Weakened by the regression of democracy and by the consequences of the Russian war in Ukraine, Georgia is once again in turmoil. In a now familiar scenario, this small republic in the South Caucasus, part of the USSR until 1991, is facing headwinds from Russia and the European Union. The Pro-Europeans scored a crucial point on Thursday, March 9, by securing the withdrawal of an anti-democratic bill on the back of massive protests.
Russian troops have been occupying 20% of Georgian territory since their intervention in 2008 under the pretext of protecting Russian minorities in two separatist territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Last year, the war in Ukraine led to the arrival in Georgia of millions of thousands of Russians who wanted to escape a mobilization ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin, disrupting the life of the country, against the background of great confusion in Tbilisi.
Political life in Georgia is dominated by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, founder of the ruling Georgian Dream party, who, despite his repeated promises to retire from politics, unofficially controls the main levers of power.
The appeal of the EU among the population, however, is undeniable. According to polls, more than 80% of Georgians want their country to become a member of the bloc. Georgia applied for membership a year ago but Brussels refrained from granting it the candidate status given to Ukraine and Moldova and set a dozen conditions for Tbilisi to meet before it could move forward.
On Tuesday, March 7, the initial backing by Georgia’s Parliament of legislation modeled on Russian law requiring associations with more than 20% foreign funding to declare themselves as “foreign agents” served as a catalyst, sending thousands of opponents into the streets to demand that the legislation be repealed.
Despite the violence of dispersal operations and arrests, protesters gathered again on Wednesday evening in greater numbers. This popular movement succeeded in making the party in power bend. On Thursday morning, he said he would withdraw the bill “unconditionally.”
This is a victory for the democratic and pro-European forces in Georgia. Described as a “Russian law” by the opposition, the legislation symbolized the disturbing decline in the rule of law that hinders the country’s European ambitions.
Added to the pressure from civil society, Western reactions to the adoption of the bill came at the right time: The chief of European diplomacy, Josep Borrell, declared on Wednesday that the bill was “incompatible with the values of the EU” while the United States, “deeply concerned,” expressed its “solidarity” with the protesters.
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Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili, who was elected with the support of the Georgian Dream party, had called for the abrogation of the law, which, she said, was “distancing Georgia from the EU.”
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The situation remains sensitive, however. The EU has to navigate between the demand that Tbilisi make progress on the work required by the conditions it has set and the risk, if the gap widens, of leaving the field open to Russian influence. But it is first up to the Georgian leaders to prove their determination to join the European family by bringing order to their ranks and working seriously to restore the rule of law.