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Georgia Erupts

A protester wearing a European Union flag facing off against riot police during an opposition rally against the “foreign agent” bill, Tbilisi, Georgia

Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg/Getty Images

A protester wearing a European Union flag facing off against riot police during an opposition rally against the “foreign agent” bill, Tbilisi, Georgia, May 14, 2024

I’ve visited Tbilisi, the capital of the Republic of Georgia, several times over the past few years. It’s a likable place, with rich cultural offerings, fine food and wine, and hospitable people. This March, however, the city seemed gripped by a sense of unease. Everyone I spoke to on my visit—politicians, civil society activists, and ordinary citizens—worried about the next general election, set for October. This is “an existential moment,” Giorgi Gakharia, a former prime minister, told me. “If we miss this chance to hold free, fair and competitive elections, we could be missing the window to embark on a path to Europe.”

The ruling Georgian Dream party didn’t wait that long to force a confrontation. Last month it tabled a bill in parliament that designates nongovernmental organizations and print, online, and broadcast media receiving more than a fifth of their funding from abroad as “foreign agents.” The legislation isn’t onerous on the face of things; groups that fall into the category have to register with the Ministry of Justice. Georgian Dream, however, is certain to use it to vilify them. This is why the move has met with a wave of defiance: tens of thousands took to the streets across the country in some of the biggest protests in recent memory. On the night of May 11, 50,000 people demonstrated in Tbilisi; the national population is some 3.7 million.

Salome Zourabichvili is Georgia’s president, but real power is widely believed to reside with Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgian Dream’s “Honorary Chairman,” who currently holds no government position. On April 29, in a speech delivered at a party rally, he presented the foreign agents bill as a defense of national security, accusing a shadowy group he called “the global war party” of turning Georgia into a “second front” of Russia’s war against Ukraine. The proposed law was supposed to reveal which Georgians were part of this conspiracy. “The financing of NGOs, which presents itself as help for us, is in reality for strengthening [foreign] intelligence agencies, and for bringing them to power,” Ivanishvili said.

It’s true that Vladimir Putin views Georgia as a threat to his regional hegemony. In 2008 he invaded the country, taking over a fifth of its territory. (Russian forces occupy roughly the same amount in Ukraine.) Yet Ivanishvili is fooling no one with his warnings about Russian aggression. Georgian Dream, which has been in power since 2012, has clear pro-Russian sympathies, however keen its members are to disavow them. (During my March visit I reached out to several party representatives, but none gave me an interview.) Ivanishvili made his fortune in the 1990s in Russia, where he founded and controlled one of its biggest banks. Today his net value outstrips that of all his competitors; his fortune is equivalent to a third of Georgia’s GDP. Salome Samadashvili, an opposition member in parliament, told me that “Ivanishvili is Russia’s Trojan horse in Georgia.”

Indeed, Georgian Dream’s draft law is strikingly reminiscent of legislation that Vladimir Putin pushed through his own tame parliament back in 2012. He subsequently used it to raid and harass NGOs, requiring them to append a label to any publications emphasizing their own status as “foreign agents”—a phrase with dark Soviet-era connotations. Last year Georgian activists forced the government to retract an earlier version of the bill, in part through street demonstrations where it was denounced as “the Russian law.” Just as they did back then, over the past few weeks a dizzying range of activist groups, as well as opposition parties, have organized protests. (Some of these organizations receive funding from foreign donors such as the American National Endowment for Democracy or its German equivalents.) These have met with tear gas, water cannons, and police batons. Dozens have been arrested by anti-riot authorities, often on charges of “hooliganism” or “insulting” police. 

Georgia has a lot at stake. The European Union has offered membership, but only if Tbilisi can meet a set of benchmarks attesting to the health of its democratic institutions. EU officials have criticized both the foreign agents law and the ensuing government crackdown. “The final adoption of this legislation would negatively impact Georgia’s progress on its EU path,” an official statement said last month. “This law is not in line with EU core norms and values.” Georgians themselves have made their preferences clear: a 2022 poll showed that 81 percent of them want to join the EU.

On my trip to Tiblisi I met Anna Dolidze, a former parliamentary secretary of the president, who in 2021 formed the “For the People” party. I recently emailed her to ask about the protests. “This draft law is not only about NGOs or about controlling Western funding,” she wrote. “It’s about a geopolitical turn. People very well understand the significance of this, and that’s the reason for the continuously large numbers of protesters.” Dolidze, who is running for parliament in October, sees the demonstrations as a positive sign: the law has driven a previously apathetic younger generation to defend a liberal-democratic vision for their country.

