Picture credit: Mirian Meladze/Anadolu via Getty Images
Artillery Row

Is Georgia approaching its Euromaidan?

New attempts to curb the activities of NGOs have stirred pro-EU feeling

The streets of Tbilisi are no stranger to protests, but in the last month, the Georgian capital has borne witness to a series of violent clashes between protestors and riot police, over the proposed introduction of a piece of legislation known as the “foreign influence” bill. The bill itself — a version of which was originally tabled in March of last year but quashed following protests — stipulates that NGOs and media companies that draw more than 20 per cent of their funding from abroad must register themselves as “Pursuing the Interests of a Foreign Power.”

The third and final vote on the bill took place on the 14th of May, and it has now been formally adopted by the Georgian Parliament. Georgia’s President, Salome Zourabichvili, has promised to veto the law, but her veto can – and likely will – be overturned by parliament.

Those protesting against the law are worried it’s a sign of the Georgian Government moving back into the Russian sphere of influence, and away from closer ties with the EU, membership of which a strong majority of Georgians are in favour. Many carry placards simply saying “No to Russia, yes to Europe”, and EU flags. Critics of the legislation claim that this law is reminiscent of the Foreign Agent Law introduced by Russia in 2012, because it will limit the operational ability of NGOs and media companies by subjecting them to vexatious levels of bureaucracy, thereby reducing governmental accountability and media oversight in Georgia.

Meanwhile, Georgia’s ruling party — Georgian Dream — maintains it is pro-European, and that the foreign influence bill’s purpose is to combat “radicalism and polarization” and the “spreading of pseudo-liberal ideology”. Georgia’s Prime Minister – Irakli Kobakhidze – issued a statement going so far as to argue the law would make Georgia more European:

To me, transparency is European, and non-transparency is un-European. It is extremely un-European to avoid the minimum standard of transparency and not even want to publish the annual financial statement. At times like that, it’s obvious that you’re ruining something and that you have something to hide.

More recently, the speaker of Georgia’s parliament announced that the government will establish a database to record information on individuals who “are involved in violence, blackmail, threats and other illegal acts” and those “who publicly endorse these actions.” 

To outsiders, it’s a perplexing situation. In their rhetoric, Georgian Dream is steering the country towards membership of the EU and NATO. While in reality, they are introducing a law that will compromise their relationship both with the EU and with the Georgian people. “What you have to understand is that this law is unconstitutional,” Said Katie Shoshiashvili, a Senior Researcher at Transparency International, Georgia. “There is an article in the Georgian Constitution which requires the government to take all measures to integrate Georgia into the EU and NATO.” Why then would Georgian Dream alienate Georgia’s vehemently pro-European electorate by forcing through legislation which has been met with disgust both by Brussels and by most Georgians?

Georgian Dream’s precise reasoning for re-tabling this law remains a source of conjecture. Much of the speculation revolves around Georgian Dream’s founder, Bidzina Ivanishvili, an oligarch reported to have historic financial ties to the Kremlin.

One theory posits that Ivanishvili may have personal financial interests in souring Georgia’s relationship with the EU by introducing the foreign influence law. Here, there are two contexts to consider. The first is that Ivanishvili is likely worried about his vast overseas wealth being placed under the EU sanctions regime

Sources acquired by Byline Times allege that Ivanishvili is attempting to move his vast wealth back to Georgia, presumably to insulate his funds from the effects of impending sanctions, which have very recently been requested against him by a Resolution of the European Parliament. Helpfully, the Georgian Government has recently amended its tax code, which would exempt Ivanishvili’s funds from taxation upon their return.

The second context is that Georgia’s prospects of EU membership are dependent on several specified conditions, one of which is that Georgia must “de-oligarchize”. In other words, men like Ivanishvili would have to relinquish their power and influence in exchange for Georgia’s membership of the EU. It’s not difficult to see why Georgian Dream’s founder might see EU membership as inimical to his interests.

If this theory is correct, Georgian Dream’s foreign influence legislation may have less to do with Georgia entering the cold embrace of Vladimir Putin than with keeping Georgia in a kind of holding pattern. What Ivanishvili has at present is an ideal situation: he is neither beholden to the EU, nor to the Kremlin. Passing the foreign influence bill will protect him not only from the EU, but also from scrutiny by NGOs who might investigate his financial dealings.

