Georgians Fight for Their European Dream

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 73

(Source: OC-Media)

Executive Summary:

  • Protests intensified in Georgia after the parliament approved the second reading of the reintroduced Russian-style “foreign agents” law, as police arrested dozens of protesters and several opposition leaders were beaten by unknown assailants.
  • Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze refused to visit the United States after Washington warned of the need for additional discussions about the controversial law before its third reading.
  • The European Union has warned the Georgian Dream government about the serious consequences of using force against the opposition, including possibly canceling the visa-free regime and compromising the country’s candidate status.

On May 8, unidentified people in sportswear and hoods ambushed Dmitry Chikovani, press secretary for Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) opposition party. Several people attacked the politician when he stepped out of his car near an apartment building in the Sololaki district in the southeast of Tbilisi (Civil.ge, May 9). Simultaneously, in another district, a group of unknown people attacked and severely beat Gia Japaridze, a senior fellow at the Ilya Chavchavadze Center, an organization that promotes active citizenship and civic engagement. Japaridze has frequently criticized the “foreign agents” law initiated by the ruling Georgian Dream (GM) party (see EDM, April 24). He is the brother of Zurab Japaridze, leader of the libertarian opposition party “Girchi—More Freedom,” which is considered one of the main organizers of the mass protests against the “Russian law.Lasha Ghvinianidze—one of the activists of the current demonstrations and an organizer of the bikers present at the march—was also attacked on that same day (Twitter.com/Batumelebi_ge, April 28; Civil.ge, May 9). The Georgian people’s fight against Georgian Dream’s “Russian law” demonstrates their desire to maintain Tbilisi’s turn to the West.

Two more attacks were carried out on May 9. Boris (Chele) Kurua of the Girchi—More Freedom party was attacked by a group of people (so-called “Titushki,” a term named after Vadim Titushko, who beat two journalists in 2013 in Ukraine during former Ukrainian President Victor Yanukoviych’s presidency while dressed like a street hooligan in sports clothing; Titushko’s actions inspired others to provoke violence toward anti-Yanukhovych/pro-European oppositionists and activists) near his home (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, May 21, 2013; Mtavari.tv, May 10). In another episode, opposition television and social media reported an attack on another opposition figure, Nodar Chachanidze of the Ahali party (Publika, May 10). All victims of these attacks suffered serious injuries and accused Georgian Dream officials of organizing the attacks. Georgian Minister of Internal Affairs Vakhtang Gomelauri promised journalists the government would “investigate the facts of the attacks,” but none of the criminals have been arrested.

Before these assaults, Georgian Dream’s ruling majority in parliament approved the second reading of the controversial “Foreign Influence Transparency” law. Mass protests near the parliament building again led to fierce clashes between riot police and demonstrators. Six people were arrested on charges of assaulting a police officer and damaging property. Law enforcement accused the demonstrators of damaging Tbilisi City Hall’s video cameras on the parliament building. According to Gomelauri, seven police officers were injured in the attacks, one of whom was hospitalized (Civil.ge, May 9). Eleven people were detained on May 9 along Ilia Chavchavadze Avenue, where police confronted protesters marching after the arrest of military blogger and activist Ucha Abashidze (Mtavari.tv; Radiotavisupleba; Civil.ge, May 9).

Speaker of the Georgian Parliament Shalva Papuashvili said at a special briefing that the Georgian Dream’s political council created a special register of people who call on citizens to fight against the “Russian law” and join in protests. Such persons, according to Papuashvili, “will be subject to public condemnation” after being included on the list (1tv.ge, May 8).

These shocking steps caused a harsh reaction from Washington and the European Union. The United States immediately invited Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze for talks and asked to suspend consideration of the law’s third reading until discussions could develop. In response, Kobakhidze canceled his visit to the United States—something that has never happened in Georgia’s modern history (Azernews, May 3). When US State Department advisor Derek Scholet criticized the Georgian government for using force against demonstrators, Kobakhidze replied, “We do not criticize the United States for using force against protesters in Columbia University (1tv.ge, May 3). The Georgian premier also accused Washington of conducting several attempts at a regime change in Georgia over the past few years (Tabula; Civil.ge, May 3).

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen condemned the violence in the streets of Tbilisi. She stated that “Georgia’s citizens are demonstrating their strong attachment to democracy” and that “the Georgian government should heed this clear message.” Von der Leyen further underlined that the “European Union has also clearly expressed its concerns regarding the law on foreign influence.” She noted that the European Council gave Georgia candidate status in December 2023 and set a clear path to open accession negotiations to recognize the Georgian people’s wish for a European future for their country (see EDM, November 14, 2023, January 8). While saying that Georgia is “at a crossroads” and “should stay the course on the road to Europe,” the EU leader expressed the expectation that the Georgian Dream government will take swift action on the measures it has committed to take (1tv.ge, May 1)

Von der Leyen’s comments are only part of the stormy Western reaction to the Georgian Dream’s anti-democratic decisions (Civil.ge, May 10 [1], [2], [3]). After the attack on opposition leaders and civil activists in Tbilisi, ambassadors of EU member states met in Brussels to consider the possibility of canceling their visa-free travel regimes if Georgia’s “anti-democratic trajectory” continues. Thus far, however, there are no signs that the ruling party or its leader, Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, are ready to make concessions (see EDM, January 18).

The little hope that still remains stems from Kobakhidze’s subtle hint that Georgian Dream will consider proposals from Western partners and the opposition to amend the law after President Salome Zourabichvili, who strongly opposes the bill, presumably vetoes the law. The opposition, however, is united in the opinion that no changes or amendments will improve the law, which aims to limit the rights of Georgian civil society. Georgia truly sits at a crossroads between Russia and Europe, as much of the population fights for the country’s European dream. The coming months will all but determine the country’s future as parliamentary elections loom in October.