March 9, 2023 - 11:30am

In recent years, the conduct of the Georgian government has been enough to suggest that the country had turned its back on its Western ambitions and Ukrainian allies. The welcome of 200,000 Russians fleeing conscription, the threats to strip citizenship rights from Georgians in Ukraine’s army, and open public spats with Western diplomats all implied that Tbilisi was returning to the Kremlin’s fold — voluntarily, for the first time in its history. 

The Georgian people, however, felt differently. After the government declared it would introduce legislation requiring any organisation, business, or individual to register as a ‘an agent of foreign influence’ if they receive 20% or more of their funding from abroad, the public made their feelings known over two days of rioting. The protestors dubbed the bill ‘the Russian law’, a nod to their government’s closeness to the Kremlin and similarly draconian measures adopted in Russia.

One may wonder at the disparity between a public that desires Western integration — polls put NATO and EU membership as having 74% and 82% support respectively — and a Russia-facing government. Yet there is little mystery behind this; the founder of the ruling Georgian Dream party, Bidzina Ivanishvili, made his $5 billion fortune in post-Soviet Russia, and returned to his native Georgia only in later life — and with the sole intention of running for office in 2012.

Although a political unknown, Ivanishvili was able to brand himself as a fresh face in Georgia, playing down his past in Russia and effectively capitalising on public exasperation with then-president Mikheil Saakashvili, a man whose initial successes faded into dictatorial tendencies and flagrant self-aggrandisement. Unwilling to take the lead of his own party for long, Ivanishvili resigned from his elected office after just a year in office, but was later offered party ‘chairmanship’, a move perceived as proof that he still controlled matters from behind the scenes. A host of former Ivanishvili employees were abruptly appointed to senior posts, as Georgia appeared to drift further from the West. 

This week’s protestors, however, may have turned matters around. Waving EU flags, overturning police cars, and hurling projectiles at riot police, over 100 were arrested and dozens wounded at the hands of batons, rubber bullets, and CS gas. It was not the sort of pro-Brussels rally common to British shores, and it left the authorities in no doubt that their pandering to Moscow will not be tolerated. This morning, the government pledged that it will repeal the law.

Yet this has not served to placate the Georgian public, who have planned more rallies for this week. Along with scepticism that the government will fulfil its promise — it had already claimed it would never consider ‘the Russian law’ — they hope to force the release of those arrested over the last two days. On social media, some people are calling for outright revolution.

The latter may appear to be unlikely, not least because the fractured Georgian opposition has consistently failed to capture votes over the last three election cycles. Yet it would be impossible to discount: events in Georgia have been consistently repeated on a larger scale elsewhere, most notably in Ukraine; the Rose Revolution was followed by Ukraine’s Euromaidan in 2014, and the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia preceded military action from 2014 to 2022, and obviously the full-scale invasion that followed. The reverse, then, could equally be true. 

It may not be immediately apparent why a Westerner should care, and that Georgia’s implosion and domestic failures can be chalked up to another failed attempt to build a democracy in the east. Yet Georgia is also home to the middle portion of the only Caspian oil and gas pipelines not under either Russian or Iranian control, and natural resources aside, given the possibility of a hot or cold conflict with Russia, the retention of an ally on the Kremlin’s southern flank is of significant strategic importance.

These protests may end up determining whether the will of the Georgian people can prevail and set their country on a more Western-facing course.

Tim Ogden is the Assistant Editor at New Europe. He is based in Georgia.