ESR 1 Blog March/April 2023: Gabor Erlich

This time I would like to direct your attention (once again) towards Eastern Europe, specifically to the events that have been shaping the public debate (and action) in Georgia. I would like to talk about the processes that, in my opinion, are of crucial significance regarding not only the country’s future, but also the present and future condition of (the notion of) Europe.


As mentioned briefly in my last entry, the Georgian government  – which, in reality is piloted by the billionaire oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili – proposed a so-called ‘foreign agent bill’, which, if passed by the parliament (where Ivanishvili’s party, the Georgian Dream კართული ოცნება has the majority of votes), would oblige all those non-governmental entities that in their annual budget have a larger than 20% share of foreign funding, to register as “agent of foreign influence”, as well as to subject these organisations  to more meticulous inspections by the revenue agencies. If this sounds utterly familiar, you are not wrong: a very similar bill has been enforced in the Russian Federation for the past decade, the outcome of which is relatively well-known, especially since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In the interests of detail, it is important to mention that Ivanishvili was not the first to copy Putin’s blueprint. Back in 2014, Viktor Orbán’s government did pass a piece of legislation forcing NGOs to declare themselves “organisations founded from abroad”.


The principal cause behind this protectionist (euphemism) legislation is to create a legal framework that allows for (1): the collection o exhaustive intelligence on, and the surveillance of, potential political adversaries, as well as (2): hindering the smooth operation of organisations, institutions, groups, associations, collectives, etc. whose activities are deemed dangerous to the reigning/incumbent elites; that is, silencing active dissidence through a society-wide defamation campaign.


The reaction of the public was swift:

A spontaneous mobilisation was underway from the moment the draft of the proposed bill was sent to MPs, who then leaked it to media outlets. One would not be wrong in describing Georgians as a nation of protesters, as some of you might recall my earlier posts reporting on the massive solidarity rallies with Ukraine at the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine – to mention just one of the numerous examples from the past couple of years. Even still, the scale of the protests was extraordinary. Not just one rally was held, but protests in the plural; a staggering number of people gathered in front of the parliament building for three consecutive evenings. Furthermore, the majority of the crowd stayed overnight, clashing with riot police who deployed the usual toolkit of stun grenades and sirens, to water cannons and batons. The main avenue of the capital city saw its fiercest upheaval for decades.


To share the rare occurrence of good news right away, I must tell you this, without spoiling what I’m about to elaborate on: after nights of sustained and uncompromising pushback, and despite the brutality and illegal arrest practices of the police, the persistent critical mass of the people emerged victorious, and the government unconditionally withdrew the proposal! Kudos to those who reassured us watching from afar, that there is still something undeniably powerful about a mass protest.


It seems more than likely that this victory would not have been possible without – and this is the novelty, or outstanding feature of the events – the firm engagement of the so-called genZ, (the youngest adult generation), many of whom have not been politically aware for long enough to experience anything but the incumbent governing party lead the country (setting its internal and international agenda). As the acclaimed theorist Keti Chukhrov also mentions in her recent essay on the current protest movement and its socio-political background, the long and strenuous night battles were made possible by a cross-sectional solidarity network, where young medical students provided first aid for those suffering from the tactical-military-grade tear gas, gig-workers of the delivery industry (who, frankly, deserve a post in their own right for their continuous strike action demanding decent wages and better working conditions) were relentless in their distribution of water and food for those involved, such as artists and creative-industry workers who decided to document the events from the perspective of the participants, musicians who formed a local branch of the ‘Rhythms of Resistance’ movement who accompanied the marches with an uplifting upbeat, as well as all those who could only join the action for the more stationery, evening parts.


Since I mention Chukhrov’s account, I must also state that I found her socio-political analysis of Georgia’s recent history somewhat partial, insofar as she fails to mention the popular outrage sparked by the wrongdoings of Mikhel Saakashvili, a former president, whose tenure marked the era predating the Ivanishvili/Georgian Dream epoch. It is crucially important to acknowledge that Saakashvili, or, as everyone in Georgia calls him, Misha, was the political leader who put the country on the track of Euro-Atlantic ‘modernisation’ and ‘democratisation’ – after ousting Eduard Shevardnadze[i], the last foreign minister of the USSR, infamous for assuming the presidential seat of Georgia via a coup d’état orchestrated with the paramilitary or shadow army of Jaba Ioseliani (a poet and playwright with a PhD, who found his true muse in the AK-47). Although acknowledging the governmental, economic, police and military reforms implemented during the Saakashvili era only represents one side of the coin, the brighter one, really. On the flip side, the picture is a lot grimmer: it is a story of detained political adversaries, raided media outlets, and the abuse of the power by the police on the widest scale, which culminated in the Gldani prison scandal (leaked footage showing prison guards torturing and sexually assaulting prisoners). It was this darker reality that brought the Saakashvili era to an end, and it is the memory of those years that to this very day overshadows the reforms. Sadly, Ivanishvili’s rule is just as scandalous (buying votes on a large scale, the use of criminal gangs to physical threaten opposition supporters) but without the reforms, which has led to the polarisation, even division, of Georgian public opinion.



[i] It is worth mentioning that Shevardnadze was, and is, a much-debated leader, who, despite his violent regime (that is, bloody, often gang-ruled, corrupt, and nepotistic, etc.), actually turned out to be something of a reformist administration regarding Georgian foreign policy. The Euro-Atlantic integration of the country was one of the key goals of his leadership. Moreover, some researchers claim that it was Shevardnadze who implemented the foundational reforms that allowed Saakashvili to further expand Georgia’s European (neoliberal) ‘modernization’. The author would like to thank Dato Laghidze for his insightful comments.

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