Free from fear or favour
No tracking. No cookies

Explained: What Could Happen if Georgian Dream Is Ousted Over the ‘Foreign Agents’ Bill As Final Vote Set to Take Place

Protests against a Russian-style law on ‘foreign influence’ have been touted as signs that Georgia is heading for its ‘Maidan’ moment – but experts say the reality is more complex

Prime Minister of Georgia Irakli Kobakhidze at a Georgian Dream rally in April. Photo: Sipa US / Alamy
Georgia’s Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze, seen above at a Georgian Dream rally in April, claimed an EU official had threatened to kill him. Photo: Sipa US/Alamy

Don’t miss a story

Sign up to the Behind the Headlines newsletter (and get a free copy of Byline Times in the post)

Georgia’s Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze has said that senior EU officials may be planning to kill him. “Look at what happened to [Slovakian PM Robert] Fico, you should be very careful,” he claims to have been told on a call with the European Commission. Olivér Várhelyi, who was on the call, has said the remarks were completely misinterpreted.

However outlandish, Kobakhidze’s comments on Thursday had been pre-emptively and comfortably topped by statements from Mariam Lashkhi, another ruling Georgian Dream party MP, who last Sunday suggested that “freemasons” were behind shadowy schemes across the world. “We were seeing they do have the influence on global politics,” she told The News Agents podcast.

She made the claim in defence of Georgia’s controversial ‘foreign agents’ law which has ignited weeks of violent protests, and after being asked to explain comments made by Bidzina Ivanishvili, Chair of the Georgian Dream party.

Ivanishvili had earlier claimed that a “global war party” was responsible for creating discord across the world and dragging countries into conflicts with Moscow. “It is this global force that first forced the confrontation of Georgia with Russia and then put Ukraine in even worse peril,” he said at a rally last month, accusing “NGOs and the radical opposition” of doing their bidding, Politico reported.

Billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, Chair of the Georgian Dream party, pictured in May 2013. Photo: ZUMA Press/Alamy

These conspiratorial allegations are symptoms of a rapidly accelerating political crisis that, having gripped the South Caucasian country for more than two months, is now barrelling toward its climactic moment.

On Tuesday, Georgian law-makers will gather to cast a final vote on a Russian-style law on ‘foreign influence’. Critics have compared the bill’s provisions, which effectively ban NGOs and independent media from operating in the country if they receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad, to methods used by the Putin regime to crush dissent since the war in Ukraine.

The bill passed its third and final reading earlier this month before being vetoed by Georgia’s President, Salome Zurabishvili. However, Georgia’s Parliament in Tbilisi has now begun the process of overriding that decision.

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’

Despite the law’s future remaining uncertain, its effects are already being felt by its intended targets, with violent crackdowns in Tbilisi that have resulted in dozens of people being hospitalised, hundreds harassed, and some even forced to flee the country. 

While Georgian Dream had initially appeared willing to negotiate on its draft law, following its wholesale rejection by pro-European president Zurabishvili, Government MPs are now all but certain to grit their teeth against a growing threat of Western sanctions to pass the bill.

In the process, they will torch the hopes of around 90% of the Georgian voting public of one day joining the EU, as well as inching the country closer to Moscow, which has occupied more than a fifth of Georgian territory since the early 1990s. 

Demonstrators gather in the Square of Heroes during an opposition protest against ‘the Russian law’ in the centre of Tbilisi, Georgia, in May 2024. Photo: Contributor: AP/Alamy

“The Prime Minister and his party continue to burn bridges with the European Union while promoting dubious conspiracy theories at every turn,” Tina Bokuchava, parliamentary leader of United National Movement, Georgia’s largest opposition party, told Byline Times. “If Georgia is to enjoy a prosperous future, then it needs to engage with its international partners and not retreat to a position of isolationism.”

Many outside observers have commented on what appear to be parallels between the growing unrest in Tbilisi and Ukraine’s 2013 Maidan Uprising, which saw the ousting of then President Viktor Yanukovych’s Government. The latter also served as a prelude to Russia’s annexation of Crimea the following year – begging the question: what happens if Georgian Dream falls?

A research analyst with first-hand knowledge of the situation in Georgia, who was also a participant in the Maidan Uprising, told Byline Times that, despite comparisons, the two situations “in reality… could not be more different”.

‘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.

The source, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of his work, said that Ukraine’s President Yanukovych had to tend to the wants of a number of Ukrainian oligarchs; whereas, in Georgia today, there is only one who enjoys a tight grip on the reigns of Government – businessman Ivanishvili.

The billionaire, who made his fortune in Moscow during the ‘wild west’ of market liberalisation following the collapse of the Soviet Union, has faced repeated (and now growing) calls from Georgia’s international partners to be targeted with sanctions for his longstanding ties to allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as his overwhelming control over Georgian public life. 

Unbeholden to any interests other than his own, Ivanishvili’s position is inherently less precarious than the one held by Yanukovych in 2013. Recent weeks have sketched in stark terms his party’s willingness to ride or die by his command, borne out by its wholesale belief in the oligarch’s “global war party” rhetoric and resolve to pass the ‘foreign influence’ bill at any cost.

