Pro-Russia Power Grab in Georgia Thwarted by Massive Street Protests

Demonstrations involving some 10,000 protestors opposed to a Russia-style "foreign agent" law took to the streets of Tbilisi, the capital of the Republic of Georgia, last week. They were met in front of the Parliament building by police who used water cannons and tear gas in an attempt to disperse the crowds. The protesters responded with rocks, and in a few isolated incidents, Molotov cocktails. In the end, the country's Russia-aligned ruling party, Georgian Dream, conceded and withdrew the proposed bill, at least for now.

It remains to be seen how long the withdrawal lasts.

This incident is merely the most recent example of the complicated, often opaque methods that pro-Russian actors employ in their attempts to retain influence abroad, especially in countries which were once part of the Soviet Union.

A Russian-style law

The bill in question was not actually proposed by the ruling Georgian Dream party, which was founded by and is still understood to be closely aligned with Bidzina Ivanishvili, a Georgian billionaire who amassed much of his fortune in Russia in the 1990s. It was put forward by an "opposition" party that shows all the hallmarks of having been created by Georgian Dream in an attempt to deflect criticism for legislation that was all but certain to be met with public outcry.

In June 2022, three members of the ruling Georgian Dream party—Dmitry Khundadze, Sozar Subari, and Mikhail Kavelashvili—announced that they were leaving the party to form a new movement called "Power of the People." They claimed to be opposition members, but their public rhetoric and political positions continued to coincide fully with Georgian Dream's open criticism of Western-style liberalism and its emphasis on "traditional values."

Stop Russia in Tbilisi
A woman holds a "Stop Russia" sign at a protest in Tbilisi, Georgia on May 8. Over 10,000 protesters took to Rustaveli Street in the Georgian capital to demonstrate their disapproval of a proposed "foreign agent" law, which threatened to curtail the activities of civil society activists. Similar legislation passed in Russia in 2012 has been used to crack down on NGOs and independent journalists. Dmitri Nazarov/NEWSWEEK

On February 14, 2023, "Power of the People" submitted a bill to the Georgian parliament concerning the "Transparency of Foreign Influence." The authors proposed to create a register of "foreign agents" in Georgia, which would include all non-profit legal entities and media outlets that receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad, or else face a fine ranging from 10,000 to 25,000 lari ($3,800-$7,600 U.S.).

"Power of the People" participants emphasized that the goal of the law was to "inform," not to restrict the activities of NGOs and media outlets. According to the authors, they wanted to ensure "transparency of foreign influence" in the country. In addition, they claimed to have used American experience, namely the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), in developing the proposed bill.

The U.S. State Department disagreed.

State Department spokesman Ned Price, said that the bill was "based on similar Russian and Hungarian laws, not on FARA or any other American law."

While the American law requires lobbyists in the pay of foreign governments to disclose their sources of funding, it does not restrict their right or ability to work on behalf of foreign interests. The Russian law, however, has been used mainly as a tool of domestic repression, leading to editorially independent outlets, including "Voice of America," being labeled as "foreign agents." The list also includes indigenous Russian civil society groups like the "Soldiers' Mothers of Saint Petersburg," who organized in opposition to Russia's 2014 invasion of eastern Ukraine.

When the proposed bill was announced, the European Union quickly issued a formal statement declaring that passage of the foreign agent law would be a serious impediment to Georgia's stated goal of gaining EU membership.

"The law in its current form risks having a chilling effect on civil society and media organizations, with negative consequences for the many Georgians benefiting from their work," Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, said in a statement released on March 7. "This law is incompatible with EU values and standards. Its final adoption may have serious repercussions on our relations."

The "Georgian Dream" is not a European Dream

Although the pursuit of both EU and NATO membership are enshrined in the Georgian constitution as aims which the government in Tbilisi is obligated to follow, the ruling Georgian Dream party is widely suspected of taking actions that would impede Georgia's accession to both institutions.

