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For the past three weeks, protests sparked by a proposed “Transparency of Foreign Influence” law have roiled the Republic of Georgia. The leadership in Tbilisi nevertheless appears intent on pushing the controversial bill through parliament, a course that is plunging the country into a profound domestic political crisis while exacerbating tensions with the West. Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia’s richest man and its de facto leader, appears willing to sacrifice relations with the EU in order to cling to power — albeit informally, as he no longer holds any official position in the government or in the ruling Georgian Dream party he founded in 2012. Still, with active support from the democratic world, Georgian civil society at least stands a chance of defending their country’s European aspirations.

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Content
  • Explosive legislation

  • Defeat is death

  • Dizzy with success?

Explosive legislation

The protests in Tbilisi refuse to die down. On April 15, shortly after the ruling Georgian Dream party announced its intention to pass a controversial Transparency of Foreign Influence law by the end of the spring parliamentary session, massive crowds took to the streets. Tensions have only escalated since, with altercations erupting inside parliament, a swelling number of demonstrators turning out each evening, gridlocked traffic bringing the capital to a standstill, and clashes with law enforcement that have involved the use of pepper spray, batons, and water cannons.

Readers can be forgiven for thinking they have heard this story before. A similar scenario unfolded in spring 2023, when Georgia’s “Dreamers” championed legislation that seemed to have been dictated by the Kremlin itself. That development was particularly noteworthy given the deep ties between the ruling party’s founder, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, and the country where he had amassed his wealth: namely, the Russian Federation. A year ago, the authorities ultimately yielded to a combination of domestic opposition, which then as now took to the streets en masse, and foreign pressure, which warned that adoption of the Russian-style “foreign agents” law would jeopardize Georgia’s official aspirations to join the EU and NATO.

 Protests against the adoption of the “foreign agents” law, Tbilisi
Protests against the adoption of the “foreign agents” law, Tbilisi

Once again, the United States and the European Union are sounding the alarm. “Georgia's Western trajectory is at risk,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller cautioned on May 1. In a statement released on the U.S. Department of State's website, Miller asserted that the Georgian government's rhetoric and actions are “inconsistent with the democratic values essential for EU and NATO membership, endangering Georgia's integration into the Euro-Atlantic community.”

During his visit to Tbilisi on May 2, Gert Jan Koopman, the Director-General for Neighborhood and Enlargement Negotiations at the European Commission, argued that passage of the updated “foreign agents” law would create substantial barriers to Georgia’s EU accession. Echoing this sentiment, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen emphasized that Georgian society “firmly upholds democratic principles,” and advised that authorities in Tbilisi “must heed this clear message.”

But the Georgian authorities remain intransigent. Despite the uproar from the streets, the bill has passed through two readings. The final, third reading, is expected sometime mid-May. After that, President Salome Zurabishvili will likely veto the law, but the parliamentary majority is poised to override her opposition, and they have both the constitutional authority and the necessary majority to do so.

Each stage of the process will undoubtedly be accompanied by new protests, along with criticism from Western officials, but Georgian Dream no longer seems concerned by either source of opposition. On May 2, the Foreign Ministry in Tbilisi announced that Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze had declined an invitation to visit the United States, claiming that one of the conditions Washington had placed on the trip involved temporarily suspending consideration of the controversial bill.

In response to the canceled visit, U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Robin L. Dunnigan issued a statement expressing “deep concern” about the fact that “we have invited senior members of the Georgian Government to engage directly with the most senior leaders in the United States to discuss our strategic partnership…unfortunately, the Georgian side chose not to accept this invitation.” The U.S. statement did not address the Georgian side’s assertion that conditions had been placed upon Kobakhidze’s potential trip.

While the scandal likely represents the most serious diplomatic rift ever between Washington and Tbilisi, Georgia’s history since gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 has not exactly been calm. Under Mikheil Saakashvili, who served as president from 2004-2013, the country enjoyed warm relations with the West but near constant conflicts with Russia, which has occupied the Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia ever since its five-day military invasion in August 2008. Since 2013, oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream party has dominated politics during a period marked by a state of “neither peace nor war” with Moscow. In the meantime, Georgia’s relationship with the West has suffered, culminating in the “foreign agents” controversy.

On April 25th, the European Parliament passed a resolution concerning Georgia. It states that “EU accession negotiations should not be opened as long as this law is part of Georgia’s legal order.” Meanwhile, there are growing concerns within Georgia that, due to the actions of the Georgian Dream party, the republic risks losing its visa-free travel regime with the EU. Interestingly, visa liberalization is considered one of the key achievements by the “Dreamers.”

