Protests against the ‘foreign influence’ law in Georgia: a reflection of the political divide?

25 avril 2024
Le point de vue de Jean de Gliniasty

Thousands of Georgians took to the streets of the capital on 17 April to protest against the passing of a law on ‘foreign influence’, which was deemed to be similar to Russian legislation and to restrict freedom of association. While this event highlights the cleavage in Georgian political life, it also underlines Tbilisi’s vulnerability to its Russian neighbour, a feeling that has been reinforced since the start of the conflict in Ukraine. How can we understand the pro-European demonstrations in Georgia? What is the state of relations between Russia and Georgia? What is Moscow’s position in the Caucasus? Interview with Jean de Gliniasty, Senior Research Fellow at IRIS and former French ambassador to Russia, specialising in Russian issues.

On 17 April, more than 20,000 people demonstrated in Tbilisi, Georgia, against the adoption of a law on ‘foreign influence’ deemed to be similar to Russian legislation. What is the political background to this law? Why is it considered dangerous and repressive by the population and the opposition? What reactions has it provoked in Europe and Russia?

Georgian society is very divided. To put it simply, young people are more European but also more Atlanticist and more attached to public freedoms than the older generations, who are more concerned about maintaining good relations with Russia after the painful experience of the invasion of Georgia in 2008. This division has been constant in recent years. In the 2020 parliamentary elections, for example, the opposition refused to take its seat in parliament, claiming that the elections had been rigged. The Georgian Dream party, the majority party, therefore sat alone for some time. Obviously, a Parliament without opposition is no longer a Parliament. At the time, the European Union and Charles Michel, President of the European Council, acted as intermediaries and succeeded in finding a solution that led to the return of the opposition to Parliament. However, there is a permanent rift in Georgian society between those who want to maintain good relations with Russia, at the price of certain concessions, and those who absolutely want to draw closer to the European Union and NATO. This law against NGOs is modelled on a Russian law that targets individuals as well as associations. The Georgian bill would declare as ‘agents working for a foreign power’ those who receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad. The government tried to pass this law a year ago, in April 2023, and there were already huge demonstrations, leading to the withdrawal of the bill. Today, the head of government, a member of the ruling Georgian Dream party, has a majority in parliament. With the bill back on the table, Parliament voted 83 to 0 in favour of the first reading of a first version of the law. However, a section of the population does not accept this alignment with Russian legislation. It should be pointed out that this type of law exists almost everywhere, including in the United States. The only difference lies in the fact that in Russia and Georgia, the application of the law by the local judiciary leaves no room for doubt: all the government’s demands will be met, enabling it to punish NGOs or associations that do not go along with its wishes.

While the separatist republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are supported by Moscow, in December 2023 Georgia made official its application to join the European Union. What is the state of relations between Russia and Georgia? To what extent has the war in Ukraine revived memories of the 2008 Russian-Georgian conflict and accelerated the pro-European shift in Georgia?

Around 80% of Georgians are in favour of joining the European Union, including in the majority camp. The European dream has been a driving force in Georgian society for a very long time. It’s just that part of society thinks it’s important to maintain links with Russia. Georgia is in direct contact with the Russian border: at the time of the 2008 war, Russian troops invaded South Ossetia through the Roki tunnel to support the secessionists against Tbilisi. Part of the population, the oldest, is aware of this vulnerability. Nevertheless, the majority want to join the European Union: candidate status was granted by the European Council in December. The Council did not have to wait long, since a year earlier, candidate status had been granted to Ukraine and Moldova without a second thought. At the time, this caused a scandal in Georgia, including in the majority party. The European Council agreed to recognise Georgia’s candidate status, but conditionally, unlike the Ukrainian and Moldovan applications for which negotiations began immediately. In Georgia’s case, the application is conditional precisely on the performance of Georgian society in terms of human rights and the rule of law. Every time there are difficulties over laws concerning foreign agents or aimed at penalising LGBT propaganda, this delays the opening of negotiations with the European Union, something that is very strongly felt by part of the population. Clearly, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made Georgia aware of its vulnerability, but its desire to draw closer to the European Union is much older, stronger and more permanent.

Given the recent political tensions in Georgia and Moscow’s gradual withdrawal from the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, what is the current state of Russian policy in the Caucasus?

There’s no denying that the war in Ukraine has weakened Russia’s hand in the Caucasus. A few days ago, the Russians took the decision to withdraw the 2,000 Russian peacekeepers and 400 vehicles who were supposed to guarantee the safety of the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. Moscow decided to withdraw them because Azerbaijan, which has taken over the whole of Nagorno-Karabakh, considers them useless, the Armenians have almost all left and the Russians are no longer of any use. They could have been used for longer to secure the border. Russia’s hand has been weakened because Armenia, through its Prime Minister Nikol Pachinian, has judged that Russia has not given the expected support within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), which is a security organisation sponsored by Russia, or even within the framework of the bilateral defence and security agreement that Armenia signed with Russia in 1992. Nikol Pachinian felt that Russia had failed in its security role and drew closer to the European Union and the United States. Less than a month ago, a summit was held on the sidelines of a meeting in Brussels where Nikol Pachinian met Ursula Von der Leyen, Josep Borrel and Anthony Blinken. The Armenian Prime Minister is counting not only on the European Union and the United States to ensure his security, but also on his ability to negotiate a peace treaty with Baku. It is difficult to know the scope of this project, as Russian bases are still present in Armenia, the bilateral treaty has not been denounced and although Armenia has suspended its participation in the CSTO, it remains a member. So the question is who is capable of putting pressure on Azerbaijan to prevent it from using its military superiority to continue nibbling away at parts of the border and villages along the border, and above all to ensure a corridor linking Azerbaijani territory to the enclave of Nakhichevan. Although it seems that the Armenian Prime Minister wants to move closer to the West, it is risky for him to give up the Russian guarantee. The Russians are of course not very happy and consider that Nikol Pachinian’s rapprochement with the West is excessive. The rapprochement, without them, between Baku and Yerevan (there is talk of progress in the negotiation of a peace treaty), hardly delights them. It is not out of the question that they may decide to stop curbing Baku’s appetites, while the European Union is hampered by its dependence on gas and oil. Despite its weakened position, Russia still hopes to remain the referee in this affair.

In Georgia, the part of Georgian opinion in favour of an accelerated rapprochement with the West will become increasingly vocal as a result of the continuing war in Ukraine. As for the government, it is split between Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze, the former boss of the Georgian Dream party led by the oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, and a president, Salomé Zourabichvilli, a former French diplomat, who was elected in 2018 on an independent ticket, but who is actively pro-Western. Even though the president does not have much power or prerogatives, the government itself is divided, as it tends to favour good relations with Moscow. The government has also on several occasions brought impeachment proceedings against Salome Zurabishvilli, which have failed. Society is therefore divided and the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, recognised by Russia as independent states, are real abscesses at the heart of Georgian political life. They give leverage to the Russians, who have kept some of their cards close to their chest, even if their hand has been weakened. For the moment, their best asset is to have maintained good relations with the very authoritarian President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliev, who is also the master of the game thanks to his hydrocarbons and the support of Turkey.


Translated by Deepl.
Sur la même thématique