Red Flags, Blue Flags: Why The Georgia Uprising Makes Moscow So Nervous
Protesters in Georgia blocked the adoption of a Russian-inspired "foreign agents" law, leading to threats from the Kremlin. Writing for La Stampa, Georgia-born political scientist Nona Mikhelidze explains why the events put Moscow on edge.
Protests erupted in Georgia last week over the government's efforts to adopt a “foreign agents” law, a Russian-inspired measure which would require NGOs and independent media who receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad to declare themselves as foreign agents.
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Since a similar law was enacted in Russia, hundreds of civil society and activist groups have ceased their activities, including renowned human rights organization Memorial, a 2022 Nobel Peace Prize winner, which Russian authorities shut down in 2021.
Other organizations working on human rights, environment, election monitoring and anti-corruption have also ceased their activities, with many forced to close to avoid being labeled as foreign agents or because they couldn't take on the heavy fines imposed for not complying with the strict and arbitrary requirements of the law.
Tens of thousands gathered in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, carrying red Georgian and blue European Union flags and chanting slogans such as “No to the Russian law” and “We are Europe.” Among the protesters were also Russian emigrants who fled their country after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Some were also seen holding signs reading: “I am from Russia! I had to flee because of the law on foreign agents! Georgians, fight!”
Eighty-two Russian citizens, including some on the Russian government's list of “foreign agents," appealed to the Georgian parliament in a letter asking lawmakers not to pass the law. “Being placed on the list of foreign agents in Russia is tantamount to civil death. Defamation campaigns, threats of fines and criminal prosecution make it virtually impossible to continue doing any meaningful public work in today's Russia,” the appeal read.
A different Georgian dream
Georgia’s ruling party — The Georgian Dream — has held a majority in parliament for more than a decade. Although it advocates an orientation toward the EU and its values, the party has done little to effectively promote democracy in the country, a requirement for obtaining EU candidate status. Because of the deteriorating democratic situation, Georgia was unable to obtain EU candidate status last summer — unlike Ukraine and Moldova, which are both candidates for EU membership.
The EU reacted swiftly to the passage of the “foreign agents” law, calling it a “very negative development” for Georgia and its people, and adding that “The law risks discouraging civil society and media organizations, causing negative effects for Georgians who benefit from their work."
"In addition, the law is incompatible with EU values and standards and goes against Georgia’s goal of joining the European Union, supported by the majority of its citizens. Its adoption could have serious consequences for our relations. We call on the Georgian government to maintain its commitment to the promotion of democracy, the rule of law and human rights," the statement reads.
After two nights of violent protests in Tbilisi in defense of civil rights and Georgia’s European future, the government decided to withdraw the bill.
A man waives a European flag in front of the police during the protests against the Foreign Agents Law in Tbilisi, Georgia, in March 2023.
The Kremlin did not take long to repond. In a statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry office in Crimea said: “The protests against the ‘foreign agents’ bill, which took place in Tbilisi, culminated in the call for the government to resign. We recommend that the Georgian people remember the similar situation that took place in Ukraine in 2014 and what conclusion it led to. Think twice!”
Similarly, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the demonstrations in Tbilisi “reminded him of the Euromaidan that led to the removal of a Kremlin-friendly government in 2014.”
Grigory Karasin, a Russian senator and special representative to the informal talks with Georgia, commented on the statement of the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, criticizing the Georgian law on “foreign agents,” saying, “Calm down, Borrell, please! Are you trying to lecture Georgian citizens as well? You have already exceeded the limits of decency!”
The chairman of the Russian State Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, declared that “Washington has not allowed Georgia to become sovereign.”
Finally, Kremlin propagandist and head of Russia Today, Margarita Simonyan referenced Russia's 2008 invasion of Georgia, saying that “In case of a repetition of the scenario of August 2008, one should strike Tbilisi directly without too much hesitation.”
Russia’s reaction to the Georgian government’s decision to permanently eliminate the foreign agents law, as well as Lavrov’s interview, in which he spoke in detail and with knowledge of the nuances of the events surrounding the law, shows that the entire process was designed by the Kremlin to separate Georgia from the West at all costs, and to prevent Brussels from granting Tbilisi EU candidate status.
A new alternative
In response to Russian claims of foreign influence, French President Emmanuel Macron said, “There is a tendency in the Kremlin, which is not new, to imagine that every public manifestation is a foreign manipulation because the fundamental belief is that there is neither public opinion nor free society.”
Since Russian president Vladimir Putin’s rise to power in the late 1990s, the regime has worked to create a network of government-linked elites in neighboring countries, who benefit from the current system and have a vested interest in preserving the current Russian regime. The “color” revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, as well as the Arab Spring and the Euromaidan protests of 2014 in Ukraine were all labeled by the Kremlin as threats to Russian stability and global influence, and considered as Western-backed plots to promote liberal democracy.
The Putin regime’s top priority has been to discourage Russians and those in neighboring countries from aspiring to Western democracy, fearing that it might be seen as a preferable alternative to the Russian system of government. To prevent such a scenario, Russia’s long-term goal has been to erode confidence in democracy, install adherent or weaken hostile governments in the region and to discourage democratic aspirations both at home and in nearby countries.
But post-Soviet countries do not see Russia's system of government as a more attractive choice compared to the West. Russia is associated with an underdeveloped economy, corruption, kleptocracy, centralization of power and restriction of human rights and freedoms.
Protests against the Foreign Agent Law in Tbilisi, Georgia, in March 2023.
What's at stake
The success of Georgian protesters has become a real nightmare for the Russian regime, for three main reasons.
First, it may cause frustration in Russian society, where citizens have been unable to defend their civil rights, while tiny Georgia has succeeded. What would happen if this frustration turned into an incentive to demonstrate against the Kremlin?
Second, despite all of Russia's efforts to promote its model of governance and to distance Georgia from Europe, the Kremlin understands that the protesters’ success was due not only to their personal determination, but also to the fact that Georgia is not a dictatorship, but a country with an opposition, a president ready to veto the law, independent media and an avowedly pro-European foreign policy — all of which makes it more difficult to pass oppressive laws.
Finally, there are the new generations of Georgians, who speak English (or German and French) as a second language, instead of Russian. They consider themselves European and associate the European Union with the world’s greatest value, a value that is held dearly in a country colonized by the Russian Empire for the past two centuries: freedom.
The struggle for freedom and for the European dream are the reasons why people are fighting in Georgia, Moldova, and, with blood, in Ukraine.