Picture credit: Mirian Meladze/Anadolu via Getty Images

Another concurrent theory is that Georgian Dream was never a pro-EU party in the first place, and that the law’s true purpose is to shut down independent media so the government can begin the gradual process of convincing Georgians to give up on their hope for EU membership. This, at any rate, was the view of Kornely Kakachia, Professor of Political Science at Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University. “Not even small children here believe Georgian Dream are serious about bringing Georgia into the EU,” he remarked. “I think Ivanishvili believes Russia is likely to win in Ukraine, and that he wants to move Georgia into the new geopolitical order dominated by authoritarianism and global actors like Russia and China.” 

Regardless of the motivation behind the foreign influence law, it’s clear the protests against it are escalating. Drone footage shows what looks like thousands of people assembled on Rustaveli Avenue in central Tbilisi. The police, meanwhile, are resorting to water cannons, tear gas and — reportedly — rubber bullets. 

The nature and vigour of these protests has prompted many to compare them with the Euromaidan

The nature and vigour of these protests has prompted many to compare them with the Euromaidan — a 2014 mass protest movement in Ukraine, which resulted in the deposition of Ukraine’s pro-Russian President, Viktor Yanukovych. 

On the face of it, there are obvious similarities. Euromaidan happened because Yanukovych deceived the electorate: he reneged on his promise to make a trade deal with the EU, and instead sought closer union with the Russian Federation. Much like Yanukovych, Georgian Dream is walking a tightrope. They are trying to balance public desire for EU membership against their own long-term agenda, which appears to be more or less identical to Russia’s.

Recently, certain other similarities have emerged regarding the protests themselves. During Euromaidan, groups of men in civilian clothing arrived at the demonstrations to beat protestors. These men were reportedly paid by the SBU to act as provocateurs, and to create an atmosphere of fear among those protesting. These regime-backed thugs would later become known as the Titushky – in homage to the sportsman and hooligan Vadym Titushko, who was found guilty of attacking journalists. (Titushko later claimed to support the pro-European protests after all.)

There are reports that similar groups of thugs have been attacking protestors in Tbilisi. Still more concerningly, it appears that these attacks are targeting specific individuals near their homes. So far, the victims include the opposition politician Dimitri Chikovani, the activist Lasha Ghvinianidze, and the former academic and diplomat Gia Japaridze. This is a tactic designed to silence political dissent, and to intimidate protestors at large, and it’s one drawn from the Kremlin playbook.

The lack of a coherent, unified political opposition would be a serious obstacle to Georgian Dream being removed from power

Despite the apparent parallels with Euromaidan, there are several important respects in which the present situation in Georgia differs from Ukraine in 2014. Over the past decade, the political opposition in Georgia has become scattered and weakened by factionalism. Polling shows that a majority of Georgians are politically homeless, and feel that none of the major political parties adequately reflect their interests. The lack of a coherent, unified political opposition would be a serious obstacle to Georgian Dream being removed from power.

There are also other geopolitical realities to contend with. Russia currently occupies approximately twenty-percent of Georgia’s territory, in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and Georgia represents a strategically decisive area for Russia. Several BP oil and gas pipelines run through Georgia, carrying crude oil extracted in Azerbaijan across to Turkish ports on the Mediterranean. Control of these pipelines would strengthen Russia’s already considerable hold on the European energy markets. Although it might seem unwise for Russia to open up a second front while still engaged in Ukraine, an invasion cannot be ruled out. The removal of Georgian Dream from power may well accelerate this process.

Regardless of the path Georgia takes in the near future, history demonstrates that removing an unsatisfactory government is merely the first and often the easiest step in regime change. The real difficulties begin later, when someone has to come up with a coherent plan as to what to do next. Even if some sort of popular uprising were to take place in Georgia, there’s no guarantee that a viable alternative government would emerge in time, just as there’s no telling what the Russian response to this might be. While a Euromaidan-esque revolt against Georgian Dream is a possibility, it’s equally plausible that Georgia may take the same course as Belarus did in 2021, the authoritarian government of which simply tightened its grip until the protests stopped. 

“The protests are likely to continue long-term,” said Katie Shoshiashvili, “but the next election will prove decisive.” As for the international community’s role, she emphasised the importance of swift, sustained support for the Georgian people’s right for their European future. “It is time for the West to show unequivocal support to the Georgian People in their national struggle against pivoting towards the Russian axis.”

The only thing that can be said with certainty is that Georgians see EU membership as part of their national destiny. Their government — for reasons that are its own — doesn’t. It seems highly unlikely that ordinary Georgians will simply abandon their aspirations for EU membership, so unless the government backs down, push may eventually come to shove.

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