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Secret Talks on Opposition ‘Coalition’ as Georgian Dream Moves Forward with ‘Foreign Influence’ Law Amid Violent Protests

A number of pro-Western but otherwise fragmented Georgian political opposition groups may put aside bad blood to campaign as one ahead of elections in October

Demonstrators build a barricade to close an entrance of the Georgian Parliament building during an opposition protest against ‘the Russian law’ in Tbilisi on 2 May 2024. Photo: Zurab Tsertsvadze/AP/Alamy
Demonstrators build a barricade to close an entrance of the Georgian Parliament building during an opposition protest against ‘the Russian law’ in Tbilisi on 2 May 2024. Photo: Zurab Tsertsvadze/AP/Alamy

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On Tuesday, David Katsarava was dragged away from protests outside parliament in Tbilisi by almost a dozen riot police and security personnel amid ongoing demonstrations against Georgia’s ‘foreign agents’ bill. Photos from the hospital where he underwent emergency surgery reveal the extent of the brutality he faced – his left eye is swollen shut from a fractured socket, his face lopsided from a broken jaw, and his nose and forehead bloodied.

A former volunteer soldier with the International Legion in Ukraine, Katsarava’s work along the boundary line with Georgia’s Tskhinvali region, occupied by Russian forces since the early ‘90s, has long made him a target of the ruling Georgian Dream party. His tireless monitoring of creeping borderisation, and his provision of aid to otherwise forgotten communities, serve as testament to government neglect in areas where routine FSB kidnappings remain a bitter reality more than 15 years after Georgia’s last active conflict with Moscow. 

Another of Tuesday’s casualties was Lazare Grigoriadis, re-arrested less than two weeks after his release from jail, which followed a presidential pardon for his alleged role in the riots prompted by Georgian Dream’s first attempt to pass their draft law on ‘foreign agents’ last March. Following protests, the bill was paused, before being re-introduced earlier this year. Grigoriadis’ lawyer said the 21-year-old activist was beaten unconscious as he was detained, suffering injuries to his head, face, hands and ribs. 

Katsarava and Grigoriadis are among hundreds injured as the Georgian government mounts a Belarusian-style crackdown on voices opposed to the bill – dubbed the “Russian law” which requires independent media and NGOs receiving more than 20% of their funding from abroad to register as ‘agents of foreign influence’. 

Critics say the measures are an analogue of methods used by Vladimir Putin to crush dissent amid the war in Ukraine, with the European Union warning the law’s implementation will put a halt to the hopes of the overwhelming majority of Georgians to join the bloc. 

UPDATE

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’

“Georgian Dream had always appeared ambivalent about their relationship with the EU and the US. With their latest actions, it’s unambiguous now they’re willing to jeopardise Georgia’s EU and NATO prospects for their own immediate interests,” Alexandra Hall Hall, who served as the UK Ambassador to Georgia from 2013 to 2016, wrote in the Byline Times on May 2.

“It plays beautifully into the Kremlin’s hands,” she explained, adding “that if it comes to a choice between Russia and the West, they’ve decided they’re willing to move back into Moscow’s orbit.”


Despite deepening civil unrest and growing international outcry, Georgian Dream has now waved the bill through its third reading in parliament, meaning all that stands in the way of its formal passage into law is a veto from pro-Western President Salome Zurabishvili. This is itself little more than a technicality, given it merely entails the draft law being passed back to the house for a fourth and final reading. 

As news of the latest vote broke Tuesday, protesters who’d remained outside the parliamentary building overnight to keep MPs from entering the session, were soon joined by thousands more, moving swiftly on to block traffic at several key intersections across Tbilisi – a growing hallmark of the demonstrations, now in their fourth week. Among the crowds were chairs of the foreign relations committees of several EU member states, who have travelled to Georgia in an attempt to negotiate a climb down from the government. 

‘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.

US Assistant Secretary of State James O’Brien, who is also presently in Tbilisi, has warned of travel restrictions and financial sanctions against key government figures if the law “goes forward in its current form,” or if there is continued “undermining of democracy and violence against peaceful protesters.” He has further described claims from senior party officials of a Western plot to overthrow the Georgian government as “a Reddit page come to life.”

