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What is Behind the US-Backed Protests in Georgia?

© Sputnik / Sputnik / Go to the mediabankProtesters unfurl European Union flag before the parliament building in downtown Tbilisi. March 7, 2023.
Protesters unfurl European Union flag before the parliament building in downtown Tbilisi. March 7, 2023. - Sputnik International, 1920, 09.03.2023
Protesters spilled into the streets of Tbilisi this week to protest a draft law requiring NGOs to register as “agents of foreign influence” if 20% or more of their funds come from foreign sources. What are the protesters looking to achieve? How have Georgia’s Western “partners” responded? What role, if any, has Russia played? Sputnik investigates.
Georgia’s governing coalition “unconditionally” withdrew its foreign agents law from parliament on Thursday morning, folding to protesters after two nights of violent confrontations with police in the Caucasus nation’s capital, and growing pressure from the European Union and the United States to scrap the draft legislation.
“As a party of government responsible to every member of society, we have decided to unconditionally withdraw this bill that we supported,” the Georgian Dream Party, which has 74 of 150 seats in the republic’s parliament, said in a statement Thursday morning.
Giga Lemonjala, a member of the opposition Droa party, responded to the government’s announcement by demanding that the bill be formally denounced, and that all protesters detained over the past two nights be released.
Georgia’s opposition and Western media covering the protests have characterized the foreign agents legislation as a “Russian,” “Russia-style” or “Putin-style” law, citing the 2012 Russian law requiring media, non-governmental organizations, and others to register as foreign agents and make their funding sources known to the public if they include contributions from foreign entities. Some media went so far as to claim the Georgian legislation signaled Tbilisi’s drift away from the European Union and toward Russia, with one article going so far as to call the social democratic, pro-EU Georgian ruling party “Putin’s Georgian Dream.”
State Department spokesman Ned Price characterized the draft law as “Kremlin-inspired” and said Washington was “deeply troubled” by it, with the legislation deemed to be “incompatible with the people of Georgia’s clear desire for European integration and its democratic development.”
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell echoed these sentiments, calling the bill a “very bad development” and saying it is “incompatible with EU values and standards,” and “goes against Georgia’s stated objective of joining the European Union.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also waded in to commenting on the crisis, praising Ukrainian flag-wielding protesters and saying Kiev expects Georgia and Moldova to join Ukraine in the EU.
Moscow has for the most part stayed out of commenting on the Georgian unrest, absent Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova’s remarks Wednesday pointing out that the draft law looked similar to US legislation passed in 1938 known as the Foreign Agents Registration Act, and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov’s statement Thursday encouraging Russian nationals in Georgia to stay out of the streets.

Rules for Me But Not For Thee

Russia’s role has effectively been that of a boogieman, designed to discredit the Georgian government and foment discontent, both in Georgia and among Tbilisi’s Western partners, says Shota Apkhaidze, a political scientist serving as director of the Caucasus Center of Islamic Studies. The reality, the Tbilisi-based observer points out, is that the now-scrapped legislation bears much more resemblance to FARA than it does to Russian legislation.

“This is literally double standards, a mockery. The US brazenly adopted this same law 80 years ago, in 1938, and tightened it up repeatedly. Similar laws are in force in several countries in Europe. They tell us this law is ‘Russian,’ even though it has nothing to do with Russia. These are absolutely different things. In other words, we adopted a draft law modeled on American legislation, that’s in accordance with the Georgian Constitution and the law on non-governmental organizations. What does Russia have to do with it? What does Putin have to do with anything?” Apkhaidze asked. “This is just another reason to completely undermine the political system and bring the country to a change of power. That’s what the Americans are after,” the observer said.

The building of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation in Moscow. - Sputnik International, 1920, 08.03.2023
Moscow Blasts West for Hypocrisy Over Criticism of Georgian Bill on Foreign Agents

Inconvenient Law

International affairs expert Viktoria Fedosova says US and EU consternation over the Georgian draft law is understandable, since it threatens to undermine their immense political power in the Caucasus nation.
“The passage of such a law in Georgia was risky for the US and the EU, since they’ve become used to engaging in their own financing, introducing their own leaders of public opinion, and working [in the country] through non-governmental organizations. This is their typical umbrella-like scheme of operations familiar to them,” Fedosova, the deputy director of the Moscow-based Institute for Strategic Studies and Forecasts at the Russian People’s Friendship University, told Sputnik in an interview.

“The Americans have spent about $1 billion on our non-governmental organizations since 1993, with the US declaring that these funds were spent on developing civil society, human rights, etc.” Apkhaidze pointed out. “That’s not the case. On the contrary, these funds have consistently been spent on fomenting a coup d’état, on the financing of some destructive elements in Georgia,” he said.

