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The illustration shows an open book with the Georgian flag on the pages and a bookmark with the words "Russian law" on it

At the Crossroads Between Russia and the EU

For the Georgians, the European Union stands for a promising future and the liberation from Russian influence. How should the EU react appropriately to the pro-European mood in the country?

Young Georgians shouted “Avada Kedavra” – the spell from Harry Potter – among other slogans at the protest rally in Tbilisi, in front of the Parliament of Georgia on May 1, 2024. They used the spell because all the traditional ways and tools to ensure the ruling party did not support the “Russian law” were exhausted and not successful.

That day, Georgian lawmakers adopted the “Transparence of Foreign Influence Law” in the second hearing. The Kremlin-inspired law intended to stifle free expression and shrink civic space in the country. Police used tear gas, stun grenades, and water cannons against demonstrators; dozens were arrested. I have never seen so many people on the streets of Tbilisi during my career as a news journalist, having covered protest rallies in Georgia for more than 20 years.

The Kremlin-inspired law intended to stifle free expression and shrink civic space in the country. Police used tear gas, stun grenades, and water cannons against demonstrators; dozens were arrested.

Tbilisi erupted into a series of protest rallies starting on April 17, 2024, when the ruling party, “Georgian Dream”, initiated the draft law again, despite the promise given to Georgians one year ago to “unconditionally withdraw” the ‘foreign agents’ law as the result of the massive civil protests in March 2023. Critics call it “Russian law” because the law initiating the registration of “foreign agents” was initially adopted by Russia in 2012, and year by year, the law was increasingly utilized for repressions against the opposition and independent media outlets.

Driving Out of Business

The proposed legislation in Georgia mandates that any individuals or organizations in Georgia receiving over 20 percent of their funding from foreign sources must register as foreign agents, regardless of whether they are representing a foreign government. This legislation enables the government to closely oversee a wide range of entities, including religious, academic, humanitarian, and civic groups, as well as media outlets, watchdog organizations, and election-monitoring groups. Those who refuse to register face severe fines to drive them out of business or into exile.

This law clearly became a point of choice for Georgians between a future in the European Union (EU) and a return to the USSR. It looks like a coup made by the government itself. It feels like someone suddenly turned the route direction from Euro-integration to Russia.

 It looks like a coup made by the Government itself. It feels like someone suddenly turned the route direction from Euro-integration to Russia.

And Georgians are shocked and very angry. Now, it is impossible not to notice the pro-Kremlin tone in the Georgian government’s statements.

A New Narrative

“I brought to the attention of the President of the European Council the active involvement of foreign-funded organizations in two attempted revolutions in Georgia between 2020 and 2023. I conveyed my disappointment that despite numerous invitations, our partners have been reluctant to engage in substantive discussions on transparency law,” the Prime Minister of Georgia, Irakli Kobakhidze, posted on May 3 on X (former Twitter) after the conversation with Charles Michel. Nobody understands which attempts of revolution Kobakhidze has in mind; it looks like a new narrative.

All Western partners of Georgia made clear statements that the final adoption of the law would be a serious obstacle for Georgia on its way to EU membership. “It goes against Georgia’s stated objective of joining the EU“, underlined Josep Borell, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. The US State Department stated, “Georgia’s Western trajectory is at risk.” At the same time, the messages supporting the adoption of the law are heard from key Russian propagandists like Putin’s press speaker, Dmitry Peskov, and the far-right founder of the Russian world concept, Aleksandr Dugin.

Easing the Entry of Offshore Capital Into Georgia

Right in the middle of the protests, the Georgian Parliament voted using a fast-track procedure in favour of amendments to the tax code, exempting taxes and duties on offshore assets brought into the country. It is unbelievable, but one of the authors of the amendments spoke about “laundering money” very openly during his bill presentation to the finance committee. “Monitoring has increased, transparency has increased, taxes have increased [in offshores], so many are leaving the offshore,” Georgian Dream MP Paata Kvizhinadze told parliament’s finance committee on April 17. “If they move here and launder there… it’s already laundered, but if it [moves to] Georgia, it will be more transparent and bring more taxes,” Kvizhinadze said. Amidst escalating tensions surrounding Georgia’s foreign agents law, the ruling party hurriedly passed a contentious tax law, sparking concerns that the country may transform into a money laundering hub for illicit funds to benefit the billionaire leader and founder of the party, Bidsina Iwanischwili, and the Russian capital.

