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Georgian government holds massive anti-West rally as it aims to pass 'Russian-style' law

by Nate Ostiller April 30, 2024 7:13 PM 5 min read
Oligarch and founder of the Georgian Dream Bidzina Ivanishvili addressing the crowd during a rally organized by the ruling Georgian Dream party aimed at countering days of mass anti-government protests over a controversial "foreign agents" bill, which Brussels warns would undermine Georgia's European aspirations, in Tbilisi on April 29, 2024. (Vano Shlamov/ AFP via Getty Images)
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TBILISI, Georgia – The ruling Georgian Dream party staged a massive rally in Tbilisi on April 29, with tens of thousands of people bussed in from around the country to support the country's democratic backsliding.

Party leaders, including Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze, Tbilisi Mayor Kakha Kaladze, and Bidzina Ivanishvili, the founder of the party and the country's richest man, gave a series of speeches marked by anti-Western rhetoric and conspiracy theories.

The rally coincided with a parliamentary committee's approval of the controversial foreign agents bill, which is set to pass the second reading later this week.

The bill, which must be passed in three readings before it becomes law, would require organizations that receive foreign funding to be labeled as "foreign agents," a draft law that mirrors one of Russia's repressive tools used to silence those who oppose President Vladimir Putin.

It would allow authorities to strictly monitor communications, including internal ones, by the so-called "foreign agents." Protests against the law and Georgian Dream have continued on a daily basis since it was introduced earlier in April.

Anti-Western rhetoric

Oligarch Ivanishvili, the country's most powerful man, has built his political career on criticizing President Mikhail Saakashvili, who is currently imprisoned on charges widely thought to be politically motivated.

Years after taking over the country and placing the former president behind bars, Ivanishvili didn't stop the attacks, saying that Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM) party was brought to power by the "global party of war."

In a reference to the supposed need for the foreign agents law, Ivanishvili claimed that foreign NGOs helped "install" UNM and warned that they are working with "radical opposition" to "bring back the inhumane and sadistic dictatorship of the same people to Georgia," referring to Saakashvili, who's health has rapidly deteriorated in prison.

Ivanishvili also attacked the EU and NATO over its position toward their eastern neighbors, saying that it only views Georgia and Ukraine as "cannon fodder."

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze (R), Founder and Honorary President of the Georgian Dream Party Bidzina Ivanishvili (C), and Chairman of the Georgian Dream Party Irakli Garibashvili (L) attend the protest in support of the draft law on "Transparency of Foreign Influence," in Tbilisi, Georgia on April 29, 2024. (Davit Kachkachishvili/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Kobakhidze also criticized the unnamed "radical opposition and affiliated NGOs" and claimed that they were planning to orchestrate revolutions.

The prime minister dismissed the widespread protests against the foreign agents law and the resolution from the European Parliament condemning the legislation.

Georgia was offered candidate status to the EU by the European Council in December 2023. While Georgian Dream leaders say they are in favor of joining the EU, the party's actions have put Georgia's accession at risk.

The European Parliament's resolution emphasized that "EU accession negotiations should not be opened as long as this (foreign agents) law is part of Georgia’s legal order."

Kobakhidze disparaged the resolution, claiming that the EU was trying to interfere in internal Georgian politics. He also criticized the EU's decision to open accession talks with Ukraine and Moldova, saying that Georgia is "one step ahead... in terms of democracy, rule of law, human rights, strength of institutions, lack of corruption, and economic development."

A report released by the EU's Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum (EaP CSF) in January found that, unlike Ukraine and Moldova, Georgia has made only minimal progress in its EU-required reforms and runs the risk of drifting toward Russia.

Bussed-in supporters

Roads leading to the city center of Tbilisi were almost completely blocked by minivans carrying government supporters to the city to participate in the rally.

The local media outlet Formula News released interviews with some of the participants of the rally, some of whom said they had no idea what the rally was for.

The media outlet Mtavari said that many of those attending the rally were public servants, adding that they were brought through a combination of "instructions, threats, and bribes."

The demographic composition of the rally differed starkly from previous protests against the foreign agents bill.

A protester holds a banner reading "no to Russian law" during a demonstration as the Georgian parliament considers the controversial "foreign agents law" outside the parliament in Tbilisi, Georgia on April 16, 2024. (Vano Shlamov/AFP via Getty Images)

The majority of those attending the gathering were older people, compared to the youth-dominated demonstrations against the bill.

Despite expectations of confrontation in the streets, there was no significant counter-protest, and most of those attending the rally left by the same minibusses they had been brought in on before 11 p.m. local time.

In one incident captured by the Kyiv Independent, an apartment on the main Rustaveli Avenue set up a loudspeaker that repeated the phrase "no to Russian law" and played it to passing crowds of pro-government demonstrators, drawing sharp words and tossed bottles.

A loudspeaker plays the repeated words "no to Russian law" to passing crowds of pro-Georgian Dream demonstrators at a rally in Tbilisi on April 29, 2024. (Nate Ostiller/the Kyiv Independent)

The youth group Dafioni, one of the primary organizations leading the anti-government protests, urged its supporters not to show up for a counter-protest, to not escalate the confrontation.

Ivanishvili's 'mask-off' moment

Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili, who found herself in conflict with the ruling party, said the tactic of bussing in supporters was reminiscent of a Putin-type action.

Analyst Gia Khukhashvili told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Georgian service that Ivanishvili's speech was almost entirely based on "demonizing the West" and "declaring Russia innocent."

Former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt said the speech reflected a "regime alien to the values and interests (of the EU)."

The reactions to the speech from Western analysts and Georgia watchers reflected a growing consensus that Ivanishvili and other Georgian Dream officials have ratcheted up their anti-Western rhetoric and no longer pretend to be interested in pursuing Georgia's European integration.

"The government has openly declared that with the adoption of the Russian law, they are announcing repression against the people," said Georgian civil society activists in a joint statement.

"They are announcing rigged elections, censorship, and a Soviet-style totalitarian regime. They declared that they see the West as the enemy, and the occupying (force) of our country, Russia, was not even mentioned."

If there was any doubt left about whether Georgian Dream would choose Russia or Europe, it should be abandoned, said Kakha Gogolashvili, the director of the European Studies Center of the Rondeli Foundation, in comments to the NetGazeti media outlet.

"(Ivanishvili) chose to be with Russia."

The parliament is set to convene for a second vote on the foreign agents law on the evening of April 30. A group of civil society organizations have called for a resumption of the protest, saying that "every citizen of Georgia" should join the demonstration in front of the parliament building.

Georgian parliament moves forward with controversial foreign agents law as protests continue
The legislation was approved by 83 lawmakers of Georgia’s 150-member parliament, with opposition lawmakers boycotting the vote.
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