“No to Russian laws!” Georgia protesters demand “the future of Europe” | Protest news

Tbilisi, Georgia – Crowds have endured tear gas and plastic bullets for more than two weeks as they protest against Georgian government legislation targeting civil society.

The new law requires non-profit organizations (NGOs and news organizations) that receive 20% or more of their funding from abroad to register as “organizations pursuing foreign influence interests,” and in the event of non-compliance, This will result in severe penalties of up to $9,000.

Massive demonstrations last year forced the government to withdraw a similar bill. This second attempt gave new energy to thousands of young people, from students to university students, and a wave of dissatisfaction grew.

They believe their government has fallen under the influence of the Kremlin, preventing them from dreaming of becoming part of Europe. Each evening the rallies began with the singing of Georgia’s national anthem and the EU’s national anthem, “Ode to Joy.”

“This is where I live, this is where my son lives, and I don’t want Georgia to fall into the hands of our enemies. I want it to be free and available to everyone,” said Giga, 25. say.

“No to Russian law!” said 17-year-old Nutsa. She holds up a placard that says, “My neighbor to the north, we have nothing in common with you.”

Its neighbor to the north is Russia, and President Vladimir Putin’s 2012 foreign agent law eliminated any opposition. In 2022, he expanded the provision to require anyone receiving assistance from outside Russia to register and declare as a foreign agent.

But the Georgian government insists its laws are similar to those of Western countries.

The EU disagrees that the law is similar to Western transparency regulations such as the EU and French Planning Directives and the US Foreign Agents Registration Act.

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen warned on May 1 that Georgia was “at a crossroads”.

Washington is on alert. Since the 1990s, it has provided approximately $6 billion in aid to Georgia. Robin Dunnigan, the US ambassador to Georgia, said in a May 2 statement that the US government had invited Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze to a high-level meeting “with the highest leadership.”

Later that day, the invitation was declined, Georgia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said. Instead, Mr. Kobakhidze accused the United States of supporting “revolutionary efforts” by non-governmental organizations operating in the country, including the EU-funded organizations Transparency International Georgia and ISFED. organizations often call attention to government corruption and abuse of power.

The government may be concerned that these organizations could influence the outcome of the October general election, in which the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party aims to secure a majority.

Cornely Kakatia, director of the Georgian Institute of Political Science, said he believed the government’s rhetoric reflected the views of the ruling party’s founder, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 changed Ivanishvili’s calculations, he added.

“Ivanishvili and the GD leadership believe that Russia is winning in Ukraine, but he just thinks so.” [of] how to get along [Russia]To find my place in this new geopolitical order,” says Kakatia.

Alongside the Foreign Financing Act, GD pledged to curb LGBT rights and passed amendments to Georgia’s tax law that would make it easier to bank funds from abroad.

“This is basically an attempt to lure Putin and the Kremlin out and give them a new model for Georgia, which will be a kind of offshore zone for the Russian oligarchy,” Kakachia said.

Police clash with demonstrators protesting new ‘foreign influence’ laws in Tbilisi, Georgia [Stephan Goss/NDMT]

Hired thugs and “RoboCop”

Nightly protests over the past two weeks have seen the largest number of participants in the GD government’s 11 years.

On Thursday, protesters blocked a major intersection known as Heroes Square. However, a group of unidentified men in civilian clothes appeared and started beating people.

The hired thugs, known as Titushky, were sent by Ukraine’s security services during Ukraine’s Euromaidan protests in 2013 and 2014, when people called for closer ties with the EU and protested against corruption. Ta.

Gia Nodia, a professor at the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development, said she feels this moment is similar to Ukrainian President Yanukovych’s decision a decade ago to use violence to quell protests. Stated.

“The feeling is that this time Ivanishvili has gone too far and people have to fight. Relatively small-scale violent crackdowns are taking place almost every day, but so far the wave of protests has not subsided.”

The protests have been largely peaceful, but some protesters have attempted to break into parliament where lawmakers are debating.

Rebellious men and women wave EU and Georgian flags in front of black armored riot police known as “Robocops” armed with batons, maces and shields.

Other footage showed masked police officers without ID punching, kicking and dragging protesters by the hair.

Home centers were empty of masks. Pepper spray and tear gas can quickly incapacitate unprotected people, forcing chemicals into their eyes and noses, leaving many nauseated and having trouble breathing.

This country is highly polarized. Mikheil Saakashvili, who made a significant contribution to the modernization of Georgia through reforms following the 2004 Rose Revolution, is currently serving a six-year prison sentence. He was found guilty of “abuse of power” and organizing assaults on opposition members. His party, the United National Movement (UNM), is the most powerful opposition party but is highly unpopular due to its performance since coming to power in the late 2000s.

Georgia protests
Protests have rocked Georgia’s capital Tbilisi for the past two weeks. [Stephan Goss/NDMT]

“Democracy backsliding”?

Many of today’s protesters have no sympathy for UNM or any of the other opposition political parties.

MPs in Strasbourg and Brussels have repeatedly voted in favor of resolutions condemning the GD’s “backsliding” towards democracy and its treatment of the former president in recent years.

However, a group of protesters told NDMT that the European Parliament was wrong to call for Saakashvili’s release while simultaneously calling for sanctions against Ivanishvili.

The GD has taken credit for gaining the right for Georgian citizens to travel visa-free to the Schengen area of ​​the EU. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russia applied for candidacy for the EU.

But EU leaders are beginning to doubt whether the bloc is a serious partner. They called on the Georgian government to enact reforms aimed at preventing an oligarchic takeover of the state.

But for Bidzina Ivanishvili, this is unacceptable. On April 29, he addressed tens of thousands of people who had come by bus from other parts of the country to take part in counter-protests, by the confession of GD leaders.

The weary-looking attendees showed little energy or enthusiasm for being there, but it proved that the government can command large numbers of supporters when necessary.

In his speech, Ivanishvili outlined the government’s new narrative, reading from an autocue. The theory is that Western-led world powers are trying to strip Georgia of its autonomy and provoke it into a new war with Russia.

“NGO funds, which they often hold against us and are seen as aid, are used almost exclusively to strengthen the organizations and seize power,” he said. “Their only goal is to strip Georgia of its state sovereignty.”

“Slave law”

One night during this week’s protests, printouts of a photo of Ivanishvili with the word “Russian” written on the frame were scattered in a park near the parliament building in Tbilisi.

Demonstrators scrape and tear paper beneath their feet as they head to the rally outside. A biker blasts down the street, and the crowd cheers and shouts, “Sakartvelo!” (“Georgia!”).

Shota, 20, carries boxes of mineral water to hand out to protesters. She said she paid for it herself.

“For us and for our generation, the future of Europe is of paramount importance,” he says. “That’s why we’re going to stand here with our finances and some power, and we’re going to stand here until we repeal the slave laws that politicians want us to pass.”

The GD is expected to pass the foreign agents law in its third reading on May 17, but it remains unclear whether the government or the opposition intends to risk a dramatic showdown in the streets.

But if the previously feuding opposition parties find a way to come together now, it could make it harder for the government to win October’s elections. Summer heat has already arrived in Tbilisi. And that will only intensify as the election countdown continues.

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