On November 27, in an interview on Georgian television, the country’s de facto leader—the chairperson of the ruling Georgian Dream party and Georgia’s sole billionaire, Bidzina Ivanishvili—denounced American non-governmental organizations (NGO), including the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI). Specifically, Ivanishvili accused these organizations of conspiring against Tbilisi with former Georgian authorities from the United National Movement (UNM), led by former president Mikheil Saakashvili. Georgia’s informal ruler stated that he intends to write a letter to United States President Donald Trump as well as the Congress to warn them of how US-funded organizations are harming US national interests in Georgia (Imedi.ge, November 27).
For many years, various US NGOs have conducted regular public opinion polls on the state of democracy in Georgia, the country’s economic situation, as well as the popular ratings of Georgian politicians. The results of those surveys have been consistently embarrassing for the current ruling party and for Ivanishvili personally—although UNM has also not fared particularly well during this time (see EDM, May 20, 2016).
On November 18, a few days before Ivanishvili’s televised interview, IRI published the results of its latest sociological poll, in which David Bakradze, one of the leaders of the opposition party European Georgia, tops a list of Georgia’s most popular politicians (with 57 percent of respondents expressing a favorable opinion of him). Ivanishivili is in a distant 11th place (32 percent), behind a number of other prominent opposition politicians (Iri.org, November 18, 2019).
The billionaire head of Georgian Dream declared, on camera, that although the US is Georgia’s strategic partner, NDI and IRI publish biased ratings. He expressed suspicion that organizations funded by the United States oppose his party and are working in favor of UNM. Georgia’s de facto leader obliquely warned Washington that US NGOs operating on Georgian soil are spoiling the reputation of the United States in Georgia, which could translate into growing distrust of the US (Imedi.ge, November 27).
This is not the first time Ivanishvili or one of his close associates have attacked NGOs (foreign as well as domestic) working in Georgia. Indeed, such condemnations often arise during periods of deepening domestic political crisis—particularly since, in the face of weak opposition parties, NGOs frequently represent the most effective opponents of the government.
Georgian Dream has demonstrated a confrontational attitude toward NGOs since coming to power over seven years ago. In 2014, then–prime minister Irakli Garibashvili, while presiding over a meeting of his cabinet, publicly accused the most active Georgian NGOs of undermining the country’s image and compared their work to “subversive activities.” A year later, Ivanishvili, threatened the leaders of several of the most powerful Georgian NGOs (Interpressnews.ge, February 2, 2015). In 2018, while speaking with reporters, Ivanishvili personally targeted the head of Transparency International Georgia and demanded that she give up her civil society work (1tv.ge, October 26, 2018).
According to Ivanishvili, Georgian society supposedly hates NGOs because they have lied for many years (Imedi.ge, November 27, 2019). However, US-based private company Edison Research was recently hired by one of Georgia’s interdependent television channels to conduct an opinion poll in Georgia in mid-November 2019 on the subject of public trust in various institutions. According to the results of the poll—released on the same day as Ivanishili’s TV interview—the level of Georgians’ trust in NGOs in fact far exceeded their trust in state institutions. Specifically, 49 percent of the population, according to this survey, trusts non-governmental organizations, 37 percent trusts the government and 34 percent trusts the parliament; Ivanishvili’s rating, meanwhile, also fell below that of NGOs—at 39 percent (TV Formula, November 27, 2019).
Georgian Dream officials’ regular criticism of Georgian NGOs is also partially aimed at these domestic organizations’ Western donors. Indeed, even the most influential Georgian NGOs are able to carry on their work mainly thanks to foreign grants. And Georgian political elites now frequently conflate the activities of those Georgian NGOs with the interests of their donor countries. During his November 27 interview, Ivanishvili hinted specifically at this financing mechanism of Georgian NGOs, claiming that US taxpayer money is being used to counter his power (Imedi.ge, November 27).
But what was novel about Ivanishvili’s latest statement is that, until that point, the Georgian ruling elite had for the most part refrained from harshly and openly criticizing US NGOs working in Georgia. One such case to the contrary occurred in April 2018, when Georgian Dream sharply criticized a report by Freedom House on the state of democracy in Georgia. Then, the authorities reacted stridently; and at a special briefing, the speaker of the parliament called the report biased (Radiotavisupleba.ge, April 12, 2018).
In his television interview last month, Georgia’s de facto leader addressed US authorities with a political message: “[O]ur government defends the interests of the United States in Georgia, but American NGOs are working against us” (Imedi.ge, November 27). What makes that statement even more notable is that it coincides with the Georgian Dream party’s ongoing “de-Americanization” of sorts. Indeed, on November 14, up to ten deputies who were in various ways associated with the United States and the West left the parliamentary majority (Oc-media.org, November 15). As a result, there are now few if any prominent, pro-US-minded politicians left in the ruling party.
Bidzina Ivanishvili’s pointed remarks were a warning shot across the bow for Georgian civil society while at the same time putting US and other Western donors on notice. Strict regulations pertaining to the activities of foreign and foreign-funded domestic NGOs can be found across the post-Soviet space, notably in Russia, where these organizations are labeled “foreign agents” and find themselves under close surveillance by the special services (see EDM, December 2, 2014). Indeed, prior to the Rose Revolution of 2003, the Georgian Ministry of Security under President Eduard Shevardnadze’s administration had developed a similar law on foreign agents, but because of the revolution, the law was never adopted. It now remains to be seen whether the Georgian Dream government will try to resurrect such legislation to target Western NGOs and civil society organizations backed by foreign financing.