How Georgians played with water cannons and said no to the foreign agents law

News - 2023-04-03
Natia Gvianishvili talks to Eka Tsereteli, executive director of Women's Initiatives Supporting Group (WISG) in Georgia, about the mass-protests in Tbilisi that forced the government to back down from a Russian-styled foreign agent bill that was introduced in Parliament in February this year.
A person standing in front of riot police during protests in Tbilisi in 2019. Photo by Tbel Abuseridze.

Georgia is a small, beautiful country, with a very long, rich and troubled history. The troubles of the last century have had a particular effect on the current socio-political climate, since the Georgian people - having endured numerous crises and wars - are still dealing with trauma as well as coming to terms with the aftermath of the Soviet colonialism. In these conditions, society has come to choose a political direction of the EU integration as a way to long-term stability and prosperity.

There is, of course, valid critique of how the Western influences sometimes play out in local contexts, but while the EU (and generally Western) support has objectively contributed to the positive cross-sectoral developments in Georgia, the contribution of its Northern neighbor has continued to take the shape of a proverbial boot on the neck. It comes as no surprise then, that any decisions made by the ruling political powers and putting the country under the Kremlin’s influence, cause aversion and anger. 

One such decision recently made international headlines. Massive protests erupted in March against the government-backed foreign agents’ bill, which aimed at establishing additional control over civil society organizations and media, subject them to increased reporting procedures and inflicting significant reputational damage.

After following the non-stop livestreams from Tbilisi, living and fighting vicariously through my friends on the ground and protesting in front of the Georgian Embassy in Stockholm, I rejoiced when the bill was finally voted down. But I also wanted to understand more about the implications of this political initiative and the next steps for civil society.  For this reason, I reached out to Eka Tsereteli - the executive director of WISG - a queer feminist organization that throughout the 22 years of its existence has witnessed most of the major political crises in Georgia and has been actively involved in resistance against them.

How could this happen? Was the first question Eka and I asked ourselves during our conversation. We both felt that the political climate for this initiative has been ripening over the years, as the public dissent from the politics of the ruling Georgian Dream party has continued to grow and lead to several escalations in the last four years. Aside from contributing to a generally polarized political climate, the government has taken concrete steps affecting the human rights situation in the country and essentially getting rid of the political accountability mechanisms.

The erosion of the independent judiciary, the dissolution of the State Inspector apparatus, and removal of the word gender from the title of the human rights (and formerly gender) advisor to the Prime Minister, as well as a painfully prolonged process around the renewal of the National Human Rights Strategy (and exclusion of LGBTI rights from it) and last but not least the appointment of a Member of the Parliament to the Ombudsperson post, rejecting all of the candidates presented by the civil society organizations, are all alarming markers of this pattern.

The most recent litmus test, tragically, appeared in the form of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Where the position of Georgian society has been and continues to be unanimously in favor of Ukraine and the Ukrainian people, the ruling party continued to either be silent, or taking an ambiguous political stance on the matter. Simultaneously, the increase in inflation, security concerns and overall socio-political anxiety has pushed the ruling party to double down on populism. The main narratives that have been exploited by the government focus on their own perceived achievements, constant comparison with the previous government, alleged malicious intent of the political opposition, critical media and civil society organizations and, as of recent, condemnation of the ’’misguided’’ messages from international partners that decry setbacks that democracy in Georgia is actually enduring.

Foreign Agents Rollercoaster

The foreign agents bill was first announced in December 2022 by a group of MPs claiming that the time had come to hold civil society and media accountable, to identify their funders and political intent - all of which is already clear, regulated by law and publicly available.

Initially there was suspicion that the initiative was either a publicity stunt or an attempt to gain some negotiation leverage with international partners. For this reason, the initial opposition was more cautious and much less public.

As New Years celebrations went by and we entered the month of February, the draft law was registered in the Parliament. The events developed incredibly fast from there.

While discussing the reasons behind Georgian Dream engaging in this ordeal, Eka explains “After the 2020 elections, the Georgian Dream party began to understand that they are increasingly failing to reach average voters, so they decided to target the conservative segments of the population more openly. Fearmongering has been increasingly used in the political messages over the last two years, especially after the full-scale invasion started in Ukraine.

The ruling party keeps repeating that the political opposition and the Western partners are pushing Georgia into a new war with Russia and that Georgian Dream is the only guarantor of peace. If we look at the polls from January 2023, we see that this message has worked in their favor. The shift in rhetoric was not initially expected to lead to problematic legal reforms, given that both civil society and our Western partners were noting that there was still some openness in the executive branch of the government to different working groups and processes in relation to compliance with international treaties. All of this gave the ruling party space and opportunity to try to quickly push through the reform that would significantly restrict critical media and civil society organizations before the next elections.”

Between mid-February and March 9 - when the bill was voted down in the second reading, there was a marathon of committee hearings, adoption of the bill in the first reading, registration of a second and more restrictive draft law on the same topic, and of course the public smear campaign against politicians (especially female MPs), journalists, civil society organizations and activists who were opposing the law. But most importantly, there were protests - a beautiful testament to careful coordination and wide social solidarity in these trying times.

