Angered by Georgia’s ‘foreign agent’ law, young protesters try new tactic

by kattiehoney61

Tbilisi, Georgia – Beads of sweat gather on Zviad Tsetskhladze’s brow as he shouts into a megaphone, his fist clenched in the air on a sweltering summer’s evening.

“Sakartvelo!” the 19-year-old student from the Black Sea city of Batumi bellows – using the native name of Georgia, before continuing with a series of catchy pro-European Union slogans.

There are thousands of protesters in the crowd, snaking their way around Georgia’s towering parliament building in the capital, Tbilisi.

They repeat his words back to him as rows of neatly regimented, stoney-faced police officers look on.

Since April, Georgia, a small mountainous nation located at the intersection of Asia and Europe famed for its rich cuisine and tradition of hospitality, has been rocked by protests in opposition to a controversial “foreign agents” law.

The bill, which eventually passed in May, requires organisations receiving more than 20 percent of their funding from overseas to register as “agents of foreign influence”.

Georgia protests
Zviad Tsetskhladze speaks to police before a planned protest in Tbilisi, Georgia [Nils Adler/Al Jazeera]

However, for many young protesters, now is not the time to accept defeat as they continue to heap pressure on Georgian Dream, the governing party seeking to secure a fourth term in power in parliamentary elections scheduled for October 26.

Tsetskhladze, a lead organiser in a student protest group, told Al Jazeera that the bill embodies larger issues for protesters, such as corruption among the governing elites and a political shift away from the EU, to which Georgia gained candidacy status in December.

The country’s ambition to become a full member of the EU is enshrined in its constitution.

Critics say the law resembles Russian legislation, which has been used to crack down on dissent and represents a sudden pro-Russian tilt from the Georgian government.

Georgia protests
Protesters gather outside a government building in Tbilisi, Georgia [Nils Adler/Al Jazeera]

Mariami Svimonishvili, a social policy analyst, said Georgia’s Gen Z – people born between 1997 and 2012 – are determined to signal their opposition to the Georgian Dream, which they see as coming under Russian influence.

“Gen Z is very interested in politics; they are very self-aware, very grounded,” she said, placing an English-language novel, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, on her lap as protesters swaddled in Georgian and EU flags walked past.

“They are on TikTok talking about the bill and what exactly it means for the country,” she said.

Georgia Protests
Mariami Svimonishvili sits outside Georgia’s Parliament in Tbilisi [Nils Adler/Al Jazeera]

Gen Z is also haunted by memories of the violent five-day conflict in 2008 between Russia and Georgia over the breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions, she noted, adding more weight to any perceived shift away from Europe towards Russia.

Protesters are now focused on “tiring the government” ahead of elections.

Tsetskhladze said the law represents a “breakdown of democracy” and that he and his fellow students at the national university who had just returned from a strike were planning to start a boycott of Russian products.

The aim, he explained, is to keep building momentum.

A window of opportunity

Davit Metreveli, a 25-year-old tour guide who has been rallying since April, said there is now a “window of opportunity” during which opposition parties can build support, especially among the “European-minded younger generation”, to topple the government.

Metreveli said the Georgian Dream initially appeared to support Georgia’s ambition to join the EU when it was established by billionaire oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili in 2012.

However, in recent years, the party, particularly Ivanishvili, who made his money in Russia, has shown signs that it is moving closer to Moscow.

Georgia protests foreign agents bill
Davit Metreveli in Tbilisi city centre [Nils Adler/Al Jazeera]

The Ukrainian flag, whether graffitied on walls or draped across buildings, is ubiquitous in Tbilisi, and Metreveli points to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as another example of why Georgians should fear the government’s pro-Russian tilt.

Georgia’s government has not supported the West’s sanctions against Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine, and Ivanishvili has failed to publicly condemn the invasion of Ukraine.

Although joining sanctions against a key trading partner in Russia might be “unrealistic”, Metreveli says, Georgia’s governing party’s failure to take a public stance against Russia’s invasion has shown “its true face”.

Although the new law might not appear particularly subversive on paper, Georgians who have lived in the Russian sphere of influence since Georgia’s independence in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, fear how it will be used.

“If you look at the details, you can see the law will be used to force control of everything,” says Metreveli.

Eka Gigauri, the executive director of Transparency International, told Al Jazeera that the bill “is just a symptom; this is about Russian influence, hybrid war, a generational fight”.

Georgia Transparency international
Eka Gigauri sits at the Transparency International office in Tbilisi, Georgia [Nils Adler/Al Jazeera]

She said, due to the bill, the organisation would be asked to disclose sensitive information, which they would refuse to do.

They will face having their funds frozen after an initial fine of 25,000 lari ($8,757) and then 20,000 lari ($7,005) for each month of non-compliance. Eventually, penalties would be imposed on individuals.

Despite this, many young people will likely remain and work for the organisation, which investigates corruption, including among Georgian government officials, due to its strength and commitment to the antigovernment movement.

Gigauri added that she and her family have faced threats for exposing government corruption. The bill further silences their work.

Viktor Kvitatiani, a lawyer for Transparency International, which provides legal aid to protesters who have been detained, says about 300 people have been arrested, and almost $350,000 in fines have been issued.

Riot police, who have used tear gas and water cannon on protesters, are accused of beating protesters.

Georgia protests
Protesters march past government buildings in Tbilisi, Georgia [Nils Adler/Al Jazeera]

A tainted opposition

Protesters like Sandro Vakhtangadze, a soft-spoken 19-year-old student, have taken a more measured approach to the protests.

Sitting alone on a wall outside Parliament, he said expecting a small country like Georgia to cut ties with its neighbour Russia would be unrealistic, but “we have to start somewhere”.

He will vote for the first time in October but has yet to decide which opposition party he will support.

Georgia’s opposition parties have pledged to form a “pro-European” coalition in response to the new law.

Svimonishvili said the antigovernment sentiment among young people does not directly translate into unwavering support for the opposition parties, as many of their leaders are tainted by connections to former President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Saakashvili served as Georgia’s president from 2004 to 2013 and was arrested in October 2021 after returning to Georgia from Ukraine. He is currently serving a six-year jail sentence for “abuse of office”.

“The last government was very pro-West,” Svimonishvili said, describing a sense of national “trauma” from its tenure among some young voters.

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