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Crisis in Georgia: 'Russian Law' Ignites Protests as Elections Loom

By Malkhaz Matsaberidze
Thursday, May 2, 2024
The adoption of the "Russian Law" by 83 deputies of the Georgian Parliament in the first reading has sharply strained the situation both within the country, between Georgian Dream and its opponents, and between Georgian Dream and Georgia's western partners. Ivanishvili's government is still being warned both inside and outside the country of various negative consequences for Georgia and those in power with specific sanctions in case the adoption of the law.

On April 17, 83 deputies of the Parliament adopted a bill restricting media and civil society in the first reading, which declares organisations that receive Western grants to be "carriers of the interests of a foreign power", and funds, including those of the USA, the European Union, and other international organisations that give grants in Georgia, are labelled as "foreign force".

Georgian Dream attempted to pass this law a year ago and it was passed in the first reading. But as a result of public protest, it was withdrawn for good, or so the ruling party promised. As to why the law was brought up again.

In a strategic manoeuvre, Georgian Dream recalibrated its approach, honed its tactics, fortified its structures, and reintroduced the aforementioned bill. Alternatively, another interpretation suggests a directive from Moscow, mirroring similar legislation enacted in other nations within Russia's sphere of influence, such as Kyrgyzstan. Regardless of the interpretation, leaders of the Georgian Dream party assert their unwavering resolve, stating unequivocally their intention to proceed with the legislation.

Following the second plenary session convened as of the current writing on May 1st, the parliamentary majority will have just one more hearing session remaining to finalise the adoption of the law.

After the first reading of the draft law, the situation became tense and permanent protests started. The government contrasted the protest rally with a counter-rally, which was held "at the request of the supporters" as per the ruling team. This was tried by the previous governments of Georgia, and at the time when they were losing the support of the people. Everyone remembers the people sent by Aslan Abashidze to Tbilisi to help Shevardnadze before the Rose Revolution, as well as the people gathered at the stadium by Saakashvili, which did not prolong their rule.

Following the first reading of the draft law, tensions escalated, triggering sustained protests. In response, the government organised a counter-rally, "at the request of its supporters", a tactic reminiscent of past administrations in Georgia during periods of waning public support. The crowds of people sent by Aslan Abashidze to aid Shevardnadze before the Rose Revolution, as well as Saakashvili's gathering of supporters at the stadium, which failed to prolong his rule, remain vivid in public memory. It's evident that each subsequent move towards adopting the "Russian law" will likely intensify the wave of protests. Perhaps some individuals within the government may be tempted by the approach of Belarusian President Lukashenko, who quelled a formidable protest movement through physical repression.

Sooner or later, Georgian Dream will also have to deal with the protest movement against "Russian Law" by force. A year ago, Georgian Dream was not ready for this and retreated. Now the question is, did they calculate everything and prepare to neutralise the protest by force? What happens if the riot police no longer want to disperse peaceful protesters? Such a thing already happened in Georgia in 2003.

The external aspect of the attempt to adopt the "Russian law" is crucial in understanding the broader implications for Georgia's international relations, particularly with the European Union (EU). Georgian Dream has been explicitly warned that adopting this law would jeopardise negotiations for Georgia's EU membership and potentially lead to the suspension of its candidate status. Financing of many projects important to Georgia may be stopped, visa liberalisation may be questioned, personal sanctions may be imposed on Bidzina Ivanishvili and those parliamentarians who will support the Russian law, as well as on police leaders who are accused of dispersing peaceful protests.

Along with the protests surrounding the "Russian law", the parliamentary elections are getting closer every day. Georgian Dream talks about obtaining a constitutional majority, and according to various surveys, the support of this party is about 35-38%. Some speculate that the push to introduce the "Russian law" is intertwined with electoral considerations, aiming to undermine non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and diminish their oversight of the electoral process.

After the parliamentary elections of 2020, all opposition parties accused Georgian Dream of rigging the elections and refused to enter the parliament in protest. The European Union played a significant role in overcoming this situation, assuming that both Georgian Dream and the opposition aspired for European integration and that they would overcome polarisation by cooperating.Today, the majority of Georgians no longer believe in the European aspirations of the current government. As assessments of the election results unfold, evaluation will likely be stringent.