Dancing to the sound of sirens

The situation initially looked hopeless for many of us, however the protests against the foreign agents’ bill soon mounted and became increasingly broad and diverse. Eka recalls “There was a high level of coordination amongst civil society organizations. We were adamant to not let the politicians and pro-government media use the well-trodden path of manipulating issues such as LGBTI rights or alleged political affiliations of those protesting against the draft law. They even tried to portray the groups that were against the bill as attacking the Georgian Orthodox Church. As a way of not falling prey to these manipulations, we kept our message broad, and refused to enter detailed discussions about the different provisions in the draft law. We did not want to give any validity to the bill itself or to the tactics used against the diverse groups resisting it. And we succeeded. It seems that the government finally realized that the anger was only mounting and becoming even more political, so they chose to back down.”

As somewhat of an outside observer, I was astonished to see how many people spoke out against the foreign agents bill. Representatives of NGOs, researchers, students, athletes and fans, culture workers and artists, authors and publishers, entrepreneurs, activists from vulnerable communities, journalists and many more have voiced how harmful this law would be, and how without foreign financial assistance, many sectors in Georgia would stop developing. There was also a broad consensus, that organizations would refuse to register as foreign agents, if the law would pass.

A statement signed by almost 400 NGO’s circulated stating that if the law passed, they would refuse to continue any cooperation with the State institutions. “If we can learn anything from the experience of Russian and Belarusian civil society, it is that when the government cracks down on rights and freedoms to this extent, continuing to work with the institutions leads to no result. The institutions receive some sort of legitimacy, but the oxygen for civil society organization still becomes increasingly scarce” Eka clarifies.

The most emotional part of the resistance against the bill was perhaps the massive Women’s March on International Women’s Day, which galvanized feminist activists from all over the country and which I was able to follow through a livestream with tears of joy in my eyes. What also stood out to me was that the demonstrations were multi-generational, with a very active presence of younger people.

“It was truly amazing. I think that everyone saw the photos and videos of these young people dancing to the sound of sirens or playing with the water cannons. The police must have been exhausted after several nights of trying to chase them off the streets. There really emerged a symbiosis of strategic and experienced older generation with a playful, you-cannot-catch-me attitude from Gen-Z, which ended up creating a very powerful, beautiful, and unpredictable unity” Eka recalls.  

Hazard Far from Over

Georgian people overcame this trial, but Eka warns that the hazard still remains, as does the rhetorical influence of the foreign agents’ bill “The smear campaigns that the ruling party initiated against the groups opposing the bill never really stopped. The defamation, active use of the word “agent” as synonymous to ’’traitor’’, insistence on them being right to initiate such a draft law, continues at full speed. They are practically carrying out a public awareness campaign in relation to the foreign agents bill. This is starting to affect the relationships of civil society organizations and different political actors, and the word ’’agent’’ is deliberately thrown around by individuals and groups that want to express their dislike for specific human rights defenders, politicians, journalists or organizations.

There remains the suspicion that the foreign agents bill might come back, as well that other similar initiatives might emerge. According to WISG’s assessment, the ruling party may take a path of trying to weaken the Law on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination – there have already been attempts to remove protected grounds, such as sexual orientation, gender identity and expression in 2015 and 2016. In addition, a more tangible threat is currently represented by the draft laws aimed at banning freedom of assembly and association for LGBTI people as well as prohibiting the so-called propaganda of sexual orientation, initiated on 7 November 2022 by the far-right party Conservative Movement (which had emerged from the far-right group Alt-Info). These bills already passed the initial phase of the Bureau assessment in December 2022 and with enough political will, may make it to the plenary reading by May this year.

“Our main task right now, aside from directly opposing any harmful initiatives that may emerge along the way, is to do everything in our power so that Georgia fulfils the 12 priorities required for us to receive EU candidate status. Populist narratives often point fingers at NGO’s alleging that it is our critique that prevents the country from achieving the candidate status, which is not true. It needs to be understood that the fulfilment of the 12 priorities I mentioned does not mean simply ticking off boxes on a checklist. There needs to be systemic change and reforms that will positively reflect on the daily lives of people in this country. Only then will improvements be sustainable and irreversible.”

Eka and I end our conversation with a deep sigh. Still there is no time to relax. Vigilance and razor sharp focus are as important as ever. But we are also hopeful, because the anger at being let down, and the commitment to a better future that we both saw in the symbiotic protests against the foreign agent bill, is unlikely to die down. It will perhaps become our conduit to a better future. 

Natia Gvianishvili is a lesbian feminist activist from Georgia who works for RFSL in Stockholm and a member of ForumCiv's EaP Network

 Eka Tsereteli is the executive director of WISG - a queer feminist organisation in Georgia.

Want to know more?

This article is part of a series of articles and events organized within the Sweden for Eastern Partnership project. Sweden for Eastern Partnership is run by ForumCiv and financed by the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs. 

Other recent articles