Georgia at the crossroads

Alex Scrivener - Executive Director of Democratic Security Institute

Many thousands of Georgians demonstrated in late May against the repressive Georgian state’s new laws. Chartist spoke to Alex Scrivener about the pro-Putin regime’s plans

The ruling Georgian Dream party has passed the controversial “foreign agents” law, that sparked a wave of mass protests in Georgia. What is the law? Why has Georgian Dream pushed for it now?

The law serves a number of purposes for the government. Firstly, it allows them to label critical organisations as somehow “foreign” and discredit their work. Secondly, it enables them to later amend the law to restrict such organisations from doing key political work. After all, they will say, why should “foreign agents” be allowed to interfere in the domestic politics of the country? If, as will likely be the case, most such organisations refuse to register, it will also give them a pretext to freeze their accounts and impose huge fines that will make it impossible to work. The timing is such that they will be incapacitated just in time for the 26th October election, which many of these organisations will be observing.

But finally, and most importantly, it is a way of signalling to Russia that they are doing as they are told and are willing to sabotage Georgia’s EU membership chances in order to gain regime security from the Kremlin. This, of course, is at total loggerheads with the vast majority of Georgians, over 80% of whom want to join the EU.

The official reason given was a need for “transparency” which is a fiction. All funds received by organisations in Georgia are declared to the tax agencies already and most organisations are very public about who funds them.

Why will declaring funding be such a threat, and be comparable Russia’s own foreign agents legislation rather than requirements in the UK elections?

When Russia passed similar legislation in 2012, it too was justified in terms of “transparency”. Just register, organisations were told, what’s the issue with just making an annual declaration?

Fast forward 12 years and we can see that Russia’s civil society sector is dead. Very few organisations are able to function as the foreign agents law was later used to squeeze the life out of every independent organisation in the country.

We’ve seen this movie before. We know how it ends. That is why it is vital we fight to defeat this legislation now before it is too late.

What is the character of the protest movement? What is its composition?

Much is made of the youth-led nature of the protest movement. Which is true. The protests are not being led by opposition parties or official institutions, but organically by youth organisers. However, given the sheer size of the protests (up to a quarter of the population of the capital Tbilisi were out in the streets at one point), pretty much every social group was represented.

Are workers and their trade unions involved in the struggle?

In terms of the class composition, people are protesting from across the socio-economic spectrum. A big visible component are young people working in the gig economy as delivery couriers. Despite attempts by pro-Kremlin commentators in the Western left to paint this as a middle-class movement, it emphatically is not. the protests are of such huge scale that the Georgian middle class just isn’t big enough to sustain such numbers.

As for the trade union movement, it is very weak in Georgia. The official Georgian Trade Union Confederation (GTUC) suffers from the Soviet legacy of being dependent on the government, which hurts its legitimacy among workers. Despite that, however, even the traditionally pro-government GTUC issued a statement against the foreign agents law. After all, many unions are dependent on solidarity grant funding from abroad, meaning they too would be considered foreign agents under the law.

A number of smaller, independent trade unions supported the protests more vociferously. And there is talk on the streets of calling a general strike. However, this, if it happened, would likely happen spontaneously, as the official unions are not sufficiently strong to enact this.

Is there a democratic left, social-democratic movement in Georgia? What is its position on the protest movement?

The organised Georgian left is weak, though it is gaining strength from a very low base. The issue here, as in many countries in this region, is that the left is associated with imperialist Soviet domination. This association is further strengthened by those Western leftists who oppose our resistance to Russia, or, at best, appear lukewarm to our struggle as we are not fighting the USA.

But the Georgian left, such as it exists, is overwhelmingly against the foreign agents law. Indeed, the left were among the key organisers of the original protests when the foreign influence legislation was first mooted last year.

Some in the Western left have portrayed this as another so-called ‘colour revolution’ sponsored by the west and foreign funded NGOs etc?

Those sections of the Western left that can’t move beyond the simplistic stance of kneejerk support for every bloodthirsty anti-West dictator should, frankly, shut up.

It is deeply disturbing that the very sort of people who wax lyrical about the progressive potential of revolutionary social movements from their comfortable Western abodes, are the people who always seem to be against genuine uprisings of working people in practice.

