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Georgia’s future path at stake as protests divide nation

Source The Ghana Report

Georgia is in trouble.

After years of something close to calm, this small, stunningly beautiful country, sandwiched between the pale beaches of the Black Sea and the snow-dusted Caucasus mountains, is facing a fork in the road – and with it the risk that it may slide back to political instability or even towards the sort of chaos that scarred its early decades of post-Soviet independence.

At stake is Georgia’s future path. Will this strategically vital nation, with its ports and pipelines, continue to follow in the footsteps of the Baltic states and move towards full membership of both Nato and the European Union?

Or might political turmoil, rigged elections, and the barely hidden hand of Russia, bring Georgia back into Moscow’s authoritarian orbit, like Belarus?

Spurring events here are two key factors: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the anti-Western, populist and nationalist rhetoric that has proved so effective, and so politically polarising, in parts of eastern Europe and beyond.

Already, Georgia – a nation bound together by a rich history and culture, and by a deep desire to strengthen ties with Europe, grow its economy and avoid a return to the separatist wars and conflicts of the 1990s – is finding itself unexpectedly divided in sharp new ways.

On one side of that divide stands a huge street protest movement, increasingly dominated by young Georgians and marked by a youthful exuberance that has ranged from mocking memes about the prime minister’s haircut to energetic dancing to the sight of highly organised medical students preparing to respond to those injured in new clashes with the police.

Georgia’s youth, vocal in their desire to join the EU and radicalised by events in Ukraine, have given new momentum to opposition parties in protesting against a new and deeply controversial law.

The law was passed by parliament, then vetoed by the president, but is expected to be come into force soon regardless.

It mirrors a similar one introduced in Russia and appears designed to demonise many civil society groups as “foreign agents.”

As currently written, the law would almost certainly also scupper Georgia’s stated goal of EU membership.

“It kills Georgia’s European future,” warned Salome Samadashvili, an opposition MP and former ambassador to the EU.

“That’s why this is the most important moment in Georgia’s modern history. If, at the next elections, we manage to get rid of this government and we build a strong pro-European coalition, then Georgia can move forwards and I think our future can be irreversible,” she said.

But October’s elections seem a long way off right now, amid widespread fears of more violent confrontations on the streets of the capital, Tbilisi.

“We see that our government escalates this situation. I think the aim is to initiate civil confrontation. If we lose, then we lose our country, our freedom, our independence. We become part of Russia,” said David Katsarava, a well-known activist still in hospital recovering from concussion and other injuries after being assaulted by police at a protest rally earlier this week.

Mr Katsarava’s eye socket was fractured and there are dark strangulations marks around his neck. Other activists and opposition politicians report being targets of violence, abusive phone calls, threats, and intimidation.

David
Activist David Katsarava was assaulted by police at a protest last week

Standing against the protest movement is Georgia’s government, its many supporters, and the state’s increasingly forceful police and security forces.

The government insists that its new “foreign agent” law has nothing to do with Russia and will simply bring greater transparency to a poorly regulated and overly influential sector.

But officials here have gone much further, arguing that the protests themselves are being driven, at least in part, by meddling external forces in the West seeking to overthrow the government in a “coup d’état”.

Unsurprisingly, relations between the Georgian government and the US and EU have deteriorated sharply in recent days.

Looking out over Tbilisi from a balcony on the top floor of city hall, Mayor Kakha Kaladze insisted he and the governing party remained committed to a “European future” for Georgia and spoke of the need to find common ground with the protesters.

Mayor kaladze
Mayor Kaladze – a former footballer who played for AC Milan – says he “will not let our country share the same fate as what is happening in Ukraine”

But he also condemned what he described as an “orchestrated process” organised by foreign governments, NGOs, journalists and other forces to foment a revolution in Georgia and to punish it for not backing western sanctions against Russia.

“This is not an accidental thing. We will not let our country share the same fate as what is happening in Ukraine. We are an independent, sovereign country. Today the government has the support of the majority of the country,” said Kaladze, a former professional footballer.

At a large vegetable market in central Tbilisi, some older Georgians echoed the mayor’s concerns and expressed fears about a new conflict with Russia.

“We and Russia have the same orthodox faith. Europe is not for me. Maybe it is for the youth,” said Giorgi Isakadze.

“Other countries should step back a bit, and let Georgia take its path. Let it make its own choice not with violence but with its own will,” said a stall-owner named Zeinabi.

On Saturday, in what seemed to be an organised riposte to the opposition protests, thousands of Georgians walked through Tbilisi in a show of support for “family values” and the Orthodox church, with some accusing foreign-backed NGOs of trying to impose “un-Georgian” values on the country – a reference to organisations supporting LGBTQ rights.

Reuters People approach the Holy Trinity Cathedral during a procession, which was organized by the Patriarchate of Georgia's Orthodox Church to mark the Day of Family Purity and Respect for Parents, in Tbilisi, Georgia,
A demonstration in support of family values and the Orthodox church has also taken place [Reuters]

Looming behind Georgia’s struggles – today, as so often in the past – is the Kremlin. President Vladimir Putin has already made his public his ambition to restore some version of the old Soviet Union.

Moscow fuelled separatist wars in the 1990s and invaded Georgia in 2008, long before its invasion of Ukraine. Russian troops currently occupy some 20% of Georgian territory.

But is President Putin now orchestrating events in Tbilisi in order to thwart the country’s path towards European integration, or is he merely benefiting from the current instability?

Many Georgians are deeply suspicious of Russia and angry about its ongoing occupation of the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

But confusion enters the picture in the shape of a Georgia’s mercurial former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire oligarch who still appears to be pulling many political strings in his role as honorary chair of the governing Georgian Dream party.

While paying lip-service to European integration, Ivanishvili has recently begun to echo the sort of anti-Western rhetoric crafted in Moscow and adopted by Hungary’s President Victor Orban and others.

In a rare speech last month, he accused Western nations of belonging to a “Global party of war” that was undermining Georgia’s national interests.

Reuters Bidzina Ivanishvili, former prime minister and founder of the Georgian Dream party, waves during a pro-government rally in support of a bill on "foreign agents" in Tbilisi, Georgia April 29, 2024.
Former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili – seen here at a pro-government rally – appears to be pulling political strings [Reuters]

“Ivanishvili has lost his mind. His talk of a global party of war is just a crazy conspiracy theory. I do believe he’s taking some personal instruction from Russia. I believe he’s also afraid of another Russian invasion,” said Ted Jonas, a dual American-Georgian citizen and lawyer who has lived in Tbilisi for many years.

“His personal agenda is to be a feudal lord in Georgia. The rule of law and transparency, which would all apply to Georgia as an EU member, are not conducive to his vision of a feudal system.”

The opposition MP Salome Samadashvili argued Ivanishvili’s motives were beside the point.

“[Whether] he is a corrupt melomaniac who wants to keep power at any cost, or whether he’s doing Russia’s bidding, the result is the same for the Georgian people – that we are losing our European dream and we’re losing our democracy,” she said, urging the West to respond in a “forceful and consistent manner” since Russia saw any hesitancy as weakness.

So, what next?

Much depends on whether Georgia’s security services continue their brutal crackdown, but also the extent to which disparate opposition can maintain their momentum on the streets.

It is possible that diplomatic pressure and future concessions in relation to the “foreign agents” law by the government could steer Georgia away from a deepening crisis, at least in the short term.

Free and fair elections in October would certainly help to clear the air.

But like so many countries on Russia’s fringes, Georgia is finding it increasingly difficult to chart a stable path towards a democratic future.

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