Protests erupted in Georgia last week against government efforts to pass a “foreign agents” law, a Russian-inspired measure that would oblige NGOs and independent media outlets that receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad to to declare themselves as foreign agents.
Since a similar law was enacted in Russia, hundreds of civil society and activist groups have ceased their activities, including the renowned human rights organization Memorial, winner of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize, which was shut down by Russian authorities in 2021.
Other organizations concerned with human rights, the environment, election observation and anti-corruption have also suspended their activities, with many forced to close to avoid being classified as foreign agents or to face the heavy fines imposed for non-compliance were imposed, could not bear the strict and arbitrary requirements of the law.
Tens of thousands gathered in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, with red Georgian and blue European Union flags and chanted slogans such as “No to the Russian law” and “We are Europe”. Among the demonstrators were Russian emigrants who fled their country after Russia’s massive invasion of Ukraine.
Some were also seen with signs that read, “I’m from Russia! I had to flee because of the Foreign Agents Act! Georgians, fight!”
Eighty-two Russian citizens, including some on the Russian government’s list of “foreign agents,” issued a letter to the Georgian parliament appealing to lawmakers not to pass the law. “Being placed on the list of foreign agents in Russia is tantamount to civil smear campaigns, fines and prosecutions make it all but impossible to continue doing meaningful public work in today’s Russia,” the appeal reads.
Another Georgian dream
Georgia’s ruling party – The Georgian Dream – has held the majority in parliament for more than a decade. Despite advocating alignment with the EU and its values, the party has done little to effectively promote democracy in the country, a prerequisite for gaining EU candidate status. Due to the deteriorating democratic situation, Georgia was unable to gain EU candidate status last summer – unlike Ukraine and Moldova, both of which are candidates for EU membership.
The EU reacted quickly to the passage of the ‘Foreign Agents’ Law, calling it a ‘very negative development’ for Georgia and its people, adding that ‘the law risks discouraging civil society and media organisations, with negative repercussions on the benefiting Georgians got from their work.”
“Furthermore, the law is inconsistent with EU values and standards and contradicts Georgia’s goal of joining the European Union, which is supported by the majority of its citizens. Accepting it could have serious consequences for our relations. We call on the Georgian government to uphold its commitment to promoting democracy, the rule of law and human rights,” the statement said.
After two nights of violent protests in Tbilisi in defense of civil rights and Georgia’s European future, the government decided to withdraw the law.
The Kremlin was not long in coming. In a statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry office in Crimea said: “The protests against the ‘foreign agents’ law that took place in Tbilisi culminated in calls for the government to resign. We recommend that the Georgian people remember the similar situation that took place in Ukraine in 2014 and what conclusions it led to. Think again!”
Similarly, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the Tbilisi demonstrations “reminded him of the Euromaidan that led to the ousting of a pro-Kremlin government in 2014.”
Grigory Karasin, a Russian senator and special envoy to the informal talks with Georgia, commented on the statement by EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell criticizing Georgia’s law on “foreign agents”: “Calm down, Borrell, please! Are you also trying to educate Georgian citizens? You have already exceeded the limits of decency!”
Russian State Duma Chairman Vyacheslav Volodin stated that “Washington did not allow Georgia to become sovereign.”
Finally, referring to the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, Kremlin propagandist and head of Russia Today Margarita Simonyan said: “In the event of a repeat of the August 2008 scenario, one should attack Tbilisi directly without too much hesitation.”
Russia’s reaction to the Georgian government’s decision to finally abolish the law on foreign agents, as well as the interview with Lavrov, in which he spoke at length and with knowledge of the nuances of events surrounding the law, show that the entire process was designed by the Kremlin was to separate Georgia from the West at all costs and prevent Brussels from granting Tbilisi EU candidate status.
A new alternative
In response to Russian claims of foreign influence, French President Emmanuel Macron said: “There is a tendency in the Kremlin, not new, to imagine that any public manifestation is foreign manipulation because the underlying belief is that there is no public manipulation.” Opinion still gives free society.”
Since Russian President Vladimir Putin came to power in the late 1990s, the regime has worked to build a network of pro-government elites in neighboring countries who benefit from the current system and have a vested interest in preserving the current Russian regime. The “color” revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, as well as the Arab Spring and Euromaidan protests of 2014 in Ukraine have all been labeled by the Kremlin as a threat to Russian stability and global influence, and seen as Western-backed plans to promote liberals Democracy.
The top priority of the Putin regime was to discourage Russians and people in neighboring countries from aspiring to Western democracy, fearing that it might be seen as a preferred alternative to the Russian system of government. To avert such a scenario, Russia’s long-term goal has been to undermine trust in democracy, install or weaken hostile governments in the region, and stifle democratic aspirations both at home and in neighboring countries.
But the post-Soviet countries do not see the Russian system of government as a more attractive choice compared to the West. Russia is associated with an underdeveloped economy, corruption, kleptocracy, centralization of power and curtailment of human rights and freedoms.
What’s at stake
The success of the Georgian protesters has become a real nightmare for the Russian regime for three main reasons.
First, it can cause frustration in Russian society, where citizens have failed to defend their civil rights while tiny Georgia has prospered. What would happen if that frustration turned into an incentive to demonstrate against the Kremlin?
Second, despite Russia’s best efforts to promote its model of government and distance Georgia from Europe, the Kremlin understands that the protesters’ success was based not only on their personal determination, but also on the fact that Georgia is not a dictatorship, but a country with one Opposition, a veto-ready president, an independent media and an avowedly pro-European foreign policy all make it difficult to pass repressive legislation.
Finally, there are the new generations of Georgians who speak English (or German and French) as a second language instead of Russian. They consider themselves Europeans and associate the European Union with the greatest value in the world, a value held dear in a country colonized by the Russian Empire for two centuries: freedom.
Fighting for freedom and for the European dream are the reasons why people are fighting in Georgia, Moldova and, with blood, in Ukraine.
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