Georgians rally against controversial ‘foreign agents’ bill – it’s the latest chapter in the country’s long history of political protest


Thousands of Georgians have flocked to the streets of Tbilisi, even in the pouring rain, in protest at the passing of a Russian-inspired law that brands overseas-funded NGOs as “foreign agents”. Those who oppose the bill say it could be used to curtail civil liberties.

Two of Russia’s other neighbours, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, passed similar laws in 2016 and 2024 respectively without much fanfare. But Georgians have passionately objected to their government’s latest manoeuvre, even daring to heckle policemen clad in full riot gear.

Georgians are outraged that the passage of the bill may end dreams of their nation one day becoming a member of the EU. On May 15, the EU said the measure would set back Georgia’s ambitions to join the bloc, and urged the government to withdraw the bill.

Protesters are also frustrated that the leaders of the governing Georgian Dream party are moving closer to Russia. Surveys from 2023 revealed that 77% of Georgians believe that Russia poses the biggest threat to their country, while only 2% of people in the country class themselves as pro-Russian.

A sign on the window of a cafe in Tbilisi, Georgia, that says you must denounce Putin as a war criminal before entering.
Natasha Lindstaedt, CC BY-NC-ND

There are Russian troops stationed just 25 miles from Tbilisi. And although 13 years have passed since Russia invaded Georgia having falsely accused the country of committing “genocide” in the Russian-backed republic of South Ossetia, it still occupies 20% of the country. There is a fear among Georgians that Russia is turning the country into a puppet state or, worse, that it might invade again.

And yet, Georgians are incredibly bold in their defiance of both their own government and Moscow. Pro-Ukrainian graffiti dots the capital, while signs on some restaurants and cafes warn customers that they must denounce Vladimir Putin as a war criminal before entering their establishments.

Read more:
Ukraine war: I’ve just returned from Georgia where they are angry about the conflict and fear an invasion

In fact, Georgians have a long and proud history of engaging in brave acts of rebellion. While still under Soviet rule, massive protests erupted in 1978 over Moscow’s insistence that the constitution be amended to put the Russian language on an equal footing with the Georgian language.

The Communist party dealt with similar protests in other Soviet republics with a heavy hand. But the demonstrations were a major victory for Georgians, ensuring that the sole recognised language remained Georgian.

In April 1989, Georgians also bravely took to Tbilisi’s Rustaveli Avenue to protest Soviet rule. The demonstrations were mostly peaceful and attracted thousands of people. But they were met with repression by the Soviet army, killing 21 people and injured hundreds more. The entire country went on strike in response, which was followed by 40 days of national mourning.

Undeterred, Georgians were finally successful in bringing an end to Soviet-era leadership in 2003. The non-violent revolution was led by long-time leader Eduard Shevardnadze’s former political ally, Mikheil Saakashvili, and various civil society groups who were fed up with corruption and economic decline.

The revolution brought Saakashvili to power, but a series of protests broke out during his tenure too. In 2007, people protested against alleged government corruption. Then, in 2008, protesters turned their ire to the Russian invasion, forming a human chain near South Ossetia. In 2009 and 2011, people gathered in Tbilisi calling for Saakashvili’s resignation. And in 2012, swells of students protested against prisoner abuse.

Since the end of Soviet rule, the Georgian government has routinely made concessions in response to protests. In 2019, Georgian parliament approved electoral reforms after months of protests over the government’s performance. And just last year, the government was forced to withdraw its attempt to pass its foreign agent law after massive demonstrations broke out.

Why is Georgia a hub of protest?

Over the past decade, there has been a rise in the number of protests around the world. Research has found that the frequency of mass political protests has increased by 11.5% on average each year between 2009 and 2019. Yet Georgia seems to be particularly prone to activism — something that distinguishes it from its neighbours in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Protests are often spontaneous and may lack support from civil society. But civil society is critical to organisational success, coalition building and advocacy. To this point, civil society has always been more vibrant in Georgia compared to other post-Soviet states such as Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Belarus.

This is, in large part, due to the fact that Georgia benefited from weaker and less repressive leadership under Shevardnadze than these states. But Georgian civil society organisations and the media are also major recipients of western democracy assistance. In 2000, for example, the US Agency for International Development spent US$200 (£158) per person in Georgia on civil society and democracy building programmes compared to US$1.25 per person in Russia.

A protestor draped in the Georgian flag attacking a barrier protecting Georgia's Parliament building.
Protesters during a rally against a bill on ‘foreign agents’ in front of the Parliament building in Tbilisi, Georgia, May 14 2024.
David Mdzinarishvili / EPA

Civil society groups help unite people, and they have recruited people in Georgia to participate in protests. But people are also more likely to engage in protest when opportunities for resistance emerge. And as Georgia has endured a lot of change and chaos, there have been ample opportunities to resist.

In addition, research has demonstrated that polarisation increases protest behaviour and mobilisation. Notwithstanding anti-Russian sentiment, Georgia is highly polarised. The major divisions centre on cultural and geopolitical battles over its traditions and the country’s foreign outlook. The battle over same-sex marriage and other LGBTQ+ rights is a particularly contentious issue.

Given Georgia’s complex political landscape, and history of rebellion, these protests are unlikely to end any time soon.

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