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Nearly three and half decades of independence have left Georgia in a paradoxical position. After the breakup of the USSR, the US and the EU realized that the country could help diversify Europe’s energy supplies, of which a significant portion came from Russia. From the late 1990s western business and governments invested billions of dollars into pipelines and other infrastructure there, which let petroleum-rich countries in Central Asia, such as Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, export resources to European markets without going through Russia. The South Caucasus, of which Georgia is a part, remains a vital conduit for goods and services; analysts in the region talk of the “Middle Corridor,” a reliable zone for transport and commerce sandwiched between the Middle East and Russia. The recent Houthi attacks on ships passing through the Red Sea underscore the need for such alternative trade routes.

Georgia’s political fortunes oscillated wildly in this period. The first few years of independence were marked by civil war, a brief period of outright dictatorship, and economic collapse. In 1995 the former Soviet foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, took power and then ran the country as his personal fiefdom, shambolic and corrupt, until 2003, when he was toppled by the Rose Revolution, twenty days of mass protests. These were partly organized by Shevardnadze’s former ally, Mikheil Saakashvili, who succeeded him as president. Over two terms Saakashvili enacted vital administrative and economic reforms that targeted corruption and attempted to build the rule of law. Most famously, he fired the entire traffic police, hated for petty shakedowns, overnight, and put in new mechanisms for paying fines. Among other measures, he cut red tape in a number of bureaucratic departments, set up one-stop shops for government services, simplified the tax code, and improved electricity supply. Growth increased significantly, and so did tax revenues, enhancing the state’s ability to deliver benefits. Saakashvili pushed for closer relations with the EU as well.

Yet he also alienated wide swathes of the electorate with his autocratic overreach. He threw critics in jail—there were accusations of torture—and squeezed media freedom. In 2008 he attacked Russian proxies in Georgia, which gave Putin a pretense to launch that year’s war; some Georgians hold him responsible for the conflict. Once a Saakashvili ally, Ivanishvili became alienated from him, and in 2012 he started his own political movement. He was elected prime minister the same year. In office, Ivanishvili proved an adept leader, presenting himself as an experienced manager who would calm postwar relations with Moscow.

Over the years Ivanishvili has used his wealth to capture major media outlets and influential business interests. Along the way he also created a highly effective system of patronage: Georgian Dream now dominates the civil service, a huge source of leverage in a country where 65 percent of the employed population works in the public sector. The ruling party’s defenders dispute that it has a pro-Kremlin tilt, pointing out that Georgian Dream has not restored full relations with Moscow. Yet that can be explained by the deep-seated anti-Russian animus of most of the population, which constrains how far the government can go. (Hundreds, perhaps thousands of Georgian volunteers are presently integrated into the Ukrainian armed forces.)

The opposition has not offered much of a challenge. Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) is deeply fragmented and generally dysfunctional. In 2021, having been sentenced in absentia three years earlier, he was imprisoned by the Georgian Dream government for having abused power in office by trying to cover up evidence about the beating of an opposition lawmaker; he currently resides in a prison hospital. In his April 29 speech, Ivanishvili vowed to throw many of Saakashvilii’s followers in prison as part of a long-overdue reckoning. Many Georgians are sick with both sides, yearning for an end to domestic conflict.

This applies particularly to the young, who have largely lost faith in the establishment parties. This is why, Dolidze told me in March, her program is focused on pragmatic economics rather than tired ideological battles. Her proposals include revitalizing the agricultural sector, which has essentially collapsed due to cheap imports from neighbors like Turkey, overhauling the neglected health care and welfare systems, and fighting corruption, which was never entirely vanquished. “People are giving up and migrating,” she said, because Georgian Dream did little to fix the economy. “This is what we need to be talking about.”

Many Georgians have harshly criticized Brussels and the US for not responding decisively to the foreign agent bill. Samadashvili, the opposition parliamentarian, told me that western governments should threaten to impose individual sanctions on lawmakers who vote to approve the law. Free and fair elections, she argued, will be impossible if the government can malign opponents as the playthings of foreign powers. She also suggested sanctioning Ivanishvili and officials responsible for the crackdown on demonstrators: “The EU needs to make a clear statement that candidacy status will be withdrawn if this law is passed.”

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Over the past few days, opposition leaders have faced a campaign of organized thuggery. Some have been physically attacked on the streets, others subjected to aggressive harassment, including death threats posted outside their homes. On Tuesday night, as thousands of demonstrators rallied outside the parliament building in Tbilisi, riot police doused the crowds with tear gas.

Inside the building, Georgian Dream lawmakers advanced the bill to its final stage of approval. It passed, just as expected, not before fights broke out between supporters and opponents. Most observers expect President Zourabichvili to veto it, as she threatened to with the predecessor bill last year, though lawmakers will be able to override her veto. Georgia’s latest struggle over democracy is unlikely to end any time soon.


An earlier version of this piece misidentified the office in which parliamentary secretary Anna Dolidze worked. 


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