Protests Ignite in Another of Russia's Neighbors

  • Protests erupted Tuesday in Georgia's capital against a proposed foreign agent law, which critics fear will undermine the country's Euro-Atlantic integration ambitions and open the door to greater Russian influence.
  • Thousands of protesters faced off against riot police in Tbilisi, with 66 people arrested, after the law passed its first reading in parliament.
  • The U.S. and EU have expressed concerns over the law, warning it will undermine Georgia's Western geopolitical ambitions.

Thousands of demonstrators faced off against riot police in the Georgian capital Tbilisi overnight on Tuesday. They were protesting against a proposed law that would require any organization receiving more than 20 percent of its funding from abroad to register as a "foreign agent."

Demonstrators bore Georgian, Ukrainian, NATO and EU flags and chanted "Down with the Russian law" as they marched through the streets, pelting security forces with stones and Molotov cocktails. Police responded with water cannon and tear gas.

The law echoes similar legislation passed in Russia and other post-Soviet states, prompting concerns that Moscow is deepening its influence in Georgia, which has emerged as a key battleground in the Kremlin's escalating conflict with the Western NATO-European Union bloc.

Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili explicitly pointed to Russia in comments made during her ongoing visit to the U.S.

Georgian protesters vs water cannon Tblisi EU
Protesters brandishing a European Union flag are sprayed by a water canon during clashes with riot police near the Georgian parliament in Tbilisi on March 7, 2023. Major protests erupted in Georgia's capital on Tuesday, as demonstrators raged against a proposed law that would require any organization receiving more than 20 percent of its funding from abroad to register as a "foreign agent." -/AFP via Getty Images

"This law—which no one needed—does not come out of nowhere," she said. "It is something dictated by Moscow…The Georgia that sees its future in Europe will not allow anyone to take away this future."

Newsweek has contacted the Russian Foreign Ministry by email to request comment.

Zourabichvili said she intends to veto the law, which has now passed its first reading in parliament. The body, which is dominated by the ruling Georgian Dream party in coalition with the smaller People's Power party, approved the first reading of the bill this week. Parliament can overrule any presidential veto, and only 13 lawmakers voted against the bill.

The Georgian Interior Ministry said in a press release Wednesday morning that 66 people had been arrested during Tuesday night's disturbances. The ministry accused protesters of trying to block access to parliament and setting fire to the legislative building. Police vehicles were also set alight, the press release said, with around 50 officers injured, several of whom required surgery.

Advocates of Georgia's pivot to the West fear the bill may undermine the country's chances of closer ties with the EU and NATO. Georgia applied for EU membership in March 2022 shortly after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine began. Georgia has also long collaborated with NATO and sought membership. Thus far this has been denied for fear of provoking a Russian response.

Georgia, like Ukraine and Moldova, has open territorial disputes with Moscow. Russian forces have been occupying the breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia—constituting around 20 percent of Georgia's territory—since Moscow's victory in the 2008 Russo-Georgian War.

The Tbilisi protests bear a striking resemblance to the 2013 demonstrations in Ukraine that eventually culminated in the 2014 Maidan Revolution, in which pro-Western activists forced Kremlin-aligned President Viktor Yanukovych from office after he sought closer ties to Russia at the cost of EU collaboration.

The unrest in Georgia comes on the heels of instability in Moldova, where some 1,500 Russian troops occupy the breakaway region of Transnistria along Ukraine's western border. Chisinau has accused Moscow of plotting to topple the Moldovan government—which is also seeking EU membership—and install a puppet regime.

The EU on Tuesday warned that the proposed foreign agents law would be "incompatible with EU values and standards" and could have "serious repercussions on our relations."

State Department spokesperson Ned Price, meanwhile, said the U.S. is "closely following developments in Georgia," expressing "deep concern" over the draft law, which he said "would strike at some of the very rights that are central to the aspirations of the people of Georgia for a consolidated democracy, for Euro-Atlantic integration, and for a brighter future."

"We see a draft piece of legislation that would be a tremendous setback," he added. "This would be a setback to the aspirations of the people of Georgia; it would be a setback to the ability of the United States to continue to be a partner for the people of Georgia.

Georgia protesters in Tbilisi protests NATO EU
Protesters wave Georgian, Ukrainian and NATO flags in the Georgian capital Tbilisi on March 7, 2023. -/AFP via Getty Images

"Anyone who is voting for this draft legislation would be responsible in part for jeopardizing those very Euro-Atlantic aspirations of the Georgian people. We don't wish to see that happen."

Polls suggest that the majority of Georgians desire closer ties with the West. A survey in August 2022 found that 47 percent of respondents wanted national foreign policy to be "pro-Western," while 31 percent wanted a policy that was "pro-Western with good relations with Russia." Only 2 percent wanted a "pro-Russian" foreign policy. Seventy-five percent of those surveyed also said they supported Georgia' EU ambitions.

But the picture is more complicated among political elites, who since independence in 1991 have retained strong political and financial links with Moscow. Georgian billionaire, former prime minister, and Georgian Dream founder Bidzina Ivanishvili, for example, is still considered to be the key decision maker in the country.

Ivanishvili made his fortune in Russia during the post-Soviet privatization era and has long sought to normalize ties with Moscow in stark contrast to pro-Western former President Mikheil Saakashvili, who is being detained by Georgian authorities on abuse of power charges he says are politically motivated.

Asked specifically about Ivanishvili, Price told reporters that while the U.S. government does not preview sanctions against individuals, "we will look at closely in this context, as we do in any context, to hold to account those who may run afoul of what the Georgian people want and, most importantly, what the Georgian people expect and deserve in terms of their universal rights."

Shota Gvineria, a non-resident fellow at the Economic Policy Research Center, told an Atlantic Council webinar on Wednesday that Georgia's government "has been gradually moving from pretending to be a pro-Western power, and having that huge gap between the narrative and the policy, to now being an openly pro-Russian, anti-Western power."

"Ukraine was a litmus test for them in this," Gvineria said, noting Tbilisi's failure to back Kyiv. "Everything they say and everything they do is a clear demonstration that these people are in the Russian orbit, they are not intending—or even willing—to bring this country closer to the West."

08:30 a.m. ET: This article has been updated to include comment from Shota Gvineria.