"When Georgia applied for candidate status in the EU, unfortunately, our authorities did everything to prevent this application from going any further because they did not actually want to submit it," Salome Samadashvili, the Political Secretary of the opposition Lelo Party, told Newsweek.

European Flag Tbilisi
A woman holds a European Union flag as part of a protest held in front of the parliament building in Tbilisi, Georgia on March 8, 2023. Approximately 80% of Georgian citizens support a path to EU integration. Proposed laws such as the "foreign agent" bill put forward by parliamentary allies of the ruling Georgian Dream party have threatened to undermine Georgia's potential candidacy status in the Western bloc. Dmitri Nazarov/NEWSWEEK

Rather than openly pursuing pro-Russian initiatives, Georgian Dream has instead used the cover of legality, as it did regarding the "foreign agent" law, to implement policies which would delay or derail the country's westward movement.

Newsweek reached out to the Georgian Dream party for comment, but did not receive a response.

"More than 80% of Georgians want to go to Europe, join NATO, and be part of the West," Samadashvili explained. "Politicians who openly support Russia get no more than two to three percent of the vote here. People here are very clearly anti-Russian. Therefore, it disguised itself, and unfortunately, many people were deceived."

"I think they have clear instructions not to get [European Union] candidate status because that is not in Russia's interests," she added. "Russia wants the 'Georgian Dream' to remain in power, already with an openly anti-European position."

The Growth of the Protest Movement

On February 28, a total of 63 Georgian media outlets issued a joint statement refusing to register as foreign agents should the draft bill actually be signed into law.

The Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum, a group of Georgian NGOs, described the law as "anti-democratic, unconstitutional, discriminatory against civil society organizations and media," and expressed concern that the debate over the bill would damage Georgia's European aspirations.

Tear Gas Tbilisi
A protester sits on a bench with bandages covering his eyes near the parliament building in the center of Tbilisi, Georgia on the evening of March 7, 2023. Security services forces used teargas in an attempt to disperse the crowds, which were demanding that a Russian-style "foreign agent" bill under review in parliament be rejected. After the initial protests were met with water cannons and tear gas fired by riot police, the number of demonstrators on the street increased. Dmitri Nazarov/NEWSWEEK

The discussion of the bill in parliament on March 2 was met with resistance from inside the chamber itself, as opposition lawmakers used parliamentary procedures in order to prevent the debate from proceeding. A scuffle broke out in the chamber between supporters and opponents of the law.

That evening, a demonstration was held in Tbilisi, with civil society activists and opposition figures blocking the entrances to the building where parliament was meeting, and chanting slogans including "No to the Russian law!"

Some protesters were briefly detained by police, and there were clashes between demonstrators and law enforcement personnel as protesters attempted to block a police vehicle carrying away one of those detained, one of 36 in total.

Georgia's President Salome Zurabishvili, a political independent who was elected to her post in 2018, has stated that she strongly opposes the "foreign agents" law, which she believes is "designed to distance Georgia from Europe."

"I will not discuss this law," she said. "I will veto it."

However, such a step would have minimal effect in Georgia's parliamentary system of government, as parliament has the right to override the veto of the president.

Still, on March 2, the president reminded the proposed law's supporters that Georgia's aims of accession to the European Union and NATO were enshrined in the country's constitution.

"The supreme law of the country requires constitutional bodies to take all necessary measures to ensure Georgia's full integration into the European Union," Zurabishvili said. "Full integration into the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is a goal proclaimed by the Constitution of Georgia."

On March 6, the Legal Affairs Committee of the Georgian parliament met again to continue the consideration of two draft laws, one modeled on Russia's "foreign agent" legislation, and the other bearing a closer approximation to the U.S. FARA law. Civil activists, media representatives, and NGOs took to the streets again to protest outside the parliament building in Tbilisi.

Several hours later, it was revealed that the Legal Committee had supported both draft laws—the "Russian" and the "American" versions—on the first reading. However, due to the noise from the protesters, the parliamentarians were unable to discuss the legal issues in the legislative chamber, and they postponed the session until 10 a.m. on March 7.

