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OPINION

The battle is lost, but not the revolution. Georgian protesters gear up for a rematch in October

High Representative of the European Union Josep Borrell has called on Georgian officials to heed the recommendation of the Venice Commission and withdraw Tbilisi’s infamous new “foreign agent law.” In response, parliamentarian Salome Kurasbediani, a member of the ruling selfsame Georgian Dream party that pushed through the “Russian” bill, dismissed the commission's judgment as biased. Still, according to political columnist Vadim Dubnov, Georgian Dream’s lack of visible concern over the backlash the law has inspired — along with its demonstrative confrontation with the West — signal that hope remains for Tbilisi to reverse course. Even if its opposition has so far failed to expand its traditional constituency, time remains before the final confrontation takes place during the parliamentary elections this fall.

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From the very moment — February 2023 — when Georgian authorities first announced their intention to adopt a law regarding “foreign agents,” the opposition's outrage has been rivaled only by its utter bewilderment: why was Tbilisi’s Moscow-friendly ruling party taking such a step? Before the introduction of the bill, Georgian Dream, the political brainchild of the country’s leading oligarch and informal ruler, Bidzina Ivanishvili, appeared well on its way to another victory in elections scheduled for October 2024. Sociologists, both those sympathetic to and opposed to the party, were unanimous in predicting its victory. But now, with five months left before the election, the authorities have actually brought into force the very law that has inspired massive anti-government demonstrations two years in a row. Why?

April Theses

Some believe that the law “On Transparency of Foreign Influence” (as the official title goes) is a ploy to weaken the opposition on the eve of the elections. Ivanishvili's staunch opponents insist that he was spooked by rumors of Washington allegedly plotting yet another “color revolution” — a reference to the popular uprisings that ensured legitimate democratic transitions in Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004) — and the Georgian government itself has occasionally raised such ideas as well. Others, however, argued that Ivanishvili's seemingly inexplicable stubbornness simply stems from resentment over last year's failure. Last but not least, a separate camp has theorized about the involvement of Vladimir Putin, who allegedly coerced Ivanishvili into pushing through the bill by threatening to expose the oligarch’s hidden past misdeeds — or even to physically eliminate him.

Remarkably, each of these various versions implies that, for one reason or another, Ivanishvili is acting irrationally — something his twelve years in power have not offered cause to suspect. On the rare occasions when Ivanishvili has made mistakes, he has been quick to correct them. And this time may not actually offer an exception to the rule.

As sources close to Georgian Dream admit, the authorities initially assumed that last year's turbulence would not repeat itself, as the country’s youth, which formed the backbone of the protests in 2023, had apparently changed their attitude. Not only bureaucrats and analysts, but also Ivanishvili himself possibly fell prey to this misconception.

Ivanishvili's appearance on the podium at a grandiose pro-government rally indirectly confirms that the scale of public discontent came as a surprise to those in power. The leader's speech can be boiled down to three key points: first, he spoke of a “global party of war” that seeks to destroy Georgia, just as it has allegedly already subverted European and Euro-Atlantic structures; second, the oligarch claimed that the “foreign agents” law was designed to save Georgia from this very adversary; third, he asserted that Georgia nevertheless will join the European Union in 2030.

The scale of public discontent came as a surprise to those in power

While many Georgian opposition members were quick to dismiss his “April theses” as an example of paranoia and inclination towards conspiracy theories, Ivanishvili’s address may have provided an exhaustive answer to the biggest question of all — “Why?”

So is the law indeed pro-Russian?

Ivanishvili's statement is consistent with his traditional, rather straightforward line of thinking.

While the “foreign agent law” was immediately labeled «Russian,” this accusation could not be further from reality, even from a technical perspective. If we were to draw parallels, it bears more resemblance to a Hungarian analog. Both the Georgian and the Hungarian versions differ from the Russian law in one fundamental detail: the lower financing threshold — 20% in Georgia’s case. Russia does not have one, meaning a “guilty” party can be labeled a “foreign agent” simply because someone sent along a couple of pesos from somewhere in Mexico.

