‘No to Russian law!’ Protesters in Georgia demand a ‘European future’ | Protest news

Tbilisi, Georgia – Crowds of demonstrators have been braving tear gas and plastic bullets for more than two weeks in protest against the Georgian government’s anti-civil society law.

The new law requires non-profit organizations (NGOs and media outlets) that receive more than 20 percent of their funding from abroad to register as “organizations pursuing the interests of foreign influence,” with stiff penalties of up to $9,000 for not -compliance.

Mass demonstrations last year forced the government to withdraw a similar bill. This second attempt has energized thousands of young people, from schoolchildren to university students, creating a wave of discontent.

They believe that their government has fallen under the influence of the Kremlin and is sabotaging their dreams of being part of Europe. Each evening the meetings started with the Georgian national anthem and the EU’s Ode to Joy.

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

“No to Russian law!” says Nutsa, 17. She holds up a sign that reads: “North neighbor, we have nothing in common with you.”

That northern neighbor is Russia, where Vladimir Putin’s 2012 foreign agent law has eliminated dissent. In 2022, he expanded it so that anyone receiving aid from outside Russia must register and declare themselves as a foreign agent.

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

The EU disagrees that the law resembles Western transparency rules, such as the planned directives from the EU and France and the US Foreign Agents Registration Act.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen warned on May 1 that Georgia was “at a crossroads”.

Washington is alarmed. Since the 1990s, the country has provided nearly $6 billion in aid to Georgia. U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Robin Dunnigan said in a statement on May 2 that the U.S. government had invited Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze to high-level talks “with the highest leadership.”

According to the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, that invitation was rejected later that day. Instead, Kobakhidze accused the US of supporting “revolutionary attempts” by non-governmental organizations operating in the country, such as the EU-funded organizations Transparency International Georgia and ISFED, which often draw attention to corruption and abuse of power in the government.

The government may fear that these organizations could influence the outcome of the general elections in October, in which the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party hopes to win a majority.

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

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

“Ivanishvili and GD leaders believe that Russia is winning in Ukraine and he is only thinking about how to be friendly with Russia, to find its place in this geopolitical new order,” Kakachia said.

In conjunction with the foreign financing law, GD has pledged to restrict LGBT rights and passed changes to the tax code that will make it easier to bank money from abroad in Georgia.

“That is an attempt to seduce Putin and the Kremlin into giving them a new model of Georgia, which will be a kind of offshore zone for Russian oligarchs,” Kakachia said.

Protesters in Georgia
Protesters opposing a new law on ‘foreign influence’ clash with police in Tbilisi, Georgia (Stephan Goss/Al Jazeera)

Hired Thugs and ‘Robocops’

The nightly protests of the past two weeks have led to the largest turnout in the eleven years of the GD government.

On Thursday, demonstrators blocked a major intersection known as Heroes Square. But a group of unknown men in civilian clothes appeared and started beating people.

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

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

“The feeling is that Ivanishvili has gone too far this time and people have to fight. Relatively small-scale violent repressions take place almost every day, but so far the wave of protest has not subsided.”

The protests have been mostly peaceful, although some demonstrators have tried to force their way into parliament, where lawmakers have been debating inside.

Defiant men and women wave EU and Georgian flags in front of units of black, armored riot police called ‘Robocops’, who are armed with batons, clubs and shields.

Video footage was recorded of other masked police officers without identification badges detaining demonstrators by their hair, kicking them and dragging demonstrators away.

Hardware stores have been cleared of face masks. Pepper spray and tear gas quickly incapacitate people without protection; their eyes and noses flood with chemicals, many of them gag or struggle to breathe.

The country is highly polarized. Mikheil Saakashvili, whose reforms contributed much to Georgia’s modernization after the 2004 ‘Rose Revolution’, is serving a six-year prison sentence. He was found guilty of “abuse of power” and organizing an attack on an opposition lawmaker. His party, the United National Movement (UNM), is the most powerful party in the opposition, but is deeply unpopular due to its own record since coming into office in the second half of the 2000s.

Georgia protests
Protests have rocked Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, over the past two weeks (Stephan Goss/Al Jazeera)

‘A backsliding in democracy’?

Many of the current protesters identify neither with the UNM nor with any other political party in the opposition.

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

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

In power, the GD has taken credit for gaining the right for Georgian citizens to travel to Schengen countries within the EU without a visa. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the country submitted its application for EU candidacy.

However, EU leaders are starting to doubt whether the country is a serious partner. They have called on the Georgian government to implement reforms aimed at preventing any takeover of the state by oligarchs.

But that is unacceptable for Bidzina Ivanishvili. On April 29, he addressed tens of thousands of people who, according to the confession of a GD leader, had flown in from other parts of the country to attend a counter-protest.

It proved that the government can have large numbers of supporters when it wants, although the tired-looking attendees showed little energy or enthusiasm to be there.

In his speech, read from an autocue, Ivanishvili outlined his government’s new narrative: that a global power led by the West has tried to strip Georgia of its autonomy and lure the country into a new war with Russia.

“NGOs’ funding, which they often begrudge us and regard as aid, is used almost exclusively to strengthen the agents and put them in power,” he said. “Their sole purpose is to deprive Georgia of its state sovereignty.”

‘Slave Law’

One evening during the protests this week, prints of Ivanishvili’s likeness with the word “Russian” on his forehead were scattered across a park near the parliament building in Tbilisi.

As protesters make their way to an outdoor rally, they scrape and tear at the paper under their feet. Motorcyclists roar through the streets and the crowds cheer and chant “Sakartvelo!” (“Georgia!”).

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

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

It appears that the GD will pass its foreign agents law at a third reading on May 17, and it remains unclear whether the government or its opponents are willing to risk a dramatic confrontation on the streets.

But if previously divided opposition parties find a way to unite now, it could make victory in October’s elections more difficult for the government. The summer heat came early to Tbilisi. And this will only increase as the election countdown continues.