Can Georgia protests save nation’s future?

Georgia is in trouble. After years of relative calm, this small, stunningly beautiful country, nestled between the pale beaches of the Black Sea and the snow-dusted Caucasus mountains, is facing a critical crossroads. This turning point could lead either to political instability or even chaos reminiscent of the early post-Soviet years.

At stake is Georgia’s future direction. Will this strategically important nation, with its vital ports and pipelines, continue on the path toward full membership in NATO and the European Union, similar to the Baltic states? Or will it succumb to political turmoil, rigged elections, and Russian interference, potentially reverting to Moscow’s authoritarian influence, much like Belarus?

Two key factors are driving these events: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the rise of anti-Western, populist, and nationalist rhetoric, which has been highly polarizing in parts of Eastern Europe and beyond. Georgia, a country with a rich history and culture, and a strong desire to strengthen ties with Europe, grow its economy, and avoid a return to the separatist wars of the 1990s, is now experiencing unexpected divisions.

On one side of this divide is a large protest movement, predominantly made up of young Georgians. This movement is marked by youthful energy, from mocking the prime minister’s haircut to vibrant street dances and organized medical teams ready to assist injured protesters. These young people, driven by events in Ukraine and eager to join the EU, have invigorated opposition parties in their protests against a new and highly controversial law.

The law, passed by parliament but vetoed by the president, is expected to come into force soon. It resembles a Russian law and seems intended to label many civil society groups as “foreign agents.” If implemented, it would almost certainly derail Georgia’s aspirations for EU membership. “It kills Georgia’s European future,” warned Salome Samadashvili, an opposition MP and former ambassador to the EU. She emphasized the critical nature of the upcoming elections, suggesting that a victory for the pro-European coalition could secure Georgia’s future.

However, the next elections in October seem distant amid fears of escalating street violence in Tbilisi. Activists like David Katsarava, who is recovering from injuries sustained during protests, fear that losing this battle means losing Georgia’s freedom and independence, potentially making it a part of Russia. Katsarava’s injuries and other reports of violence and intimidation against activists and opposition figures highlight the dangerous climate.

Opposing the protest movement is Georgia’s government, supported by many citizens and increasingly forceful police and security forces. The government claims the new “foreign agent” law is about transparency and not connected to Russia. Officials argue that the protests are driven by external forces aiming to overthrow the government in a “coup d’état.”

Relations between the Georgian government and the US and EU have deteriorated sharply. Mayor Kakha Kaladze insists on a European future for Georgia but condemns what he sees as foreign attempts to foment revolution. Some older Georgians, like market vendor Giorgi Isakadze, express fear of conflict with Russia and skepticism about European integration, reflecting the divided opinions within the country.

On Saturday, a counter-protest supporting “family values” and the Orthodox Church showed the government’s ability to mobilize public support against perceived foreign influence. These demonstrations accuse foreign NGOs of imposing “un-Georgian” values, particularly regarding LGBTQ rights.

Looming over Georgia’s struggles is Russia. President Vladimir Putin has expressed ambitions to restore elements of the old Soviet Union, and Russian troops currently occupy about 20% of Georgian territory. While it is unclear if Putin is orchestrating events in Tbilisi, he certainly benefits from the instability.

Georgia’s mercurial former prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, who retains significant political influence, has recently echoed anti-Western rhetoric, criticizing Western nations and possibly taking cues from Moscow. This rhetoric aligns with that of leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and raises concerns about Georgia’s trajectory.

Opposition figures like Salome Samadashvili argue that Ivanishvili’s motives—whether personal power or aligning with Russia—are ultimately harmful to Georgia’s European ambitions and democracy. They urge the West to respond decisively, as perceived weakness only emboldens Russia.

The future depends on whether Georgia’s security forces continue their crackdown and how effectively the opposition can maintain momentum. Diplomatic pressure and possible government concessions on the “foreign agents” law could ease the crisis temporarily. Free and fair elections in October would be a significant step towards stability. However, like many countries on Russia’s periphery, Georgia faces significant challenges in navigating a path to a democratic future.

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