Of course, there are examples of Ivanishvili acting to strengthen Tbilisi’s ties to Moscow. He has expanded air traffic with Russia, is yet to impose anti-Russian sanctions, and generally likes to keep his Moscow-based peers happy. However, none of his steps so far could be reliably interpreted as a sign of willingness to team up with the Kremlin.

Over his 12 years of effective control, Ivanishvili has been intently preserving the reform momentum set in progress during early years of pro-Western ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili’s time in office (2004-1013). As a result, the achievements of Saakashvili, whom Ivanishvili’s forces still hold in prison, may have become irreversible. Despite lacking unanimous support, Georgia’s Westernization has come to be an inherent element of the country’s identity, one that is unlikely to be subjected to any revolutionary revision.

Ivanishvili argues that Russia may not be Georgia’s friend, but it should not be regarded as the enemy Saakashvili painted it to be — and while Georgia wholeheartedly aspires to become part of Europe, regular direct flights to Moscow will do no harm in this regard.

Ivanishvili argues that Russia may not be Georgia’s friend, but it should not be regarded as the enemy

Before February 24, 2022, such understandings between Moscow and Tbilisi were reached on a case-by-case basis. But when Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began — and when, largely as a result, the European Union quickly offered Ukraine and Moldova a fast-track rapprochement — the Georgian opposition urged their own authorities to jump on the bandwagon. Such a move would have seemed to have been perfectly timed. After all, Georgian Dream had by then already found a certain equilibrium in its relations with Europe.

A state that by all accounts appeared to have been usurped by a Kremlin-friendly oligarch could not join the league of Western darlings, of course. But the reputation Georgia had gained as the most successful South Caucasian democracy, multiplied by the weight of the 2008 war with Russia and the risks of losing Tbilisi to the gloomy east, enticed Brussels to be less scrupulous than usual. Besides, Georgia did not pester the European authorities with urgent pleas to join their ranks as soon as possible. Both sides realized that a real rapprochement would compel Europe to re-assess the Georgian reality in an entirely different way, and neither was in a hurry to obtain clarity.

Therefore, the opposition's plan looked realistic: it deprived the authorities of their usual comfort and forced Brussels to be more critical of Georgian Dream. However, Ivanishvili turned the war in Ukraine, which at first appeared to be working in favor of the opposition, to his own benefit. And he was not the only one.

The stakes are rising

With the start of the full-scale war, all empirical observations of the Georgian authorities gained the force of an ideological doctrine. The original thesis that if you live next to the Kremlin's Minotaur, it is desirable not to make it angry, has been transformed into a call to Georgian citizens who remember 2008: look at what has become of Ukraine, and see what horrors we have saved you from.

Back in 2022, Brussels could still afford to accommodate the powers-that-be in Tbilisi. After all, EU candidate status comes without any pressing obligations. Turkey, for one, has had it for decades. Despite the political turmoil in Tbilisi, European authorities may have considered granting Georgia this status as the lesser evil. For Georgian Dream, securing it was a domestic policy jackpot. Meanwhile, the opposition suffered another failure, all the more offensive because their chances had — albeit fleetingly — looked brighter than ever.

But this year, when the relationship between Tbilisi and Brussels was no longer a question of mere candidate status, but the start of actual accession talks, the stakes rose. And while the rules were the same, an entirely different game began.

The new schism in Georgian society is far less clean-cut than the old pro-Russian versus pro-Western dichotomy. Georgian Dream may still be moving the country it governs towards Europe, but it is doing so in the manner of Euro-skeptic Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who like Ivanishvili has expressed concerns regarding the Western “party of war.” In fact, Hungary's international stance has allowed Georgian Dream to customize European integration to its domestic political needs.

The real purpose of the “foreign agent law”

A “foreign agent law” indicates that the authorities are incapable of controlling everything in the country. In some ways, it is a healthy sign: if the government wants to fight civil society, it means civil society is still alive and kicking. Even in Russia in 2012, no one could imagine how changed the atmosphere would be just a decade later. To compare, Azerbaijan does not need such a law — and it never did. As Azerbaijani journalists explain, no one prohibits receiving money from donors, including foreign ones. However, every beneficiary must first obtain permission from the Ministry of Justice, which determines whether the organization's activities align with the national mentality, national interests, and other relevant considerations. As a result, Azerbaijan has jailed dozens of journalists and NGO workers even without a “foreign agent law.”

