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Cracks in the Crackdown? Pressure Mounts on Georgian Dream

Amid massive public protests and deepening international pressure, the ruling Georgian Dream party has said it may be willing to negotiate on their controversial ‘Russian law’

Demonstrators hold up their smart phones with the torch lights switched on during a protest rally against “the Russian law” in Tbilisi on 11 May. Photo: Associated Press/Alamy

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Georgians woke this morning to grim reports of further beatings in Tbilisi. Overnight, protesters had remained outside parliament on Rustaveli Avenue, where security has literally welded shut the iron outer gates, to block ruling party MPs today from participating in the latest plenary reading of their controversial Russian-style law on ‘foreign influence’.

As dawn broke over the city, several exhausted and rain-soaked demonstrators were dragged behind a police line and slung to the floor to be punched, kicked, and summarily arrested. Around 9 am, the legal affairs committee, who had been smuggled into the building sometime earlier, approved the bill in a session that lasted just over sixty seconds. 

‘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.

Last week, amid massive demonstrations and mounting international outcry, the Georgian government launched a full-scale crackdown on opposition voices, in a vicious campaign that has for many dredged up the trauma of state terror from before the South Caucasian country’s independence from the Soviet Union.

At least a dozen high-profile government critics have been savagely attacked by police and security forces either at rallies or outside their homes and in front of their families. Hundreds more have received menacing anonymous phone calls, even death threats, while Tbilisi remains plastered with posters denouncing various opposition figures as ‘traitors’ and ‘enemies of the state.’ 

The ruling Georgian Dream party’s proposed law, which today will almost certainly pass its third collective reading in parliament, comprises a set of draconian provisions to be imposed on media and NGOs who receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad. The bill’s critics say these represent an analogue of measures used by the Kremlin to crush domestic opponents of Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. Ahead of a guaranteed presidential veto sometime next week, which will simply see the bill sent back to the house for final review, the European Union has warned that if passed in its current form the law will all but scupper Georgia’s chances of one day joining the bloc, supported by up to 90% of the voting public. 

The Power of the Oligarch

At the heart of the unrest sits Bidzina Ivanishvili, the ruling party’s oligarch founder, who made his fortune in Moscow during the 1990s. Amid the conflict in Ukraine, Ivanishvili has faced repeated calls from US and EU officials to be targeted with sanctions for his longstanding ties to powerful Russian figures, as well as for the increasingly anti-Western track assumed by his government since the war began.

Billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, leader of the created by him the Georgian Dream party greets demonstrators during a rally in support of “Russian law” in Tbilisi 29 April 2024. Photo: Associated Press/Alamy

Byline Times has previously spoken to sources with access to the oligarch’s inner circle, who say Ivanishvili believes he is already the victim of a Western conspiracy against his finances. The ‘foreign influence’ law, they add, is likely designed to shield his interests from watchdog scrutiny ahead of potentially transferring his offshore assets into Georgia, so as to protect his vast wealth from any future action by the US and the EU. 

If the government crackdown was designed to cow protesters into submission, the plan has spectacularly backfired. Far from withering under the heat, a rally on Saturday night arguably marked the largest public action in Georgia since the Rose Revolution of 2003, with some estimates putting the number of attendees at almost 500,000 – roughly 15% of the country’s total population.

International pressure has also intensified. “We are deeply alarmed about democratic backsliding in Georgia, [where] parliamentarians face a critical choice – whether to support the Georgian people’s EuroAtlantic aspirations or pass a Kremlin-style foreign agents law that runs counter to democratic values,” Jake Sullivan, a national security adviser to the White House, wrote in response to the sheer scale of demonstrations on Saturday. “Georgian Dream’s recent rhetoric, proposed legislative changes, and actions go against the aspirations of the Georgian people and are designed to isolate Georgians from the United States and Europe. We stand with the Georgian people.” 

