On April 9, 1991, Georgia gained its independence. This happened a year after the Soviet military killed 16 people at an anti-Soviet demonstration. Now Georgia is protesting again. This time—against the attempts of the authorities to turn the country towards the Kremlin and reject any European perspectives.

At the very beginning of its independence, Georgia, in fact, lost two regions—Ossetia and Abkhazia. Before that, when the USSR was collapsing, the ruling elite of the Soviet Union supported separatist sentiments in the regions of Georgia, which resulted in confrontations in 1992-1993. With the participation of Russian mercenaries, the separatists captured most of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. These were unrecognized republics that were governed by the Kremlin.

The first decade of Georgia’s independence ended in The Rose Revolution. Georgians took to the streets, protesting against the government's current policy and attempts to falsify parliamentary elections. Eduard Shevarnadze, then the President of Georgia, tried to maintain his powers against the background of failed economic policy and massive corruption among local officials.

The protests ended in the re-election of both the parliament and the President. Mikheil Saakashvili and the United National Movement, founded by him, came to power for almost 10 years. The new government immediately prioritized the liberalization of the economy and fighting corruption. Mass privatization of state assets was carried out, the number of permit procedures was reduced, university entrance exams were abolished, and independent external evaluation was introduced. The national police and judicial system were completely reformed. Thanks to the reforms, Georgia regularly took leading places in the Doing Business rating and demonstrated rapid progress in the fight against corruption. 

However, there was one important problem—the reforms were based on the political will of the authorities rather than changing the entire system to make it capable of working in different conditions. This gave a quick result but did not contribute to developing strong institutions and a system of checks and balances.

When the authorities make decisions against the people's will, the residue of dissatisfaction accumulates over the years. And in 2012, at the next parliamentary elections, more than 50% of voters supported the Georgian Dream—the newly created political party of the local oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili.

This was also influenced by the Russian-Georgian war of 2008, in which Tbilisi lost control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and Russia deployed military bases on these territories. All this happened with the tacit consent of key world players, who simply expressed deep concern about the conflict. At that time, only Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic countries condemned Russia's invasion, and the leaders of these countries came to Georgia to support its people.

Some Georgians, remembering the traumatic experience of the recent war, voted for the Georgian Dream as a party of peace. They in fact brought to power the only oligarch of Georgia, who gained his capital in Russia. 

The newly elected government declared a course toward Europe and NATO, simultaneously restoring cooperation with Russia. There was no strong opposition that could oppose such a covert retreat. 

The pro-Russian orientation of the Georgian authorities vividly manifested itself after the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Russia into Ukraine in 2022. Georgia refused to support Western sanctions against Moscow and, on the contrary, increased the trade with Russia. In 2023, Georgia received more than 3 billion dollars due to trading with Russia, This is more than 10% of the country’s gross domestic product. In 2022, this indicator was even higher—14,5% of GDP. For comparison, in 2021, Georgia was much less dependent on Russia—the trade between the countries gave only 6,3% of GDP. Moreover, after the full-scale invasion, suspicions arose that Georgia was helping Russia circumvent sanctions, as Tbilisi increased its imports from EU countries from 2 billion euros in 2021 to 3.6 billion euros in 2023.

A shadow oligarch took power in the country, and such a system was unacceptable for receiving the EU membership candidate status. But precisely for the sake of Georgian society and its aspirations towards the EU, Georgia received the candidate status, although somehow belatedly. 

In contrast, the adoption of the law about foreign agents, which is word-to-word copied from the Russian one, cancels the potential to start the negotiations on the EU accession. In addition, adopting such a law in Russia allowed the authorities to destroy the remnants of free thinking in the country. 

In the spring of 2024, the clashes between policemen and the protesters who took to the streets against this law in Georgia look very similar to the events of the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine. The same methods of intimidation and defamation of the civil society leaders were used. These people were watched, the doors of their apartments were plastered with posters calling them enemies of the church and the state. Attempts to disrupt the voting directly in the parliament hall by the opposition deputies were unsuccessful, as was the veto by President Svidame Zurabishvili. The pro-government majority found the necessary number of votes to pass the law as a whole.

It is still unclear whether the law on foreign agents will be enacted before the parliamentary elections that are going to take place in Georgia in the fall of this year. The government uses the adopted law for political bargaining with the EU and NATO, which are already discussing the possibility of introducing sanctions and suspending the European integration process of Georgia. Nevertheless, one thing is clear: the Georgian authorities received a powerful tool for the destruction of dissent in the country and the usurpation of power.

Olga Aivazovska, chair of the board of the Civil Network OPORA, talked with Nino Evgenidze, the director of the Economic Policy Research Center, and Nino Dolidze. executive director of the  International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy. They discussed why the Georgian government abandoned the European perspective in favor of rapprochement with Russia.

Why did official Tbilisi resort to adopting the scandalous foreign agents law before the parliamentary elections, and will the civil society representatives obey it? How does society react to steps that actually destroy Georgia's European perspective? And is the current government of Georgia afraid of sanctions from Western countries? Watch more in this issue of “Power of Choice”