Due to the actions of the Georgian Dream party, the Georgia risks losing its visa-free travel regime with the EU

Defeat is death

Some insights as to why Georgian Dream has brought such troubles upon itself can be gleaned from a recent Ivanishvili speech. On April 29th, the oligarch addressed a rally organized by the ruling party in support of the “foreign agents” law. His performance, which echoed anti-Western sentiments more commonly heard from Russian or Belarusian figures, was unusual for a representative of a country officially striving for EU and NATO membership.

Bidzina Ivanishvili
Bidzina Ivanishvili

A few excerpts from Ivanishvili's address are worth noting. The first regards NATO:

“Despite the promises made at the [NATO] Bucharest Summit in 2008, Georgia and Ukraine were not admitted to NATO and were left in limbo. Such decisions are driven by the party of global conflict, which wields decisive influence over NATO and the European Union. For them, Georgia and Ukraine are merely pawns. They first pitted Georgia against Russia in 2008, and later, in 2014 and 2022, they placed Ukraine in an even more precarious situation.”

The second regards the European Parliament's resolution condemning Georgia’s “foreign agents” law. According to Ivanishvili, the approval of “this decidedly un-European resolution once again highlights the influence of the party of global conflict on the EU.”

Lastly, Ivanishvili comments on the “Transparency of Foreign Influence” law itself:

“Opaque funding of NGOs is the primary tool used to install external control over Georgia's governance. The aim is not for Georgia to be governed by the power elected by the Georgian people, but by those appointed from abroad. It is our duty to prevent this.”

In essence, Ivanishvili was suggesting that a certain Western “party of conflict,” having once purportedly drawn Georgia into war, now seeks to install a new government in Tbilisi so as to once again create chaos in the country.

These assertions by Ivanishvili should be taken seriously, if not literally. Despite holding no official government position, the billionaire is a significant political player in the country.

Despite holding no official government position, the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili is a significant political player in the country

In 2011, businessman Ivanishvili made his shift into politics with the goal of unseating Mikhail Saakashvili and his United National Movement (UNM) party from power. By 2012, this objective was realized, as the “Dreamers” secured a parliamentary majority, pushing the UNM into the opposition. Ivanishvili served as Georgia's Prime Minister from October 2012 to November 2013 before stepping down.

He reemerged onto the political stage in 2018, another election year. The UNM nominated former Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze, a close associate of Saakashvili, for the presidency. Ivanishvili threw his support behind Salome Zurabishvili, who ultimately won the office. However, she later became a thorn in his side, emerging as a staunch critic of the Georgian Dream party — and of Ivanishvili personally.

Following the 2018 presidential election, the oligarch remained politically active, securing yet another victory for the “Dreamers” in the 2020 parliamentary vote. However, in January 2021, he once again announced his departure, officially stepping down as the leader of Georgian Dream. This latest hiatus was characteristically interrupted in December 2023, when the billionaire returned to his party as its honorary chairman.

Ivanishvili is now focused on leading the “Dreamers” to victory in the upcoming parliamentary elections this autumn. In his speech on April 29th, he outlined his side’s chief aim: to maintain power at any cost, whether or not this requires further worsening Georgia’s relationship with the West.

In his speech on April 29th, Ivanishvili outlined his side’s chief aim: to maintain power at any cost

While the billionaire's opponents in Georgian politics strive to depict Ivanishvili and his party as Kremlin agents, the oligarch and his supporters have loudly asserted — for over a decade now — that the return to power of Saakashvili or his UNM associates would mean war with Russia, a possibility that seems all the more real given the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. When the opposition takes anti-Kremlin positions — like opposing the “foreign agents” bill — the “Dreamers” exploit the situation by raising the specter of another invasion.

The ongoing war in Ukraine has further intensified Georgians’ fear of war with neighboring Russia

In the summer of 2022, then-Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, who now leads Georgian Dream, stated: “We do not want war, even if it means EU membership.” Two years later, Ivanishvili asserts that if the “agents,” namely Saakashvili and his cohorts, were to find themselves back in power, Georgia would become a second front in the West’s supposed war against Russia.

Given his party’s twelve-year hold on power, Ivanishvili’s tactics seem to be more politically effective than those of his domestic adversaries. But will the strategy work yet again in parliamentary elections this October?

Dizzy with success?

With six months to go before the vote, polls show a significant lead for the “Dreamers” — 31.4% compared to 9.6% for the next closest rival, the National Movement/Strategy Aghmashenebeli alliance.