The ruling party hurriedly passed a contentious tax law, sparking concerns that the country may transform into a money laundering hub for illicit funds to benefit the billionaire leader and founder of the party, Bidsina Iwanischwili, and the Russian capital.

How can the EU aid Georgians in safeguarding their Western orientation? I wouldn't characterize this law as dividing Georgian society; rather, it has separated those in power from the populace. In terms of political support, imposing individual sanctions on leaders of the “Georgian Dream” and parliamentarians who endorsed this law would be immensely beneficial.

Nonetheless, for sustained impact, nurturing cultural ties between the EU and Georgia is invaluable—particularly through initiatives related to education and enhancing Georgia's presence in Europe's cultural milieu. This encompasses various endeavours, ranging from student exchange programs to Georgia's involvement in book fairs and film festivals, and culminating in food and wine celebrations.

Hard-Won Visibility

Step by step, more and more Europeans can differentiate Georgia as a country from the U.S. state Georgia. This visibility has been hard-won for Georgia since gaining independence from the USSR 33 years ago, with pivotal events such as the Russian-Georgian war in 2008 and the Rose Revolution in 2003 significantly contributing to its visibility.

“There are forgotten cultures, the dead ones, that only live in universities with the help of scholars”, said Georgian writer Aka Morchiladze in his passionate opening speech at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2018, where Georgia was invited as the guest of honour. And continued: “Some ancient cultures are totally unknown to the modern world, or only a few are familiar with them. These cultures are still alive and have survived these days thanks to magic and higher interventions. It is an honour for me to present such culture to you today.”

During the Soviet era (1921-1991), Georgians found themselves in isolation, yet their appetite for European literature remained insatiable, often resorting to clandestine translations and publications for access. However, despite this fervour for foreign works, Georgian literature languished largely untranslated and overlooked.

In a significant stride towards literary inclusivity, the Georgian National Book Centre was established by the Ministry of Culture in 2014, successfully fostering collaborations with foreign publishers to showcase both classic and contemporary Georgian authors. Regrettably, the centre’s autonomy was short-lived, as it was absorbed into another state entity in 2019, marking a setback in its independent initiatives.

Georgia has its unique alphabet, and the language is spoken by five million people. This is a treasure and a disadvantage simultaneously – as only a few people can read Georgian literature without translation, it is harder to make Georgian culture and literature part of the European cultural landscape. Any initiative encouraging European publishing houses to collaborate with Georgian publishers is essential. Theatre and visual art can easily override the language barrier. Georgia has a rich tradition in both spheres, but still, it is a rare opportunity to see Georgian performances at European theatre festivals. The extensive exhibition of the painter Niko Pirosmani (1862 – 1918) last year in Basel was the exclusion more than a rule.

New Eurasian Bridges

Interestingly, Georgian protests against the “Russian law” have impacted Georgia’s relationship with the former Russian brotherhood republics from the Soviet past. Kyrgyzstan is observing the process closely as a similar law on “foreign agents” was passed there without loud street protests. Kyrgyzstan’s President Sadyr Japarov signed a bill on foreign funding for civil organizations into law on April 2, 2024. “If Putin is trying to catch Georgia aspiring to the EU, Kyrgyzstan itself is in the noose by passing the law ‘On Foreign Representatives’,” says the Kyrzyg political analyst Almaz Tazhybai on X (former Twitter), pondering the absence of widespread protest in Kyrgyz society despite 110 NGOs sending a protest letter to President Japarov.

Russia’s foreign agent law has undoubtedly influenced a series of legislative actions in countries formerly part of the Soviet Union. Now, looking at Georgia, others understand that expressing disagreement with the ruling power matters. In this way, Georgia can inspire many changes in the Eurasian region.

