Two days of mass protest have forced the ruling Georgian Dream party to back down and withdraw a “foreign agents” bill. Had the parliament passed the bill, organisations receiving more than 20% of their funding from abroad would have been required to register as “foreign agents” with the government.
Critics of the bill compared it to laws passed by Russia more than a decade decade ago, which have since been used to clamp down on political dissent and muzzle independent media.
How did Georgia get to this point? Following the Rose Revolution in 2003, high hopes for reform and democatic development were placed on Geogria when now-jailed former president Mikheil Saakashvili was at the helm of state. But the country has backtracked since then after oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, a man whose wealth is equal to Georgia’s entire foreign direct investment (FDI) in any given year, returned home and captured the country’s politics.
In what now looks like a repeat of the Orange Revolution's Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s narrow defeat by old school Viktor Yanukovych in 2010, who established a kleptocratic regime that ended in the 2014 Maidan revolution, Saakashvili was also voted out of office by an oligarch.
Saakashvili lost the elections to Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream in 2012 and shortly after fled the country. He was later charged with abuse of office.
Eventually returning to Georgia in 2021 by slipping across the border ahead of another election, Saakashvili was quickly arrested and jailed. Thousands of protesters briefly rallied in his support in October that year, but if he was hoping to spark another Maidan, those hopes quickly faded and now there are increasing concerns over his deteriorating health. Authorities in Tbilisi have refused to release him for medical treatment in the West.
Georgian Dream has been in solid control since then, improving its grip on power during nationwide elections in 2020. While Ivanishvili is not openly pro-Russian, he is clearly sympathetic to the country that made him a billionaire. Some 85% of people, on the other hand, support the European-Transatlantic direction introduced by Saakashvili, according to polls cited by the opposition.
Ivanishvili said in January 2021 that he was quitting politics, few believe this to be true and he is widely seen as continuing to be the eminence grise behind Georgian Dream’s grip on power.
The Georgian Dream government perceives the country's civil society sector and independent media, some of which receive funding from the West and are critical of the government, as a significant threat to their power and seeks to undermine them.
But the foreign agents law is a blunt instrument to achieve that aim, and it risked Georgia's chance of joining the EU. The backsliding the country has already seen since Ivanishvili’s arrival on the scene has already badly tarnished its reputation in the West. When Moldova and Ukraine were both offered membership of the EU last year, the absence of Georgia's invite was a glaring omission.
Georgia's government probably thought that the geopolitical moment was ripe for clamping down on civil society thanks to the rest of Europe’s distraction with the war in Ukraine, which is more geopolitically important for Europe than the smaller and more distant Georgia. As bne IntelliNews argued in a recent op-ed, geographical proximity is important in diplomacy.
Moreover, Brussels has a long history of doing little more than expressing “deep concern” when one of its allies does something distasteful. The EU is prone to overlooking these aberrations if its bigger goal of weakening Russia’s hold over Former Soviet Union (FSU) countries is achieved.
And Georgian Dream was under pressure from the country’s NGOs. As bne IntelliNews has argued, coloured revolutions rarely improve the economic lot of its revolutionary populations, but it does lead to an active and radicalised civil society that is more willing to defy the government. That is testified to by the fact that Kyrgyzstan has had three revolutions in the last three decades and Ukraine two. In Russia, however, Russian President Vladimir Putin has managed to cow both the people and the opposition to the point where mass demonstrations are extremely rare and remain dangerous as participants can face long jail terms for participating in them.
Georgian NGOs have been upping the pressure on the Georgian government, which has taken an ambiguous position on the war in Ukraine. Rhetorically Georgian Dream has been supportive of Ukraine, but practically it has done little and has refused to join the Western sanctions regime.
At the same time, despite fighting an eight-day war with Russia in 2008 and still having no formal diplomatic relations with Moscow, Georgia has become more economically dependent on Russia than at any time since independence in 1991.
Another factor going into the desire to push the foreign agents law through is Georgia is slated to have fresh elections next year, so if Georgia Dream wants to consolidate its power, now would be the time to go after some of the government's harshest critics, which tend to be in the civil society sector.
Although the foreign agents bill has similarities with the Russian law, it is not identical. The bill was passed in the first of three readings on March 7, but could have still been subject to revisions. There was also one version which copied the US Foreign Agents Registration Act.
The Euro-Atlantic direction is enshrined in the Constitution, but the government seems attracted to a watered down version similar to the policies being followed by Hungary: a prickly member of the EU, but a member of it nonetheless. However, Hungary’s main policy is simply pro-Hungary and being in the EU is in Hungary’s interests, even if at times it seems pro-Russia. When push comes to shove, Hungary does side with the EU.
Georgian Dream seems to want to follow a similar path that would also describe Poland and Serbia’s attitude to the EU. Certainly, it doesn’t simply become another Belarus that is entirely dependent on Russia.
For Tbilisi, Russia remains an extremely important trade partner and source of investment, while the most distant EU plays a minimal role in its economy in GDP per capita terms. A pro-Georgia policy ultimately means good functioning relations with Russia, similar to the nuanced stance that most of Central Asia has taken. The failure of the EU to include Georgia in the short invite list to join the EU last year only makes a balanced but amicable relation with Russia even more important.
Observers are debating what Ivanishvili’s role is in all of this. Opposition leaders demonstrating outside the parliament buildings last night were adamant that he pulls all the strings and clearly is calling some of the shots behind closed doors. Georgian Dream remains his project. Despite the fact that Russia is the source of his wealth, Ivanishvili’s relationship with Russia remains ambiguous and likely at the national level it remains pro-Ivanishvili, which translates into pro-Georgia, a Georgia that remains independent from Russia. It’s the pragmatism of big business applied to foreign policy: where is the profit for you and your company/country?
The decision on the morning of March 9 was also a pragmatic call. The people were sufficiently inflamed that the situation was becoming explosive and could have led to a second Rose Revolution. It was exactly the same clash between the Ukrainians' desire to move westwards and Yanukovych’s deal with Putin that lit the fuse of the EuroMaidan protests in 2014. But that process quickly expanded and became a general protest against the rampant corruption of his government. All those conditions are present in Georgia now as well.
Georgian Dream seems to have miscalculated with the foreign agents bill. They likely were not expecting so much opposition, both domestically and from the West. It seems that the Rose Revolution did not help the economy, nor produce a liberal Western style values-oriented government. But it did create a vocal and vibrant civil society and a politically literate population that is prepared to hold its government to account. And that is real progress.