Given these favorable conditions, it might seem unwise to stir up society with the revival of the law on “foreign agents,” especially given that the opposition appears weak and fragmented. Moreover, the economy is thriving, Georgia has earned candidate status for EU membership, and discussions with Brussels are set to begin about moving the process forward. And yet, despite this favorable backdrop, the powers-that-be in Tbilisi are deliberately creating a crisis within the country and courting conflict with the West.

Despite the inherent risks, Ivanishvili continues to project confidence: “Making the right move at the right time is the highest art of politics. My political experience allows me to assert that, as a leader, I am adept at calculating such steps.”

Georgian political analyst Gela Vasadze is less certain about where political developments in his country are headed. “Moscow convinced the Georgian authorities that the Americans are preparing a 'Maidan,' a 'color revolution,' and so [Ivanishvili] launched [the ‘foreign agents’ law] to make the opposition reveal itself and identify all points of resistance, as well as how the opposition will act in the elections. But, in my opinion, the idea that there is an American plan is nonsense,” Vasadze told The Insider.

Still, he believes that the “Dreamers” may yet succeed in passing the law:

“The protest is massive — it involves all of civil society, plus the youth. Still, if the protest movement remains one-on-one with the authorities, it cannot stop them. But if the protesters and the West act together, that could slow [Georgian Dream] down.”

If the political situation in Tbilisi appears almost incomprehensibly complicated, that’s because it is. Despite the anti-Western sentiment routinely voiced by Ivanishvili, the oligarch still confidently claims that Georgia will join the European Union in 2030: “We will overcome all obstacles, strengthen our sovereignty, maintain peace, strengthen Georgia's economy, and become a member of the EU in 2030.”

This, too, is part of the political game. When it comes to European integration, a goal supported by the vast majority of Georgians, the country's leadership remains open. However, the stance on NATO membership is less clear. Despite Georgia's official aspiration to join the Alliance dating back to the era of Mikhail Saakashvili's presidency, the current authorities prefer not to emphasize this ambition. Furthermore, Ivanishvili has criticized NATO, an organization that, in recent decades, left both Tbilisi and Kyiv isolated vis-à-vis Russia.

Abkhazian political analyst Inal Khashig, in conversation with The Insider, suggests there are multiple reasons for the Georgian government's acrobatics. One of them is the issue of territorial integrity. In his rally speech on April 29, Ivanishvili emphasized the vision of a united and indivisible Georgia. Describing it as “our Georgian dream,” the honorary chairman of the “Dreamers” expressed confidence that the country would ultimately prove capable of “achieving this goal collectively.”

Khashig even foresees a potential diplomatic path for closer ties between the breakaway provinces and Georgia proper, one that could align with Russian interests as well:

“For Russia, it's important that Georgia stays neutral while maintaining some ties with [Moscow]. During Saakashvili's era, Russia recognized Abkhazia’s independence, but now the answer to the question of what's more important for Moscow — Georgia or Abkhazia — is evident. It would not be possible for them to force us back into Georgia as an autonomous republic — that’s too bloody and technically difficult. However, through persuasion and informational preparation, something like a confederation could be created.”

Interestingly, a recent survey conducted in Georgia included the question: “If you had to choose between the return of Abkhazia and South Ossetia or joining NATO and the EU, what would you choose?” Nearly 80% of respondents expressed a preference for reintegration over formal entry into the two Western institutions.

When faced with a choice between NATO/EU admission and the return of the Russian-occupied territories, the overwhelming majority of Georgians say they would prefer the latter

However, there are currently no indications that Georgia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia are moving towards closer integration. Dialogue does exist between Tbilisi, Sukhumi, and Tskhinvali within the framework of the International Geneva Discussions on Security and Stability in the South Caucasus. These negotiations involve representatives from the three sides, along with Russia, the United States, the EU, the UN, and the OSCE. Meetings occur regularly — the latest was held on April 5, 2024 — and they have not led to any notable developments.

For its part, in the past Moscow has hinted that if Georgia were to reach an agreement with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Russian side would not object. “As for the territorial integrity of Georgia — it's primarily a matter for the Georgian, the Ossetian, and Abkhazian people. We need to work with them, and we will accept any decision,” Vladimir Putin said in 2015.

It is not surprising that the regular statements put out by the leadership of South Ossetia about this partially recognized republic's desire to join Russia remain just that — statements. Moscow doesn't heed them, and there's no progress beyond words. Abkhazia and South Ossetia thus remain assets for the Kremlin that can be leveraged when needed.

Whether the proposed “foreign agent” law, the protests it has inspired, the Western backlash it has called forth, or the ongoing political turmoil in Tbilisi are actually enough to change Georgia’s political orientation this October remains to be seen. Amidst the chaos, one thing likely remains certain: Georgian politics will continue to be unpredictable for the foreseeable future.

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