Georgia’s governing party and opposition sympathizers are trading threats and accusations following a dramatic climbdown by the ruling faction this week over a Russian-style “foreign agent” bill that sparked violent protests.
But the future course of the mostly civic protests — which erupted after the ruling Georgian Dream party’s parliamentary leader tried to speed the controversial legislation through lawmakers on short notice on March 7 — remained unclear.
Like some previous episodes of major unrest to oppose perceived corruption and government inaction toward EU membership for the Caucasus nation of nearly 5 million in recent years, this week’s calls to demonstrate were seemingly organized by activists outside of official parties.
Georgian Dream lawmaker Irakli Kadagishvili on March 12 suggested that the government’s opponents were part of a “second front” in the war in nearby Ukraine.
In addition to an influx of Russians and Ukrainian war refugees, the conflict has left the Georgian Dream government awkwardly juggling its Russia-friendly inclinations with progress toward its stated aims of eventual EU and NATO membership as those blocs punish Moscow’s aggression with sanctions and other measures.
Kadagishvili said that since Russia’s invasion began in February 2022 “there has been a direct, indirect, open, or hidden attempt to use Georgia as a second front.”
Oppositionist and former Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, who is not in Georgia, suggested in a March 10 panel appearance that more mass protests are in store for Georgia.
The panel was an online event aimed at the eventual release of Merabishvili’s imprisoned former ally, ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili, and he said the opposition United National Movement (ENM) would keep up the protest battle into the summer.
In his remarks, Merabishvili appeared to be emphasizing Georgia’s shared goals with Ukraine, where Russia is continuing a full-scale invasion it launched a year ago.
On March 12, Merabishvili in a Facebook post accused Georgian Dream of “a comic attempt” to invoke his name in an effort to use “fake news” against the opposition.
Georgian Dream controls around half the seats in Georgia’s 150-member parliament, and collaborates with the sponsor of the contentious bill on the “transparency of foreign influence,” the People’s Power party comprising recent defectors from Georgian Dream.
The bill was condemned by the European Union, the United States, and many Georgians outside the ranks of Georgian Dream and People’s Power.
It has been compared to Russia’s 2012 law on the designation of “foreign agents,” which Russian President Vladimir Putin has used to help crush and marginalize any opposition to the Kremlin.
Georgian lawmakers voted on March 10 to drop the bill just days after its first reading sparked massive protests over fears it would have severely restricted dissent and the activity of civil society groups and push the country toward authoritarianism.
Protesters gathered again in large numbers in downtown Tbilisi despite the vote to sink the bill, hinting at mistrust among activists that Georgian Dream won’t try to revive it.
The legislation can be brought back within 30 days, but only if it contains changes.
Staunchly pro-European Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili was a key critic of the “foreign influence” legislation and threatened to veto it.
She expressed relief at the dropping of the bill during a visit to Washington, where the White House also hailed the climbdown.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov likened the Georgian protests to Ukraine’s unrest in 2013-14 and suggested they were used as “an excuse to start, generally speaking, an attempt to change the government by force.”
Georgian Dream’s founding billionaire, Bidzina Ivanishvili, made much of his fortune in Russia.