As Venice Commission experts concluded, Georgia’s legislation already has enough mechanisms to control the transparency of foreign funding. Moreover, this law will do little good for the October elections, as the NGOs set to participate will not start filing their tax declarations until next year, thus making it all but impossible for them to be excluded from the process due to any supposed “foreignness.” More than that, however, there are significant areas of potential repression where Georgian Dream could easily exert its influence without the need for any new legislation.

Georgia’s legislation already has enough mechanisms to control the transparency of foreign funding

In other words, the Georgian law is not first and foremost a tool of domestic control, but an open challenge to Brussels — a provocation consistent with Georgian Dream’s plans and similar to Azerbaijan’s behavior on the eve of its presidential elections. In that case, Baku’s objectives extended beyond merely electing a leader — they sought to elevate Ilham Aliyev to the status of founding father, and the West had to be prevented from spoiling the festive occasion. Western leaders showed understanding, assuming that Azerbaijan’s delusion would fade into the background after the elections, and time proved them right.

No more bets

Georgian Dream's quarrel with the West is too demonstrative to end in a breakup. It goes along the lines of Azerbaijani leaders’ statements at PACE this past January, when the organization suspended Baku’s membership. However, for Georgian Dream, a breakup with the West is an unacceptable outcome for many reasons — primarily because it would hardly make Georgian voters happy.

Ivanishvili’s party sometimes leans towards slogans that could have been penned by Russian nationalists Alexander Dugin or Sergei Markov, targeting a very specific domestic audience — one that the authorities would hate to antagonize. Georgian Dream even employs a “task force” of utterly replaceable deputies for this purpose.

In parallel with the “foreign agent law,” the authorities are launching a separate proposal to combat those who propagandize “pseudo-liberal values” — in other words, a ban on “LGBT propaganda.” Aside from an attempt to identify opponents of the “foreign agent law” within the LGBT community, Georgian Dream might also be pushing voters toward the formula expressed by current Georgian Dream leader Irakli Garibashvili: “Georgia will join Europe while keeping its own traditions.”

Most importantly, actually replacing Georgia’s pro-Western course with a pro-Russian one is the potential step Ivanishvili fears taking most of all: he knows the Kremlin’s ways better than any Georgian and understands that the games he has been playing with Europe won’t last him a month if Moscow really were to be sitting across the table.

Replacing a pro-Western course with a pro-Russian one is something Ivanishvili fears most of all: he knows the Kremlin’s ways better than any Georgian

In short, as Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis remarked in May, characterizing the new “foreign agents” law as “Russian” is nothing but a catchphrase, a good slogan for mobilizing protest. However, the question about the goals of the protest remains unanswered — despite its importance for future developments.

Faced with unexpected resistance, Georgian Dream must have experienced many unpleasant moments, all the more so considering that it could not afford a second retreat following its initial withdrawal of the bill last year. Initially, people with insider knowledge of Georgian Dream say the party considered the possibility of offering concessions if things did not go according to plan, as the text of the bill had been written in such a way as to include a “margin of safety.”

However, it appears that further proposals to discuss possible changes were no longer a search for compromise, but a trap to lure opponents into putting the law into force. The opposition and President Salome Zurabishvili saw through this maneuver, but by failing to achieve what they wanted with protests, the opposition lost much more.

The strategy of damage minimization earned Georgian Dream an advantage, as the protests essentially marked the start of the election campaign. Getting a grip on themselves, the officials reassessed the stakes and gamed out realistic scenarios. Meanwhile, opposition groups never made up their minds: was this a revolution, which had to play out here and now, or the start of elections — a game played in the long run? These two scenarios required two different approaches.

In itself, demands to change the country’s political direction were insufficient to bring about a massive revolutionary upheaval. Similarly, the phase of Ukraine's Euromaidan that began in November 2013 following the refusal of then-president Viktor Yanukovych to sign an association agreement with the European Union soon exhausted itself, and its political masterminds had always seen the demonstrations only as a warm-up for the upcoming presidential campaign. The story could have ended there had it not been for the inexplicable ferocity of the Ukrainian authorities, who beat protesters without giving them enough time to disperse. The Maidan was over, and the uprising began.