James O’Brien, the Assistant US Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, is now scheduled to visit Tbilisi next week, where he is expected to meet with government, opposition and civil society representatives to discuss the bill, which he has condemned along with the violence.

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

Nabila Massrali, a foreign affairs and security spokesperson for the EU Commission, has similarly said “intimidation, threats and physical assaults against civil society activists, politicians and journalists are unacceptable,” urging Georgian authorities “to ensure that fundamental rights of all citizens are protected and those acts are investigated.” 

Meanwhile, Georgian Dream has seen its first high-profile resignation over the ‘foreign agents’ furore. Gocha Javakhishvili quit his post as the country’s ambassador to France on May 9, going on to deliver a scathing indictment of the party’s trajectory in an interview with Le Monde.

“It is a question of principle and honour. I call for the withdrawal of this bill,” he told the French newspaper. “Today, our European friends criticise us, and Moscow compliments us. This is unbearable to me. My country has suffered so much from Russia. I don’t see how we can be friends with a country that occupies 20% of our territory.” Asked whether he anticipated other Georgian diplomats would follow suit, he said he had not discussed the matter with colleagues, but “most of them are deeply pro-European” and “I do not exclude that my example will be followed.”

As of Monday morning, however, Javakhishvili remains the only member of Georgia’s diplomatic corps to have left his post. “It’s absolutely shameful that only one person has expressed his concern publicly,” says Tamar Chugoshvili, a former Georgian Dream MP who resigned in 2019 over a lack of action on electoral reform. “Diplomats are civil servants, we should be expecting more of them to speak out when it is so obvious the political leadership is changing the foreign policy direction of the country.” 

Having been among a number of former ruling party officials to submit an open letter to parliament condemning the bill, Chugoshvili adds we’re unlikely to see any resignations of elected appointees in future, given the alleged stranglehold of senior Georgian Dream officials over the party’s current rank and file. “The orders come down from the top – if they are told to vote green, they vote green, and if not, they know there will be consequences for them,” she says. “There will be some people who are worried on a pragmatic level, but I’d be very surprised if there’s anyone left who might be concerned enough on ethical or moral grounds.”

A source with comparable experience of working with the party is less convinced. From recent conversations they’ve had with senior officials, they say there are already indications of growing alarm at the vice-ministerial level in the Ministry of Defence and among heads of department at the mayor’s office in Tbilisi.

“Cracks are definitely starting to show. For now people remain under control, but give it a week, maybe two?” the source explains. “I also wouldn’t underestimate the significance of an ambassador resigning, as Javakhishvili does have political connections. There’s a huge amount of discontent in the civil service – I’ve not heard from anyone at the top level who’s in support of this.”

Since Sunday, faint signs have begun to emerge that the Georgian government might be willing to engage with historic partners who have lately found themselves otherwise roundly snubbed on any discussions pertaining to the bill. Parliament speaker Shalva Papuashvili has said “if Georgia’s international partners give acceptable recommendations,” then the legislative body would consider adhering to the President Salome Zurabishvili’s expected veto in order to review the bill’s provisions.

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Byline Times understands the European External Action Service, the EU’s diplomatic corps, is already preparing to take advantage of whatever window presents itself in the coming days. 

At this stage, any such move would likely encounter significant pushback from MEPs like Petras Austrevicius in Lithuania, Thijs Reuten in the Netherlands and Viola von Cramon in Germany, who’ve levelled repeated criticism at the EU Delegation in Georgia for “emboldening autocrats” by continuing much of its diplomatic mission these past weeks as if things were “business as usual.”

More importantly, there is also perhaps a zero chance the bill’s opponents, with the sheer scale and momentum of recent demonstrations behind them, will accept anything less than a wholesale termination of the entire legislative process.

“Any ‘softening’ of the law is just window-dressing, an attempt to avert protests and possible sanctions by tricking us and our international partners,” says Marika Mikiashvili, an opposition Droa party representative. “It will not calm the regime – this will remain an existential threat, and the EU must not take part in its legitimisation.”

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