in the 2024 parliamentary elections. Georgians have changed the path of their country before, and can do so again.

Laura Thornton is the senior vice president for democracy at the German Marshall Fund. Twitter: @LauraLThornton

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