The Georgian government certainly kept that scenario in mind, and for all the ruthlessness of the Georgian police, their actions never crossed the fatal line, thereby remaining a far cry from the brutality of the Ukrainian Berkut troops.

The opposition's defeat

At the end of the day, the Georgian opposition lost on two main counts: they failed to prevent the passing of the law, and they did not derive any political capital from the crisis. Centering the protest around geopolitical considerations, the opposition could not come up with any idea for engaging new audiences, and in the current circumstances, even a draw counts as Georgian Dream’s victory.

Unable to thwart the government's plans even with such strong support in the streets, the opposition once again disappointed hesitant voters, and perhaps the West, which saw that it will still have to deal with Georgian Dream in any foreseeable future.

The opposition once again disappointed the West, which saw that it will still have to deal with Georgian Dream

Judging by the patience that the West has shown for years towards the Belarusian regime — formerly known colloquially as “Europe’s last dictatorship” — Ivanishvili remains a safe distance from any such red lines. Finally, even a crisis of such scale that some perceived it as a preamble to a revolution was not a powerful enough incentive for the opposition to unite. Calls voiced by Georgian opposition leaders, including Saakashvili, still resembled a contrived continuation of intraspecies political struggle more than a search for even a temporary, tactical compromise.

Meanwhile, Georgian Dream achieved its goal, if at a much greater political and emotional cost than expected. It also managed to minimize critical losses and risks. The law has been passed, and those who hoped for the weakness of the Dream will have to reckon with it. Moreover, the ruling party has accomplished a strategic goal at the cost of only a few hiccups, walking the fine line between satisfying the population’s expectations for European integration and maintaining their own political habits — even in the face of European shows of decency. For their part, the opposition slowed down Georgia’s progress towards Europe without stopping it completely.

Inside Georgia, the ruling party largely succeeded; even if on the international level, the game is more complicated. The red lines have become noticeably closer, and the West is threatening Georgia with sanctions and withdrawal of unconditional benefits, including visa liberalization and EU candidate status. However, from a technical or political standpoint, neither step appears likely to be taken.

For instance, changing the visa regime requires EU consensus, which could be problematic. As for EU candidate status, there is no formal procedure for revoking such an offer, and Brussels currently appears too busy to develop one. In short, these risks exist but not in the near future. And time is of the essence, judging by the rumored internal deliberations of Georgian Dream.

So far, the dynamics of the war in Ukraine appear to be playing into the Georgian authorities' hands. The ruling party awaits the European Parliamentary elections — and with them the arrival of new faces in the European Commission. The Georgian Dreamers are also waiting for Trump, believing they will have an easier time dealing with him. In any case, they still have time, at least until October. No one is going to seriously stress test the situation before then. And if something does go wrong, the authorities have been willing to haggle over the particulars of the law from the outset.

And if something goes wrong, the authorities have been willing to haggle over the particulars of the law from the outset

None of the credible recent polls have given Georgian Dream less than one-third of the votes — and this is even according to the results of studies done by opposition-minded sociologists. Pro-government services are even more bullish, assessing the ruling party’s support at 60%. According to the most optimistic (although not the most realistic) estimates, the two main opposition parties, the United National Movement and its affiliated Strategy Aghmashenebeli and Akhali, can count on slightly below 20%, and their peers are unlikely to improve the opposition's chances.

The opposition could well succeed at inspiring those young people who did not go to the polling stations before. But their current enthusiasm may subside before October, especially given that Georgian Dream has finally dotted the i’s on the law. Moreover, so far the opposition has failed to produce any opening other than claims that Georgian Dream has lost a majority and will therefore rig the election in October — which means betting on street protests once again.

This will provide the government with an opportunity to mobilize its supporters — which it invariably does whenever the opposition makes a move — and its success in such endeavors has repeatedly exceeded forecasts. The ruling party can also fight to maintain its level of support by using “administrative resources,” especially in rural areas. Finally, Georgian Dream’s main trump card is control over the European integration process, which can be unfrozen if the necessity arises. Thus the revolution continues. And as befits any revolution, it awaits its October.

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