What triggered the protests?
Thousands of people took to the streets in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, this week after parliament backed a draft law which critics, who called it a “Russian law”, said would limit press freedom and undercut Georgia’s efforts to become a candidate for EU membership.
The law, backed by the ruling Georgian Dream party, would require any organizations receiving more than 20% of their funding from overseas to register as “foreign agents” or face substantial fines.
After two days of wide-scale protests, the party on Thursday announced it would “unconditionally withdraw the bill we supported without any reservations”.
Why do protesters call the proposed bill a ‘Russian law’?
Protesters in Georgia have said the proposed “foreign agent” bill mirrors a 2012 law in Russia that has since been used to crack down on dissent and suppress western-funded NGOs and media.
In 2012 Russia adopted a controversial law to label organizations that receive funding from abroad as “foreign agents”. The law marked a pivotal moment in the Kremlin’s battle against free speech and civil society, allowing Vladimir Putin’s government to shut down some of the country’s most prominent human rights groups.
On Wednesday, as thousands of protesters blocked the main avenue of Tbilisi, many chanted: “No to the Russian law.”
There is no indication that Russia is directly meddling in Georgia’s domestic politics but protesters say the law is a sign that the government has increasingly tilted towards Moscow and away from the west.
Much of the demonstrators’ fury was aimed at Georgian Dream’s founder, Bidzina Ivanishvili, an eccentric billionaire who made his fortune in Russia and reportedly continues to be on friendly terms with the Kremlin.
Ivanishvili is widely considered to exert control over the party from the shadows and is accused by his critics of moving Georgia towards Moscow’s orbit. Crucially, Georgians fear the introduction of the law would harm the country’s chances of joining the EU.
Does Georgia want to join the EU?
Georgia, a small country of about 3.7 million people in the south Caucasus, applied for EU membership on 3 March 2022, a week after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The EU, however, rejected the application while approving the candidacies of Ukraine and Moldova.
The rejection was widely seen as a consequence of democratic backsliding under the leadership of the Georgian Dream party. According to some polls, more than 80% of Georgians support EU integration, which is enshrined in Georgia’s constitution.
In Tbilisi, protesters this week carried Georgian and EU flags and played the block’s anthem: Ode to Joy on Freedom Square outside parliament.
Despite the EU’s rejection in June, the block kept the door open for Georgia, awarding the country a “European perspective” status, rather than formal candidate status. EU officials this week said the adoption of the “foreign agent” law would de facto block Georgia’s European integration prospects.
“The adoption of this ‘foreign influence’ law is not compatible with the EU path, which the majority in Georgia wants,” the European Council president, Charles Michel, said in a tweet on Wednesday.
How have Georgians reacted to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
Support for Ukraine in Georgia is overwhelming and there are parallels between Georgia’s and Ukraine’s history with Russia.
In 2008, the Kremlin sent forces into Georgia to support two Russian-backed breakaway regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which Moscow later recognized as independent states. Moscow still keeps its troops there, giving the Kremlin a de facto command of about 20% of Georgia’s territory.
Since the start of the war, Tbilisi has been filled with anti-Putin graffiti while it is not uncommon for taxi drivers to have the Ukrainian flag on their dashboard. A sizeable military unit made up of fighters from Georgia is fighting in Ukraine against Russia.
Speaking on Wednesday evening, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, called for “democratic success” in Georgia. “There is no Ukrainian who would not wish success to our friendly Georgia. Democratic success. European success,” he said.
However, Georgia’s ruling Georgian Dream party has not joined the west in imposing sweeping sanctions on Russia, citing economic considerations. Georgia has also served as a vital transit route for western goods to travel into Russia, bypassing sanctions.
What’s next for the protest movement?
After lawmakers said they had backtracked on the bill on Thursday, Georgia’s opposition said protests would continue until the government gathers to formalize the legislation’s withdrawal and releases all 66 people detained by police during the rallies.
“This is a victory, but an intermediate victory,” Gigi Ugulava, one of the leaders of the opposition European Georgia party said.
Many in Tbilisi argue that the Georgian Dream party remains too close to Russia and some observers believe this week’s events could prompt larger protests over broader concerns that Georgia is moving into an authoritarian, pro-Russian direction