The sections of the Western left that do not stand by the Georgian and Ukrainian peoples in their struggle against Russian imperialism are doing untold damage to the cause of the left in our countries. In the popular imagination it is creating an impression that the left supports our subjugation. Not that these people know anything about our countries, or care about us at all. We are mere pawns in their mind with no agency.

As for the specific question of “colour revolutions”, the fact that these are not seen as genuine revolutions is a true victory of Russian propaganda over reality. Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution, and Ukraine’s 2014 Maidan were both genuine social movements with huge popular support. The fact that the left was not able to use these outbursts of mass anger to its advantage is a shame. But it does not invalidate these movements in favour of “liberal” causes such as the freedom to organise and vote in fair elections. Parts of the Western left take these freedoms for granted and can afford to be snide about them. We cannot.

What is the movement’s relationship to a history of struggle in Georgia?

This movement, and especially those of us on the progressive side, do see this as part of a long tradition of anti-imperialist struggle in Georgia.

Georgia was run by the first democratically elected socialist government in the world between 1918-21 before it was invaded by the Soviet Union. In just three years, and under constant attack, that Menshevik government instituted sweeping land reforms and redistribution of wealth.

Alas, the Bolsheviks could not allow such a successful example of genuine democratic socialism to flourish. And it was crushed by overwhelming Soviet Russian force.

Georgians then regularly rose up against Russian domination during the Soviet-era, culminating in the restoration of independence in 1991. Unfortunately, however, Georgia has not managed to revive the social democratic tradition that was crushed in 1921. But our anti-colonial struggle lives on.

How has the Georgian Dream responded to the protests movement?

The government has used violence to crack down on protests. But more ominously, it has used classic Russian tactics of using ununiformed “titushki” thugs to beat up activists when they are going about their daily lives. Offices and homes of civil society and opposition leaders have been vandalised.

Now the heat has set in, we are now in a relatively quiet period as Georgian politics tends to enter a dead season in summer, but beatings and intimidation of individuals continues.

Has surveillance and repression already began?

Yes. People are being beaten up in front of their homes. And many people are receiving threatening anonymous phone calls. Having said that, we are not yet seeing this occur on a mass scale. The fear is, however, that this will be scaled up around election time.

How does Georgian Dream justify this crackdown? Does it have support among the people?

Georgian Dream’s violent tactics are supported by very few. But the party retains some support due to two factors: fear of the alternative, and financial leverage.

The first factor is what has sustained them in power since 2012. The previous government led by ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili fell into authoritarianism in its latter years in a way reminiscent of what is happening now. For many voters repressed during his leadership, fear of that government returning trumps all other considerations. But that factor is weakening as this government resorts to many of the same tactics and the opposition is now much more than just Saakashvili supporters.

The second factor is linked to the fact that Georgia is a very poor country. Georgian Dream has a lot of money to effectively buy support, especially from elderly or rural populations with no other sources of income.

This is the danger of being run by a billionaire. Georgian Dream’s leader, the oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili is worth about a quarter of the entire country’s GDP. Meanwhile most Georgians live in poverty. Such extreme disparities in wealth are not compatible with democracy, which is why the left needs to be stronger in Georgia to advocate for a more equal society.

Is Georgian Dream similar to other right wing populists like that of Donald Trump, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, and Italy’s Matteo Salvini?

Until recently, Georgian Dream hasn’t really had an ideology other than staying in power at all costs. But now, it has established close ties to Orban’s Hungary, which it clearly sees as its model to stay in power. Georgian Dream leaders are regular speakers at Conservative Political Action Conferences alongside Orban and allies of Donald Trump.

They are attempting to weaponise social conservatism and homophobia to justify their authoritarian turn. Given overwhelming pro-EU feeling in Georgia, they attempt to argue that they are in favour of Europe, albeit the Europe of Le Pen, Orban, and Salvini.

These are the far-right forces the sections of the Western left that are dismissive of our movement are effectively supporting.

Is it right to say that the Georgian Dream Party government,  has now decisively oriented toward Russia? Is it trying to scuttle Georgia’s candidacy for membership of the EU?