“Georgian Dream [is about] to implement a destructive law that is not even popular with its own supporters,” Hans Gutbrod, a professor of public policy at Ilia State University, told Byline Times. “It underlines how poor and detached the decision-making of the senior leadership of Georgian Dream now is. They are left now in a trap entirely of their own making, with all of Georgia a hostage to their recklessness.”

Georgian President’s Veto of ‘Russian Law’ Sets Stage for Government’s Showdown with Western Partners

President Salome Zurabishvil tonight announced her veto of the ruling Georgian Dream party’s controversial law on ‘foreign influence’ almost two weeks earlier than expected.

While the raging protests in Tbilisi are a testament to the pro-European public’s immense anger over the draft law, another difference between now and 2013 is how the ongoing demonstrations, however vast and united in their message, still lack centralised coordination.

“In Ukraine, there were actually two Maidans that took place at the same time – one, by students, and a second led by Ukrainian opposition politicians, who were then in a very strong position,” the analyst said. “Right now, by far Ivanishvili’s greatest advantage is the absolute and complete weakness of Georgia’s other parties.”

Throw a stone in Tbilisi and you’ll hit three opposition headquarters – many of them offshoots of former President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement, which was ousted by Georgian Dream in 2012 after a period of political decline marked by corruption and human rights abuses. 

Today, Saakashvili remains an exceptionally divisive figure among the Georgian public. He is currently being held at a secure medical facility, having been incarcerated on charges of abuse of power following an ill-advised return to Georgia from Ukraine in 2021. His supporters claim that last year he was the target of an assassination attempt while in jail. 

Despite much bad blood between Georgia’s fragmented political opposition groups, Byline Times recently reported on secret talks being held in Tbilisi on forming (as far as possible, under present electoral regulations) a grand coalition to take on Georgian Dream at polls scheduled for October. 

UPDATE

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

Inside sources now claim that, while those negotiations had made positive and rapid progress during their early stages, the conversation appears increasingly headed for the rocks.

Opposition parties, Lelo and Ahali, have apparently gone cold on the proposals for fear of the prospective coalition becoming radicalised by the ongoing protests, as well as potentially losing their respective ideological identities.

If a coordinated opposition front fails to materialise in the coming weeks, large portions of the Georgian public – otherwise almost entirely united in their opposition to the Government’s recent legislative efforts and chosen geopolitical trajectory – will be left in their present state of chronic political homelessness heading into Georgia’s most important election in more than a decade.

For want of a new and concerted centre of gravity, the former participant in Ukraine’s Maidan Uprising adds that he does not see how the protests might develop into an effective challenge to the Georgian Government’s hold on power in the short-to-medium term. 

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

“From the first night of the protests against Yanukovych, people were out in the streets building settlements, kitchens, medical stations – everything,” he told Byline Times. “It’s a key weakness of the protests [in Tbilisi]. They’re not as organised, people come for one night and then go home.”

Nevertheless, the source added that despite Ivanishvili’s tight grip on the reigns of power, should Georgia witness a significant escalation in civil unrest after the final vote, there is every chance that the dynamic could shift drastically and quickly.

“I’m talking about a ‘Black Swan’ event – maybe if, God forbid, someone gets killed at the protests, or if bigger action begins to take place and in other major Georgian cities too, then there’s nothing to say Georgian authorities won’t fall,” he said.

“The military, who are all NATO-trained, they will not fight ordinary people, nor if push comes to shove will the regular police, which would leave Georgian Dream to rely on maybe 4,000 state security personnel at most.”

Putin Hoped for a Swift Victory in Ukraine to Rebuild his Russian Empire — Instead he may Have Lost all Military Influence

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has cost it thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars – but its military influence has also taken a major hit

In the event of a regime change in Tbilisi, would Moscow have any appetite for revisiting its 2008 war with Georgia?

For Putin, Georgia does not appear to possess a comparable symbolic importance to that which prompted it to fully invade Ukraine in February 2022.

Though Moscow has voiced support for the measures and condemned the threat of financial consequences from the West, the Kremlin has otherwise seemed content to watch developments from a distance and focus on its ongoing assault in Kharkiv.

Georgia does, however, sit along a trade route: the so-called Middle Corridor. It has become of increasing strategic worth since the conflict began, with longstanding suspicions that the ruling party’s reluctance to join international financial restrictions imposed on the Putin regime may have opened the way for Russian interests to circumvent sanctions through the region. 

ENJOYING THIS ARTICLE? HELP US TO PRODUCE MORE

Receive the monthly Byline Times newspaper and help to support fearless, independent journalism that breaks stories, shapes the agenda and holds power to account.

We’re not funded by a billionaire oligarch or an offshore hedge-fund. We rely on our readers to fund our journalism. If you like what we do, please subscribe.

The influx of Russian nationals into Georgia following the Ukraine War could, theoretically, also provide the Kremlin with the slim prerequisite numbers with which it has historically launched acts of aggression against its neighbours, should it deem it necessary in the event of a regime change in Tbilisi. 

But for the anonymous Ukrainian source, it is too soon to tell if that may happen, and it is a secondary concern: “If there is an uprising in Georgia, the only question will be what state the Russian war effort will be by that point in time,” he said.

“Sanctions against Ivanishvili is one thing, but the most important thing is what the West is willing to do to help Ukraine in its fight – because it is, in the end, the same conflict, the same people.”


Written by

This article was filed under
, , , , , ,