Amid war in Ukraine, much has been made of billionaire Georgian Dream founder Bidzina Ivanishvili’s longstanding ties to powerful Russian interests, not least given the increasingly anti-Western trajectory assumed by his party since the conflict began. But the reality behind the scenes of Georgia’s foreign agents furore is decidedly more nuanced than a Manichean politics of ‘pro-European people, pro-Russian government’ might suggest. 

Byline Times has previously spoken to sources with access to the oligarch’s inner circle, who maintain that whatever the West’s belated sanctions-rattling, Ivanishvili has long been convinced he’s already the victim of a US and EU conspiracy against his finances. The proposed measures on ‘foreign influence’, these sources claim, are less a question of pursuing closer ties with the Kremlin, and more simply a bid to muzzle domestic watchdogs ahead of Ivanishvili transferring his vast offshore assets into Georgia as a protective manoeuvre. 

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

Those claims appear to have been further borne out by Ivanishvili’s refusal to meet with US Assistant Secretary O’Brien earlier this week, as Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze announced at a press conference the oligarch would not be “blackmailed” into negotiations while under “de facto sanctions”.


Lately, there have been rumblings of talks between Georgia’s historically fractured and fragmented pro-Western political opposition to form a new front against what has in recent weeks proven a rapidly gathering cloud of authoritarianism. A source privy to the ongoing conversations confirmed to Byline Times that these talks are not only taking place, but are making swift and positive progress.

Currently at the table are United National Movement, Strategy Agmashenebeli, Ahali, Lelo, Droa and Girchi (More Freedom), with apparent indications of interest from the Republican, For Georgia, Citizens and European Georgia parties. The most recent polls indicate that taken together, these actors represent at least 28% of the public’s first choice at elections against Georgian Dream’s 25%, though these figures are likely to have shifted somewhat amid the latest demonstrations.

A demonstrator stands with an EU flag in front of police during an opposition protest against ‘the Russian law’ near the Georgian Parliament building in Tbilisi on 1 May 2024. Photo: Zurab Tsertsvadze/AP/Alamy

Given that Georgian law currently proscribes the formation of coalitions prior to the results of election day, the plan of action is reportedly for each political party to nominate their most trusted and well-respected members. Those politicians will then join a team of public experts and other influential figures from the protests, all nominated by civil society groups, to form a new party, in turn supported by coordinated campaigns and messaging from their respective organisations in the lead-up to the October elections. Efforts are also being made to reach consensus for holding a public vote to appoint the group’s prime ministerial candidate sometime in the summer. 

If victorious at the parliamentary polls, they will form a one-to-two year government pursuing a legislative agenda of reforms to unpick many of the recent changes made by Georgian Dream, opening the way for EU accession negotiations to begin and with a snap election to follow once these are underway.

As a sort of indirect honorary leader of the nascent movement, President Zurabishvili is expected to announce both the initiative and her veto of the ‘foreign influence’ legislation on Independence Day (May 26), the latter to be formalised two days later to maximise disruption to Georgian Dream’s parliamentary schedule.

Georgia’s Governing Party is Distancing Itself from the EU and Ukraine

By aligning itself with the Kremlin, the Georgian Dream party is at odds with the country’s population who want to move closer to NATO and the EU

Whatever the eventual success of these talks and their prospects of shifting the political dynamic, two scenarios appear to be fast emerging as possible shorter-term outcomes of the ongoing unrest. 

Despite sustained anti-Western rhetoric about a “global party of war” behind US and EU funding for civil society, purportedly hellbent on overthrowing the current Georgian government, there are faint signs that under the right circumstances, Georgian Dream may be willing to accept a temporary armistice on their bill.

Parliamentary speaker Shalva Papuashvili has suggested that should the president specify a need for EU and US input as part of her veto, the government might consider holding consultations on the bill before pushing for a fourth and final vote, provided “Georgia’s international partners give acceptable recommendations”. 

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In that event, some observers have suggested a well-timed call for calm and unity from the Georgian Orthodox Church would further provide a window for the the party to save face in inching the legislation onto the back burner, at least until they can reassess whatever mandate they may be able to secure at the polls.

The alternative is for Georgian Dream to continue its autocratic course, further deepening an already chasmic rift between the government, its partners and the people whose interests it claims to represent, and raising the question of whether one way or another, there will be any elections at all.


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