The Roots of the Georgia Protests

TBILISI, Georgia — When Russia invaded its neighbor Georgia 15 years ago, it gobbled up swaths of land, rained missiles on Stalin’s hometown and halted its tanks just outside Tbilisi, the Georgian capital and seat of a defiantly pro-Western government.

This week, however, a stealthier Russian import entered the capital, setting off stormy street demonstrations and protests by Western diplomats. Its arrival raised a flurry of questions about how Georgia, once a democratic trailblazer among former Soviet lands, had become an export market for anti-democratic techniques pioneered and promoted by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

The immediate cause of the turmoil in Tbilisi for the past two days was the preliminary approval on Tuesday by Parliament of an innocuous-sounding draft law “on transparency and foreign influence.” It demands that nongovernmental groups and news media outlets that receive more than 20 percent of their funding from a “foreign power” register as “agents of foreign influence.” Violators incur a hefty fine.

The Georgian government, firmly controlled by the Georgian Dream party, insists that the legislation simply aims to promote greater openness about foreign funding and is inspired by an American law dating back to 1938.

But protesters — and also the Georgian president — have denounced it as a stealthy effort to smuggle into Georgia one of the most heavy-handed tools of Putinism and, in the process, sabotage the country’s already stalled efforts to join the European Union.

“No to Russian law! No to Russian government in Georgia,” protesters chanted on Wednesday as they streamed through the center of Tbilisi and some tried to storm the Parliament building. Late Wednesday, riot police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowd.

Georgia’s draft law mimics 2012 legislation in Russia that signaled the start of a determined push by Mr. Putin to crush civil society.

Mr. Putin “realized that what he did not do through tanks can be done in another way, through a political presence, and now this project is being carried out,” said Armaz Akhvlediani, a member of Parliament and a disenchanted former leader of Georgian Dream. The new “foreign agent” law, he added, is part of “an obvious, open Kremlin policy in Georgia.”

In an emotional video statement made during an official visit this week to the United States, Georgia’s French-born president, Salome Zourabichvili, whose presidential candidacy in 2018 was endorsed by Georgian Dream, broke cleanly with her former backers. The draft law, she said, was an alien intrusion from Russia that must be resisted. She vowed to veto it, even though Georgian Dream has enough votes to override a veto.

“This law that nobody needs and has been initiated out of nowhere, if not from some directive from Moscow, has to be voided in any form,” the president said. She expressed strong support for protesters on the streets of Tbilisi, saying that “today, you represent free Georgia — a Georgia that sees its future in Europe and will not allow anyone to take away your future.”

Experts disagree on how much the new “foreign agent law” represents a sign that Georgia has returned to Russia’s orbit of control or whether, for domestic political reasons after more than a decade in power, the ruling party is adopting Mr. Putin’s well-tested methods for staying in power indefinitely.

Georgia, despite its long history of hostility to Russia, which includes the five-day war in 2008, has avoided siding with Ukraine against Russia’s military onslaught, ruled out joining Western sanctions against Moscow and won praise from Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, for “resisting pressure from the West.” It has also served as an important transit route for goods traveling into Russia in defiance of Western sanctions, and the government has echoed Russian talking points about the war that blame the West, not Russia, for the carnage in Ukraine.

Robert Herbst, a former United States ambassador to Ukraine, said he was “reluctant to say that Georgia has drifted back into Russia’s orbit.” But he still sees the “foreign agent” legislation as the “latest in a series of steps that clearly move Georgia away from a democratic trajectory.”

With Parliament firmly under the ruling party’s control and independent news media outlets under increasing pressure from the authorities, Mr. Herbst said, the draft law is an effort to “solve their last big domestic problem, a civil society outside their control.”

He added: “It looks just like the Russian legislation. They have tried to pretty it up a bit, but not in a way that hides its real purpose.”

The draft law drew criticism on Tuesday from Josep Borrell Fontelles, the foreign policy chief of the European Union. “This is a very bad development for Georgia and its people,” Mr. Borrell said in a written statement. The European bloc last year granted Ukraine and Moldova “candidate status” as potential future members of the union but, alarmed by Georgian Dream’s backsliding, kept Tbilisi in the cold.

For the protesters in Tbilisi, many of the them young and lacking the emotional attachments to Russia of older generations raised in the Soviet Union, the draft law is an unwelcome blast from the past. “They say it is like the American law but this is false,” said Tiko Nadirashvili, a 23-year-old lawyer. “We see the results in Russia, and they will be the same here.”

In Russia, the 2012 “foreign agent” law marked a decisive turning point in Mr. Putin’s transformation from a neophyte leader who came to power at the end of 1999 promising to continue a transition to Western-style democratic norms into an authoritarian ruler without rivals or public critics.

By stigmatizing human rights groups, environmentalists, journalists and virtually anyone receiving money from abroad as “foreign agents” — a label tantamount to traitor — the Russian law set a template for what the International Federation of Human Rights described as a “multifunctional tool of authoritarian regimes.”

It allowed Mr. Putin to steadily suffocate Russia’s previously vibrant civil society and start a relentless descent into one-man rule that helped lead the Kremlin, unfettered by dissent and caught in its own echo chamber of increasingly strident state propaganda, into its disastrous war in Ukraine.

The law proved so successful in silencing criticism that Mr. Putin, determined to halt so-called “color revolutions” across the former Soviet Union, the first of which was the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia, has pushed other former Soviet countries that he sees as belonging in Russia’s orbit to crack down on their own “foreign agents.”

In January 2014, Ukraine’s corrupt president, Viktor F. Yanukovych, struggling to quell mushrooming street protests, announced what became known as the “Dictatorship Law,” a raft of measures that included curbs on “foreign agents” in the news media and civil society. Unable to implement the measures, he fled to Russia a few weeks later.

Georgia has seesawed since the collapse of the Soviet Union between periods of democratic hope and brutal repression, including under the presidency of Mikheil Saakashvili, who came to power in the 2003 “Rose Revolution” promising to root out corruption and pull his country out of Russia’s orbit. He largely delivered on these pledges during his first years in power but, after the war with Russia in 2008, ended his time in office with a wave of often politically motivated arrests.

Georgian Dream has followed a similar trajectory, though dogged throughout by suspicions that its founder and financier, Bidzina Ivanishvili, a reclusive billionaire who made much of his money in Russia, was secretly backed by the Kremlin.

Early in his political career, Mr. Ivanishvili voiced strong support for Georgia’s bid to join both NATO and the European Union. As prime minister from 2012 to 2013, he made his first foreign trip to Brussels. He has since retired from frontline politics but is still widely seen as a behind-the-scenes puppeteer who makes all the important decisions.

His party has shed many of its early supporters, particularly those whose main aim was simply to get rid of Mr. Saakashvili, and stepped up pressure on independent news media outlets. A court last year sentenced the former director general of the main opposition television network, Nika Gvaramia, to three and half years in jail in 2022 in a case tinged with politics.

Also detained is Mr. Saakashvili, who, after a long period of exile abroad, much of it in Ukraine, was arrested on charges of corruption and abuse of office, among other things, shortly after he returned home in 2021. He dismissed the accusations as politically motivated but remains in detention and is gravely ill, his supporters say.

“Georgia was in the vanguard of former Soviet countries moving in the right direction along with the Baltic States,” said Mr. Herbst, the former ambassador. “They have clearly stepped back. Enough things have now been put in place that Georgia has more than an authoritarian tinge. But the country and society are balking.”

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