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‘Our Injuries Will Heal, but the Georgian Government’s Reputation Will Not’

Georgia’s accelerating authoritarian slide into Russia’s orbit has now seen its government launch a full-scale Belarusian-style crackdown on opposition voices.

Participants of a protest against “the Russian law” in Tbilisi, Georgia, on 4 May 2024. Photo: AP Photo/Zurab Tsertsvadze

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Levan Khabeishvili arrives late to his interview, delayed by an emergency trip to the dentist after dislodging his new tooth at lunch. In the early hours of May 1, the chairman of United National Movement (UNM), Georgia’s largest opposition party, was savagely beaten by police and security forces for almost half an hour in a sustained attack that saw his nose broken and both cheekbones fractured.

Since then, there have been at least eleven vicious physical assaults against high-profile government critics in the South Caucasian country. Hundreds of others have received anonymous phone calls threatening them and their families, with posters plastered all over the Georgian capital of Tbilisi denouncing almost every prominent opposition politician, journalist, activist and NGO representative as ‘enemies of the people’ – a term with especially totalitarian resonances in the former Soviet space.

The brutal crackdown comes as Georgian oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili’s ruling party, Georgian Dream, charges ahead with its second attempt since last year to pass a draconian bill on ‘foreign influence’ targeting independent media and NGOs. Decried by the country’s historic Western allies as an analogue of measures weaponised by the Putin regime to crush dissent amid war in Ukraine, the move has been widely received as a barefaced attempt to sabotage Georgia’s ongoing bid for European Union membership, contrary as the draft law is to conditions for admission to the bloc. 

The head of the largest opposition party in Georgia, the United National Movement, Levan Khabeishvili, recovering from being beaten by the police. Photo: X/Twitter

For several weeks, mass demonstrations have steadily mounted in Tbilisi and other cities across the country, as a public overwhelmingly in support of Euro-Atlantic integration pushes back against their Government’s accelerating authoritarian slide into Moscow’s orbit. “Since the protests began, almost every night the police and security forces have violated all laws – they have used violence without necessity, without any justification,” says UNM chair Khabeishvili. “They believe the more severely they beat us, the more scared we will be. But our injuries will heal, while the Government’s reputation will not.”

As Georgian Dream’s founder and éminence gris, who made his fortune in Moscow during the post-Soviet privatisation frenzy of the 1990s, much has been made of Ivanishvili’s longstanding ties to powerful Russian interests, with multiple Western officials calling for him to face sanctions in the two years since Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

On April 29, the famously camera-shy billionaire spoke at a rally in support of the controversial bill currently making its way through parliament. Addressing the crowds, many of whom were allegedly bussed in and paid to attend, Ivanishvili took aim at the US and the EU for supposedly attempting to “engineer a revolution” in Georgia through their long-standing support for civil society, in comments widely regarded as a wholesale burning of his government’s remaining bridges with the West.

How the Georgian ‘Foreign Agents Bill’ May Cost it Everything its People Have Ever Dreamed Of – And Benefit No One But Russia

Georgian Dream’s ‘Russian-style’ law has prompted strong statements of concern from the UK, US and EU with critics saying it is an attempt to muzzle the media and NGOs – it may also end Georgia’s hopes of joining the EU

Byline Times has previously reported that Ivanishvili believes he’s already the victim of ‘unofficial’ US sanctions. Sources with access to the oligarch’s inner circle maintain the foreign agents bill likely represents an attempt to protect his assets from scrutiny by domestic watchdogs ahead of transferring his sizable offshore interests into his home country. “Like a kind of Macbeth of the Caucasus, Bidzina Ivanishvili seems driven by fears and a spectre of his own projection. He believes people are out to get him, and he thinks he needs to clamp down now, to secure his power,” says Hans Gutbrod, a professor of public policy at Tbilisi’s Ilia State University. “In Macbeth, the phrasing is ‘poor country […] where violent sorrow seems a modern ecstasy.’ I hope we’re not headed that way, but it is a real risk.”

There are still several legislative stages before the bill finally passes into law, but its effects are already being severely felt by the measures’ intended targets. Alongside Khabeishvili, other prominent figures assaulted by riot police and security forces at the protests include Aleko Elisashvili, leader of the opposition Citizens party, who suffered a broken rib and a cut to his lip, as well as Ted Jonas, a US national and lawyer who sustained a black eye and major concussion. 

But other tactics are being increasingly deployed away from the demonstrations. On May 8, the speaker of the Georgian Parliament Shalva Papuashvili announced the launch of a new police database containing information on “radical opposition” figures and “violent youth groups.” The move was swiftly slammed by NGOs as amounting to a blacklist of critics to harass, coming hot on the heels of the first reports of titushky being deployed across the country. 

The term titushky was first used to describe hooligans hired by the Viktor Yanukovych Government to violently suppress dissent during the 2013-2014 Euromaidan protests in Ukraine, though the tactic is reported to have been used extensively by the Russian and Belarusian regimes in the years since. “It’s a standard KGB practice, one that comes when law and order begin to break down, and one whose only purpose is to spread terror among protesters,” says Dima Chikovani, a PR director with Khabeishvili’s UNM party, who was assaulted outside his home just hours after the ‘blacklist’ was announced. 

Lasha Ghvinianidze after an attack by titushky. Photo: Lasha Ghvinianidze

Another victim of this sort of attack is Lasha Ghvinianidze, a biker who has organised motorcycle ride-a-longs at many of the recent demonstrations, who was beaten in front of his wife outside a friend’s house on the same night. “I can no longer go along [to the rallies] because if I stand on my feet for more than one or two minutes I begin to feel dizzy,” he explained. “But my heart remains alongside my brothers and sisters out there on the streets.” Others include award-winning teacher Lado Apkhazava, think-tank director Giorgi Klidiashvili, university professor Gia Japaridze, and opposition party officials Giorgi Mumladze, Boris Kurua and Nodar Chachanodze. Rati Bregadze, Georgia’s Justice Minister, has since suggested they might have “beaten themselves up.”

Nor are titushky attacks the only cases of intimidation and harassment to have gathered pace in recent days. At least two UNM politicians, Irakli Edzgveradze and Goga Oniani, claim unknown assailants attempted to break into their houses earlier this week, despite their underage children being home at the time. Hundreds of other people have reported receiving anonymous phone calls threatening violence against them and their families, while thousands of posters have in recent days been put up all over Tbilisi denouncing various leaders of government-critical organisations as ‘foreign agents’, ‘traitors’ and ‘enemies of the people.’

‘Georgia’s bid to Muzzle Media and NGO’s and the Russian-Made Oligarch Behind it’

Top level discussions between Georgian government officials and their party’s oligarch founder, Bidzina Ivanishvili, provide insights into the motivation for resurrecting a draft law that prompted two nights of rioting last year, reports Will Neal

These incidents have proven the source of much hand-wringing among Georgia’s Western allies. Speaking at a press briefing on May 10, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the US was “deeply troubled” by the reports of harassment and physical violence, adding “the Georgian Government needs to change course.” The EU Delegation in Georgia has released a similar statement, decrying the attacks as “unacceptable” and urging authorities “to ensure that fundamental rights of all citizens are protected.”

But for Marika Mikiashvili, a representative of the liberal pro-Western Droa party, there’s a sense these historic partners may be late in waking up to the true gravity of what is currently unfolding in Georgia. “The Government is seeking to remove any sense of security we might have by pursuing their goal of mass terror,” she says. “Unless Georgian Dream backs down and withdraws the law, then frankly, I just don’t see how there’s any way we can progress to meaningful parliamentary elections in October.”

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