A view on the protests in Tbilisi, Georgia on March 7-9

On February 14 bill on “foreign agents” was registered in Parliament of Georgia. The initiator of the bill is the satellite of the governing party, who are outspoken critics of the West, blaming them that they try to drag Georgia into the war. It had a resemblance to similar law enacted in Russia in 2012 which was used to suppress civil society organizations and independent media. The bill had been criticized publicly by many different parties: various public figures, oppositional parties, former government members, political experts, the president of Georgia and western politicians.

What are the main critical points? Soviet time negative connotations of “agent,” as spy, which was utilized in current discourse also negatively with the intention to marginalize and discredit critical media and civil society organizations, and through this law the attempt to institutionalize this marginalization. No need for extra layer of transparency, as the finances are already publicly available of the said organizations. Most importantly, the negative consequences the law would have on freedom of expression, pluralism, and participatory democracy.

Tekla Tevdorashvili, one of the organizers of protest rallies and cofounder of Georgian feminist platform Grlzwave: „The main motivation for getting involved in these protests was the effect this law would have on each and every one of us, whether we are working for an NGO or not. …The main reason so many people chose to stand strong on these protests, including me, was that we witnessed our country taking the route Russia took several years ago when they passed the FARA bill. It would limit not only the work that the NGO sector is doing but also the government would have complete control over the narratives in media since this law would also be problematic for media outlets, which are dependent on international donors.”

Giorgi Sirbiladze, member of student movement “Students against Russian Law”: “We saw the danger of changing the foreign vector of Georgia. This law was primarily concerned with the restriction of aid from Western countries that finance democracy, human rights, education and other important areas of the state in Georgia. Discrediting this area and declaring people working there as agents is a direct sign of the country’s return to the Russian orbit. … Many vulnerable groups and society in general would be left without assistance, polarization would deepen, and the country’s democratic development would be directly threatened.”

After the public criticism, another version of the bill was also registered claimed that instead of Russian analogy this time they copied word by word the similar but stricter US FARA Foreign Agents Registration Act, which was adopted in 1938 to counter Nazi propaganda and since then amended multiple times and narrowed down. On March 7 to disperse the crowd gathered near the Parliament it was officially declared that they would discuss the bill on March 9, however the bill was passed on a first reading in Georgian Parliament later that day and was supported by 76 deputies against 13.

On March 7 and 8 mass demonstrations took place in Tbilisi, capital of Georgia. Tekla Tevdorashvili: “It was incredibly fascinating for me to see how the 8th of March developed. It started with a women’s March at 15:00, when we had already closed off the main avenue in Tbilisi as numerous people attended the March. Since then, the main street has been closed until the following day, when the police started arresting protestors for no reason.”

The biggest surprise for the government was the youth’s active participation, which was a sign that they would not tolerate decision making about their future behind the closed doors, and they appeared nonchalant in face of repressive state police apparatus. Lasha Janjghava, one of the organizers and member of social movement “GEUT”: “The processes of March 7-9 highlighted one very interesting thing – previously, the age of protesters started from about 30 years old, and this protest showed that the sense and momentum of protest is very strong even in the new generation, which is motivating for me.”

Giorgi Sirbiladze from “Students against Russian Law”: “At the rallies, it was felt that each participant understood the idea and ultimate goal of the protest. Politicians were seen as secondary in these rallies as the people and mostly the youth took over the reins and single-mindedly achieved the goal.”

Many actors with different political positions stood together, as the government’s tendency to consolidate its authoritarianism is a threat to public participation and to any future debate about preferable policies or state arrangement.

There were many different actors who took part in organizing the protests, such as feminist multimedia platform in Georgia – Grlzwave, social movements – Talgha (“The Wave”) and “GEUT,” student and youth movements Mtsvaneebi (“Georgian Young Greens”) and ”Students against Russian Law,” etc.

The special forces used teargas, pepper spray and water cannons to quell mass protests. More than 100 people were arrested and dozens were hospitalized.

Tekla Tevdorashvili: “What struck me the most was how people kept returning even after police used dozens of tear gas capsules. At some point, staying nearby the whole street was impossible, so people started self-organizing. Different groups went to several locations and managed to paralyze the roads. In the end, after the tear gas scattered, people began returning to the parliament. You could clearly see the will of the Georgian people.”

Nino Kalandia from social movement “Talgha”: “When they started to disperse us, the number of people at the protest rally increased. Every day they harassed us several times, sometimes with a water cannon, sometimes with a different type of gas, however, we would leave close by, take a breath, and return again. I think the presence of people of all generations at the rally and such perseverance forced the parliament to withdraw the draft law.”

The government made a promise that they would withdraw the bill, however it caused distrust in public because of their previous notorious legacy of not keeping promises, as well as non-existent procedure of withdrawing the bill. The protests continued with two specific demands: to cancel the bill on second reading and to release all imprisoned protesters. On March 9 the government met both demands, however simultaneously they started defamation campaign of mass protests and announced that they would attempt to better educate public on the benefits of the proposed bill which had no connection with Russia. Kremlin propagandists and politicians expressed their discontent that the bill was dropped and insinuated that the current protests were orchestrated and instigated by the West and that they are the threat to Georgia’s sovereignty.

Giorgi Sirbiladze: “Many people noted that these actions brought their results, the law was not passed by the parliament, although the big goal of obtaining the status of a candidate for the European Union is still unattainable. Now it’s the politicians’ turn, but the public is critical of them.”

Tekla Tevdorashvili: “These protests were very heavy for me emotionally. Two days were extremely intense, full of tear gas, water cannons, pepper spray, and force used by police. Despite all these, Georgian people started believing in their power including me. In a time of hopelessness, after so many protests Georgian people had to go through, this was the one we needed to see our power and prove that the power people have is stronger than people in power. Although this win is just a step on the long way Georgia has to take, it created a different discourse and perspective of how we as a society can have a say in where the country is going.”