Analysis | Georgia, a second Ukraine?

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Analysis | Georgia, a second Ukraine?

Flags of the United States, the European Union and Ukraine waved in the crowd of protesters opposing the 'foreign agents' bill.

Georgia, a small country of the former Soviet empire, on the shores of the Black Sea, has experienced strong political upheavals in recent days.

A bill, obviously inspired by Russia, wanted to establish in the country a register of organizations classified as foreign agents modeled on the model of a similar Russian law, adopted in 2012.

At the time, the Kremlin passed such a law after a partly rigged parliamentary election in December 2011 – disputed in major protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg – inspired the Kremlin to tighten the screws against the opposition.

But contrary to what happened in Moscow, two evenings of demonstrations, on March 7 and 8, in front of the parliament of Tbilisi (the capital), to which the police had nevertheless responded bluntly ( tear gas and water cannons), for the authorities to backtrack and simply withdraw their hated bill on March 9…

Demonstrators carrying a placard “We are Europe”

The opposition saw in this project – the slogans in Tbilisi were clear, in Georgian and English – a threat to democracy and Georgian sovereignty. No to Russian law! No to the Putin Law! We want Europe, not Russia!Not Back to USSR!

So, clearly, demonstrations to prevent Georgia from falling back into the Russian orbit, through the introduction of such a law.

This Russian law, which Tbilisi wanted to copy, is decked out with an infamous qualifier – foreign agent (inostranny agent in Russian: a term that comes directly from the Stalinist vocabulary) – any organization, from the moment it is, even partially, financed outside the country. In the law passed in first reading on March 7 in Georgia, the same term was used and the threshold for culpable financing was set at 20%.

This meant that any donation, loan, grant or investment from foundations, private companies, international organizations could make the beneficiary, in the eyes of the law, a sort of traitor. Example: a local NGO active in education and seeking a UNESCO grant would become a foreign agent!

In Russia, it is precisely this 2012 law that has been used to justify the persecution and subsequent suppression of civil society organizations. The process went crescendo in the following decade which resulted in the abandonment of the last elements of democracy and organized civil society in Russia. And which also led to the invasion of Ukraine.

Memorial was founded in 1987 by a group of Soviet dissidents , including Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov.

The most famous victim of this Moscow law: the Memorial organization, founded in the late 1980s by Andrei Sakharov and Mikhail Gorbachev, which defended Russian historical memory, rights and freedoms. She was dismantled in December 2021.

The passage of such a law in Tbilisi would have signed a symbolic act of allegiance to Russia. But it was also, very concretely, an authoritarian turn to bring to heel – as in Moscow – media and NGOs that could oppose the government or represent an independent civil society: undesirable things, from the point of view of an authoritarian government.

The media in this small, relatively poor country of 3,700,000 (US$5,000 annual GDP per capita) needs investment, support foreign capital, otherwise it's misery.

In Le Figaroof March 8, the journalist Régis Genté, a fine connoisseur of the region, collected the testimony of a responsible journalist, owner of a site which had investigated corruption in the construction sector in Georgia. Present at the demonstrations in Tbilisi, she told him:

This law is a disaster. Like all media in Georgia, we can only do our work with the support of Western grants. It's 70% of our budget… put at the service of our compatriots to participate in the citizen debate, tell what is happening in the country, question the actions of our leaders.

The alternative to this international funding, by NGOs or by private capital… is to fall into the direct orbit of an authoritarian government that only tolerates propaganda or complacent reporting.

This 2023 crisis may seem surprising, given that Georgia seemed to have made a clear pro-Western shift in the past twenty years (during the Rose Revolution in 2003… a year before the Orange Revolution in Kiev). The country's president, Salomé Zourabichvili – whom Le Téléjournal interviewed just a year ago – isn't she clearly a pro-Western woman who warned against what she called and still calls the Russian danger? Her recent statements have disavowed the plans of the government from her own party – with which she divorced after her election.

Franco-Georgian, she had already worked for the French foreign service. Entering politics after settling in her country of origin, she was elected with a good majority at the end of 2018. Pro-Western, she nevertheless occupies a presidential seat with symbolic powers, which are quite limited in the Georgian system.

Real power is held in parliament by the Georgian Dream party, in power since 2012, re-elected in the 2020 legislative elections. But this party, originally pro-Europe and pro-Western, has recently experienced, under the action of one of its internal wings, an evolution that is both authoritarian and pro-Russian, under the leadership of a billionaire oligarch named Bidzina Ivanichivili.

What explains this singular turn of a government and a party that were originally pro-Western?

The protests continued despite the bill being withdrawn.

It is not the people who have changed their minds. The message of these latest, massive protests is unequivocal: it is a continuation of the political choices of the majority in Georgia for 20 years. According to the polls, to questions like Are you in favor of joining the European Union? or Would you be for NATO membership?, the yes answers are clearly in the majority. Especially for Europe, desired by 70% of the population.

But in the last two years, in the circles of power in Tbilisi, things have happened, not all clear: in particular the turn of this famous oligarch, Ivanichvili, now close to the Russians. A man whose fortune is equivalent to a quarter of Georgian GDP.

In such a small country, a single person sitting on billions of dollars can wield outsized power. Hence these pressures and this evolution of the party in power, which go in a direction other than that which the street seems to express.

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was arrested by the authorities upon his return from exile.

And then there is the Saakashvili affair, president from 2003 to 2013, who then lived through incredible episodes: exile in Ukraine, of which he is also a national, and where he had political responsibilities… then return to Georgia and trouble with justice. Upon his return to the country in 2021, Mikheil Saakashvili was immediately apprehended and imprisoned, tried and sentenced for abuse of power.

Its troubles are akin to political persecution by an increasingly pro-Russian power. Today, he languishes, sick, in a prison in Tbilisi, apparently poisoned.

On January 31, he published in Le Monde a rather poignant in which he said, in substance and to sum up: Help! I'm in jail and I'm going to die.

In this article, he makes the direct link between his troubles and what is happening in Ukraine: The Kremlin's war of aggression against Ukraine has forced the Georgian regime to show its true face: it now appears clearly to want the victory of Putin and participates in the circumvention of European economic sanctions against Russia.

Protesters on the Place de la République, at Paris, March 5, 2022.

This also means that in this Georgian national drama, there is also a regional context, heavy and obvious. Georgia is a country of the former Soviet Union, like Ukraine. We are in the same geopolitical space of the Black Sea: the Russian-Ukrainian war is very close.

Georgia has been knocking on Europe's door for years, like did Ukraine (but it did not obtain EU candidate status which was granted in June 2022 to Ukraine and Moldova). Episodes like this latest crisis do not help his cause.

Can Georgia become a second Ukraine?

There are similarities and there are differences. In Georgia as in Ukraine, the confrontation is a little west against east, Europe against Russia; it is a more liberal civil society, versus an authoritarian political model.

Young Georgians, like young Ukrainians, have their eyes turned towards the West: they look at the Poles, the Czechs… and they say: This is how we want to live, not like the Russians!

As for differences… in Georgia, there is no significant Russian minority. Georgia is much smaller than Ukraine. And above all, even if Russia snatched from it, during a blitzkrieg in 2008, two provinces (Abkhazia and South Ossetia), Georgia is not part of the historic core of the Russian Empire (Russia-Belarus- Ukraine) which inhabits the thought of Vladimir Putin and which seems to obsess him completely.

Despite the differences, we see today, in Georgia, political fights and contradictions which have their own internal springs… but which overlap with this great geopolitical division which is tragically expressed in the war in Ukraine.

And that, the demonstrators in Tbilisi are very aware of… and they have clearly chosen their side.

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