Georgia at a crossroads

A year ago, the increasingly rightist, pro-Russian Georgian government proposed legislation that shocked the country.

Under the new law, individuals or organisations that received money from foreign donors would have to declare themselves as “foreign agents”. The very term “foreign agents” reeks of the Stalinist era and the proposed law triggered enormous street protests. Despite a heavy-handed police response — images went viral of protesters drapped in EU flags being attacked by water cannon — the protests grew. In the end, the government backed down.

And now, in the oft-quoted words of the legendary American baseball coach Yogi Berra, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

The government of the Georgian Dream party, which is controlled by the billionaire, Bidzina Ivanishvil, has reintroduced what is essentially the same legislation — after promising not to do so. Ivanishvili and his minions insist that their proposed law aims at “transparency” in public life. They argue that any organisation that receives 20% or more of its income from foreigners is, for lack of a better term, a foreign agent.

Many of the organisations which receive foreign support are doing human rights and pro-democracy work that enrages the homophobic, authoritarian Georgian Dream party. That party and the government it controls continues to insist that it is still on course for Georgia to become a full member of both the European Union and NATO. And they say this while they are doing everything they can to ensure that Georgia’s path to Europe is blocked.

Massive street protests are taking place on a nightly basis on Tbilisi’s Rustaveli Avenue, which passes in front of the Soviet-era building that serves as Georgia’s parliament. Police violence against the protestors is ramping up. Many dissenting voices are being raised within Georgia, not least that of Salome Zourabichvili, the Georgian President. Zourabichvili was put into her largely ceremonial office by Georgian Dream in 2018 — a decision that they now certainly regret.

Voices are being raised abroad as well. The United States and European Union have made it clear that Georgia is heading in the wrong direction. For now, this seems to have no impact on the Georgian government. The coming enactment of what everyone in Georgia is calling the “Russian law” and the increasing warmth and closeness in Georgia’s relationship with the Putin regime are extraordinary developments. Russia still occupies huge swathes of Georgian territory in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The vast majority of Georgians detest Putin’s regime, as one can easily detect by walking the streets of the capital. There is anti-Putin (and sometimes anti-Russian) graffiti everywhere.

Georgia remains — for now — a multi-party democracy with elections scheduled for 26 October this year. At the moment Georgian Dream has 75 seats in the 150-seat parliament. Polls are showing it is likely to emerge again as the strongest party. The largest opposition group is the United National Movement, headed by the discredited former prime minister, Mikheil Saakashvili — who is currently in jail in Georgia. Georgia, once a stronghold of Social Democracy (a century ago) no longer has a viable Social Democratic or labour party.

Regardless of what the polls may be showing, the pro-Russian Georgian Dream party is facing serious challenges. The demonstrators in the streets are largely young people, and many of the Gen Z protestors have been seen carrying the flag of the first Georgian Republic of 1918 – 1921. Civil society organisations are slowly coming on board to support the protests, as they did last year. This includes the Georgian Trade Union Confederation, which issued a strong statement on 23 April opposing the new law. They titled their statement “The future of Georgia lies in Europe.”

Whether Georgia has a European and democratic future is something that few questioned just a few years ago. Unlike many of the former Soviet republics, Georgia has long had its eyes on becoming a European country in every sense, free of corruption, prosperous, respectful of human rights and a democracy. All of that is now under threat by Ivanishvili and his Georgian Dream.

Georgia has indeed reached a crossroads and needs to choose a future either as part of Europe and the West, or as it once was — a Russian colony. The youth of Georgia have made their position clear. But without a strong opposition party — ideally a Social Democratic one — emerging to make a real bid for power, the future of Georgia looks bleak.

This article appear’s in today’s issue of Solidarity.