Freedom News

Georgia protests: Hope in the face of corruption and brutality

“Often in Georgia when we hear new news about something stupid our government has done we laugh and make some memes” Giorgi explains. “But now they tried to propose this bill and people genuinely got angry.”

Giorgi (24) and his partner Ene (21) are speaking to me over zoom from Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital. Giorgi has lived in Georgia his entire life, while Ene moved more recently from Hungary. We are speaking shortly after three nights of protesting the introduction of the Foreign Agents bill – introduced by governing party The Georgian Dream Party – which dictated that any organisation receiving more than 20% of its funding from international sources must register as a foreign agent. The word “agent,” in Georgia, Giorgi tells me, mostly has the connotations of spy. This Russian-adjacent law would have seen a shift towards authoritarianism, Giorgi says: both an opportunity for the government to discredit NGOs by painting them as a form of foreign interference; and a move from the government to block Georgia’s attempts to join the EU.

Protesters gathered in the afternoon of Tuesday March 7th, the day that the bill was pushed through. “It was peaceful, but you could see that everyone was quite angry” Ene says, “I’m not that used to protests so I didn’t know what to expect.” “There was no aggressive behaviour until the riot police started using force” Giorgi adds, “they were calling the government ‘traitor’ and ‘useless’ but there was no throwing rocks or anything like that.” After that, the people tried to block the entrance to parliament, to make a “shame corridor” for parliament members who had voted for the bill, and then the riot police arrived.

“[The police] blocked the entrance from the people, and were standing up against them, and at some point the riot police decided to push us,” Giorgi explains. “To be fair, they did give us warning” Ene says, “they played this sound of ‘if you do not disperse we will use force.” Giorgi is unconvinced. “We were just standing there” he says. “They repeated this sound even after they had cleared an entrance, so the need to disperse people who were just standing in front of parliament was just not clear. The ombudsman of Georgia stated that there was no need to use force against protesters. I guess the ‘crime’ they had in mind was that we wanted to block the entrance.” The police deployed various dispersing tactics, the milder end of which involved playing a loud, high-pitched noise. The more violent methods deployed by the police were water cannons, pepper spray, tear gas, and rubber bullets. As Vice World News reported, the response from the protesters to the blaring noise was to start dancing. The sounds have also been remixed.

On the first day, the majority of the protesters came from within Tbilisi. On the second, more arrived from other regions within the country. “I’ve never seen that many people gathered in Georgia” Giorgi says. “They were better prepared,” Ene tells me. “More people spray-painted parliament and brought fireworks.” A few protesters started fires as the police continued their aggressive dispersion methods. “There were some people using molotov cocktails” Giorgi says “but not the majority”.

On the morning of the third day, the government promised to revoke the bill. There was another evening of protests that evening, held to ensure that the promise was kept. During this evening, the government released a statement unconditionally withdrawing the bill, citing the need to reduce “confrontation” in society as a deciding factor. Also on the Thursday, as reported in The Guardian, the Georgian ministry of Interior released a statement, saying that all 133 arrested protesters would be released. On March 10th, the Georgian parliament held a second reading, in which the bill was voted against 35-1.

Giorgi and Ene have different contexts surrounding their experience of protesting. In Hungary, Ene had attended protests before, but it had been more of a case of showing up to voice anger without much expectation of any material change. “It’s just a protest, it won’t work, at least that’s what I grew up with, and here we succeeded so this was a really good feeling” they tell me.

To Giorgi, the police response to this protest was “softer” than others, telling me that in the history of Georgian protest, “We have 4, 5 examples where something similar happened and people got severely injured…in this case they were just throwing gas at us, they were not harassing us and they weren’t trying to arrest people just out of the blue. After they dispersed the crowd there were some cases where they tried to catch just random people, but I would say that it was not excessive power, and it wasn’t just going around trying to catch everyone.” Ene adds that the arrests made were a largely unsuccessful intimidation tactic that only acted to make the protesters more angry.

The withdrawal of the bill represents a victory for the people, Giorgi tells me. “I also love the fact that [the government] are scared of us in a way. They are doing this work of pushing this Russian-made law, but at the same time they are very scared to say anything severe against European Orientation. They are saying ‘yes we want to join the EU and NATO;’ they can’t say anything against it because if they do, the people will get very angry and they will have zero chance of staying in government, so they are trying step by step to push some stuff that will allow them to keep the government in their hands.”

“I feel like Georgians are aware” Ene says, “this law was passed in Hungary a couple of years back and the only reason it was blocked was because the EU said no.” Giorgi explains the reason for this large national awareness: “we’re always under constant pressure, Russia has occupied our land…we want to join the EU and it’s kind of like a holy land and we get there and we will be fine…In a few decades it will be the same in Georgia, maybe we’ll have a stable life and our problems will be fixed and we won’t bother protesting.”

“You know actually, I don’t think so” Ene says. “In Hungary, we got EU membership very easily, it just fell into our hands, whereas in Georgia, you guys have been fighting for years now and if you achieve it you’ll be more grateful I think?”

It is, as Giorgi emphasises, hard to predict the future. He, like many in Georgia, though, believes that stability for the country will come from joining the EU. “The geopolitical situation is so complicated, but at the same time I can see a solution. If Ukraine defeats Russia, Georgia will hopefully have the opportunity to unify and get back our occupied territories.”

The Georgian Dream Party have held power in the country for eleven years. Giorgi explains that the argument they use to stay in power is by asking if the people want the authoritarian opposition party – United National Movement, who had been in power up until 2012 – to come back. “It’s the same in Hungary,” Ene says. “The opposition is quite weak, so the ruling party can say ‘there’s no one better than us, right?’” Giorgi struggles to find a political party to align with. A lot of the smaller parties, he notes, hold only 4-5% of the electorate, so defeating the government in elections is especially difficult.

Misinformation is rife in Georgian politics. Giorgi cites the case of ex Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia, who in 2019 stepped down from his position in protest of the arrest of opposition leader Nika Melia. “We live in quite comical situations; before he left, [Gakharia] was declared the best member they had and right now they are saying he is a drug addict because he’s gone to the opposition. Informational war is going into political processes, and help from the EU and the rest of world is very important so that Georgian people can feel that you are standing with us and we are not fighting for nothing.”

Daisy Steinhardt

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