On Tuesday, March 7, after the end of the legal session, Mamuka Mdinaradze, a member of Georgian Dream, suggested that rather than putting off further discussion until March 9, as had previously been planned, parliament should take up the issue later that evening.

"On Monday, they announced that the reading would be on Thursday, and on Tuesday they suddenly added it to the agenda, thinking that people would not have time to gather," said Samadashvili, the Lelo Party Secretary.

"But we, the opposition, were able to prolong the discussion in parliament until the evening to buy time and call on people to come to parliament," she added. "And by the time of the vote in the evening, there were already a lot of people there."

Despite the efforts of Samadashvili and the protesters, at approximately 8 p.m. the parliament approved the draft law "On Transparency of Foreign Influence."

People power triumphs, at least for now

The morning of March 8, International Women's Day, started off with a bang as a column of approximately 2,000 women marched down the main avenue towards Parliament, carrying the flags both of Georgia and of the European Union.

The protest on March 8 in the center of Tbilisi grew into the largest demonstration to date, with protesters attempting to storm the parliament building, throwing stones and bottles at police and attempting to build barricades. In response, special riot police used water cannons and tear gas against the protesters. Following the crackdown on the protests, the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs reported that 133 people had been arrested for "minor hooliganism" and for "disobeying the police."

On the morning of March 9, "Georgian Dream," along with its allies in the Georgian parliamentary majority, formally withdrew the draft law, "On the Transparency of Foreign Influence."

"We see that the adopted draft law has caused disagreements in society," the parties announced in a joint statement. "The machine of lies was able to present the draft law in a negative light and mislead a certain part of the society. The draft law was falsely labeled as a 'Russian law,' and its adoption in the first reading was presented to part of the public as a departure from the European course. In addition, radical forces were able to involve some young people in illegal activities."

Tbilisi Putin Khuilo
Protesters on Rustaveli Avenue in Tbilisi, Georgia on March 8, 2023 hold signs bearing anti-Putin slogans. The phrase "Putin khuilo," which translates to "Putin is a d******d," first gained popularity during Ukraine's Revolution of Dignity in 2014. Protesters in the Republic of Georgia, likewise, are taking to the streets in opposition to what they see as Russian influence in their domestic affairs. Dmitri Nazarov/NEWSWEEK

During the parliamentary session of March 9, the chairman of the Georgian Dream party, Irakli Kobakhidze, thanked all those who voted for the draft law on "foreign agents" in the first reading and referred to non-governmental organizations as "foreign agents," who, in his retelling, had demanded the resignation of the government, declared the elections to be rigged, did not respect the church, engaged in "LGBT propaganda" and committed "provocations on the borders."

Civil society activists in Georgia see a long fight ahead

"The game has only just begun," Nina Nakashidze, Deputy Director General of Mtavari TV, a local channel, told Newsweek.

"We were able to make the government take a step back," she explained. "But I think that we cannot stop here. We must demand that the government fulfill the 12 points that EU has set for candidate status. If we lose this opportunity now, it will be a big mistake."

Opposition politicians also see a historic opportunity to set Georgia on an irreversible course towards Western integration.

"I think it will not be easy to fight," Lelo representative Samadoshvili said. "We are actually fighting against Russia, but we are confident that the Georgian people will win."

Despite the opposition's determination to battle on, Georgian Dream shows no sign that it is prepared to surrender. In an official statement released on March 9, the party laid out its future plans: "As the emotional background subsides, we will better explain to the public what the bill was for and why it was important to ensure transparency of foreign influence in our country. To do this, we will start meetings with the population and let the general public know the truth about each and every detail of the matter."

The party has not yet clarified what that process will look like. On the morning of March 14, crowds of conservative activists from the "Alt-Info" movement took to the streets chanting anti-European and anti-LGBT slogans.

Despite its recent victory, the battle over Russian influence in Georgia appears far from over.