Georgian Dream, even now, knows it cannot get away with openly saying that it supports Russia. Georgians are overwhelmingly anti-Putin and pro-EU. When Georgian Dream’s oligarch founder, Bidzina Ivanishvili, made his conspiratorial anti-Western address to the nation on 29 April, he did so with EU flags flying in the background.

But the reality is that Georgian Dream know that they cannot stay in power indefinitely if they join the EU and embrace democracy. Russia’s model offers them a way to stay in power forever. Or so they think.

The only problem is that the Georgian people will never ever accept recolonisation by Russia. They are attempting to get round this by presenting themselves as being in favour of a far-right vision of what the EU could be.

Does Georgian Dream reflect the whole view of the ruling class of Georgia or are there divisions between factions and interest groups?

The Georgian elite is divided to some extent. While the big business interests close to the government stand with them, there are sections of the elite that value ties with the West. The banking sector is especially vulnerable and rumour has it that there is nervousness in the major Georgian banks about financial sanctions. There are also pro-opposition oligarchs who are morally just as questionable as Ivanishvili. A key example is Davit Kezerashvili, who stands accused of being behind a network of scam call centres that have been ripping off pensioners across Europe.

Having said this though, the Georgian economy remains dominated by the interests of the oligarch Ivanishvili and his patronage network.

Russian imperialism seized 20 percent of Georgia in 2008 setting in motion aggression in other former Soviet states culminating in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. What impact has Russia’s ambitions to rebuild its empire had in Georgia, and the protest movement?

Opposition to Russian imperialism is core to the protest movement. In fact, it is much more important than the foreign agents law itself – terrible though that is.

Georgia remains home to hundreds of thousands of displaced people who were ethnically cleansed from the Russia-controlled regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Those conflicts are complex, but it remains the case that in 2008 entire villages were burned to the ground, and now that land hosts Russian military bases. The West did very little but wring its hands after 2008. And Georgians were ignored when they warned that Ukraine would be next.

I would, however, say that Russian imperialist revanchism began even earlier than the 2008 invasion of Georgia. The brutal suppression of Chechnya’s bid for independence from the colonial yoke was the dawn of Putin’s power in 1999. The West’s silence then began the pattern of allowing Putin to do as he pleased with few consequences as long as he kept the gas flowing.

How would you summarise the current situation, where will the protest movement go from here?

After a summer lull, the election campaign will begin in September. I fear that this will be a time of renewed political violence and oppression, especially against civil society organisations that refuse to register as foreign agents. The government is giving every indication that it may not allow the 26th October election to be held freely and fairly. Because given the reality of public anger about this law, there is no chance they can win a majority in a fair contest. If they resort to shenanigans, we could be headed to a very dark place indeed.

What can activists sympathetic to Georgia’s struggle for freedom and democracy do to build solidarity and support to the movement?

If we’re talking about activism within the left, a key thing to do is to be louder and more prominent than the reactionary left on this issue. The main narrative in left media is an effectively pro-Russian one (or at least one that is lukewarm to our cause).

In terms of broader policy advocacy, there is a need for economic sanctions to be imposed on the Georgian Dream elite. Ivanishvili and his minions have long used the West as a home for their ill-gotten gains. On the other hand, once we rid ourselves of this government, we will need support for our EU membership bid.

More controversially, any future democratic government here will also need military deterrence (especially anti-aircraft systems) to prevent Russia from opening a second front in its brutal war. Unlike Ukraine, Georgia is a very small country and we would be unlikely to withstand another Russian invasion for very long unless we have clear superiority in weaponry, training, and foreign solidarity. The latter is not comfort-zone stuff for the Western left but we need to defend ourselves from a legitimate existential threat. Would it not be better to help Ukraine and Georgia defend ourselves than arm a far-right Israeli government that is presiding over horrific slaughter in Gaza?

The MEGOBARI Act currently being considered by the US Congress is a good example of the sort of legislation we need to both punish the government but also support the Georgian people. It offers easier visas for Georgians and defence assistance on the one hand, while opening the door to financial sanctions against our class enemies in the Georgian elite on the other. The EU and UK need to follow suit.

Christopher Ford (Chartist EB) interviewed Alex Scrivener, Executive Director of Democratic Security Institute

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