Tragic Events of 1989

It may seem surprising, but throughout Georgia's 33-year history of independence, protests directly related to economic issues or price increases have been notably rare. The tragic events of April 9, 1989, marked a pivotal moment in Georgia's struggle for freedom and sovereignty. On that day, thousands gathered on central Rustaveli Avenue in what was then Soviet Georgia to assert their demands. Despite a brutal crackdown by Soviet military troops resulting in the loss of 21 lives, the events of that night signalled the collapse of the communist regime in Georgia.

All other large-scale protests in Georgia were connected with the demands for justice and systemic changes, like the 2003 massive gatherings that brought Mikheil Saakashvili’s government to power.

Today’s protests against the "Russian law" are not orchestrated, inspired, or spearheaded by opposition party leaders. Instead, gatherings are being arranged by groups of young individuals who claim the circumstances forced them into activism, utilizing social media platforms for coordination.

Consequently, these demonstrations might introduce fresh political contenders for the impending Parliamentary elections in October 2024. This could potentially expand the array of options available to Georgian protest voters, who previously faced a limited choice between the ruling Georgian Dream party and Saakashvili’s National Movement. Both parties have tarnished their reputations over the past decade, prompting voters to seek a viable third alternative.

“The Russian Invasion in Ukraine became possible because the Kremlin had been signalling to young people for years that they should be apolitical and that they cannot change anything in the country“, explains my Russian neighbour, a young graphic designer who moved to Georgia after Russia started the war in Ukraine.

The protests are not orchestrated, inspired, or spearheaded by opposition party leaders. Instead, gatherings are being arranged by groups of young individuals who claim they've been compelled into activism, utilizing social media platforms for coordination.

Georgian young people have been campaigning for more political activity in recent years. The current developments in the country are seen by Georgian political analysts as a victory of the strong civil society. Even if the law is formally adopted with the third hearing planned for May 17, 2024, we will still have a lot of positive changes as Georgian civil society becomes united and much stronger and more organized.

In elections, the “Georgian Dream” typically relies on what are known as administrative resources – individuals employed in state institutions. Public school teachers and pensioners have also constituted a significant portion of the ruling party's active supporters. However, the priorities of the older demographic have shifted, placing greater value on the welfare of their grandchildren than on the state pension, which amounts to around 100 Euro per month. Teachers witness firsthand the dedication of their students to the cause of the country's freedom, as they take to the streets after school, thereby contributing to a new chapter in Georgian history.

Past elections, as indicated by polls, have shown that the largest segment of voters falls into the category of "undecided until election day." Presently, it is becoming increasingly difficult to overlook the resonance of Russian-like rhetoric and actions within the Georgian government.

“True Capital of Europe”

“As long as there are such brave, great Europeans, the EU will not perish because of the humble souls, faint-hearted people, and nationalists. Tbilisi is currently the true capital of Europe,” Michael Roth, Chair of the Bundestag Foreign Affairs Committee wrote on X (former Twitter), sharing the picture of tens of thousands of protestors at Rustaveli Avenue.

For certain citizens within European Union countries, it may seem peculiar that individuals thousands of kilometres away from Western Europe would passionately confront riot police, risking their well-being for the EU flag. However, for Georgians, the EU flag symbolizes a promising future, an improved quality of life for their offspring, national pride, sovereignty, and liberation from Russian influence after nearly three centuries of occupation. The stars adorning the blue flag serve as beacons of hope, stirring the hearts of Georgians.

If the European Union were to forsake Georgians at this critical juncture, which may involve discontinuing collaborative cultural initiatives and imposing restrictions on the visa-free travel arrangement for Georgian citizens, the consequences could be dire. Without viable alternatives, Georgians may find themselves susceptible to another form of invasion by Russia – albeit not through military means, but rather through manipulation of ruling politicians.

About the Author
Natalia Amalglobeli
Journalist and Communications Expert

Natalia Amaglobeli is a Georgian journalist and communications expert. She has been working for Georgian radio, newspaper and television stations for 20 years, reporting mainly on culture, science, education and art. She started as a news reporter at the TV company Rustavi 2, producing and presenting various programmes, including night and morning shows and the weekly magazine "P.S.". She also worked as editor-in-chief of In 2013, she founded the state-funded Georgian English-language news portal and resigned from her post as editor-in-chief in 2021 due to censorship.

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