US and European "democracy promotion" assistance to Georgia has come in various forms over the decades, from the National Endowment for Democracy and the National Democratic Institute to US hedge fund billionaire George Soros’ Open Society Foundations. Each of these groups provide millions or tens of millions of dollars to Georgian NGOs annually, and wield tremendous power beyond the realm of traditional party politics, Apkhaidze says.
“The NGO sector is the strongest structure of civil institutions in Georgia, because they have massive funding. Everyone, even the current leadership of Georgia, comes from precisely these kinds of organizations and foundations,” he said. “They have immense influence.”
The Georgian flag - Sputnik International, 1920, 07.03.2023
Georgian President Backs Protesters in Tbilisi, Vows to Veto Foreign Agents Bill

Cynical Approach

The US and EU’s record and history of violating Georgia’s sovereignty is no secret to anyone, but their behavior and response to this week’s violence constitutes outright “mockery” of Tbilisi, Apkhaidze says.
“Why is it that in Georgia, a person who throws a Molotov cocktail at a police officer and sets a police car on fire, hits a special forces agent in the head with a rebar and smashes the parliament building, why is he deemed ‘peaceful’ – and his protest a ‘peaceful protest’?” the observer asked, alluding to the dozens of police officers who have been injured, some hospitalized, over the past two days in clashes with demonstrators.
Fedosova thinks the answer is obvious - while the US is able to pass laws like FARA and use them liberally to monitor their media, politics, and social groups for signs of foreign influence and meddling, the same luxury is not afforded to countries like Georgia.
“The United States cannot allow this kind of sovereignty be enjoyed by tiny Georgia, which, moreover, has already been used as a destabilizing factor against Russia (we remember the situation in 2008),” she said.

‘Second Front’

The irony of the crisis over the foreign agents draft law is that the Georgian Dream government is broadly pro-European, with stated aims including entry into both the EU and NATO. Accordingly, both Apkhaidze and Fedosova believe that the crisis is related to the pragmatic foreign policy approach that Tbilisi has taken in relation to its northern neighbor, especially after the escalation of the Ukraine crisis last year.
“The Americans have spent a whole year now since the start of Russia’s ‘special operation’ in Ukraine destabilizing the situation,” trying to get Georgia to join anti-Russian sanctions and “open a second front” against Moscow, Apkhaidze said.

“The Americans know that if they manage to quickly remove Georgian Dream, a second front would be opened immediately, because those flakes who came out to protest want this war, many of them unconsciously, of course; they have no idea what such a conflict would bring. But they are so short-sighted (I mean the majority of young people involved) that they don’t understand what a war with Russia would bring. Others have the concrete goal of opening a second front. The Americans are leading the country precisely in this direction,” he said.

The Georgian government and lawmakers’ attempts to prevent Tbilisi from being pulled into a direct conflict against Russia, notwithstanding the not always rosy relations with Moscow, is precisely the reason the foreign agents law was put together in the first place, Fedosova believes, citing the fact that a handful of NGOs have garnered more financial support over the past year than all the country’s political parties combined.
“The main thing [for the government] is the guarantee of peace, some kind of fair compromise-based dialogue with Russia, without attempts to include the country in a new conflict on Russia’s borders. The main thing for them is to convey this idea of preserving sovereignty and not losing new territories, and to communicate this to their citizens,” the observer said.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a news conference at the Alliance's headquarters in Brussels, Belgium January 12, 2022. REUTERS/Johanna Geron - Sputnik International, 1920, 14.01.2022
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Maidan Danger

Fedosova observed parallels between the footage coming out of Tbilisi this week and the Euromaidan in Kiev before the 2014 coup. “We are watching footage now from Tbilisi where young people jump and dance, where the [psychological] mechanisms for creating this kind of emotional bond of the crowd are used. We’re seeing everything we saw on the Maidan. But here the presence of external forces hasn’t yet reached the point where the American ambassador comes out and distributes cookies, for example. So far, we are seeing the manifestation of the Americans in this conflict only in the form of their official statements.”
If the situation heats up, more parallels to the Ukrainian coup could appear, she noted, including radicals in crowds, agent provocateurs, mysterious snipers, culminating in a coup and the appointment of a new puppet government and “the installation of an authoritarian president who will be called a liberal.”
“We see how this happened with Zelensky – how ‘liberal’ his regime turned out to be, and what laws were adopted when everything goes according to the American scenario, and the country is integrated into a full-fledged military confrontation with Russia…They need Georgia as another means to prick Russia, just from another flank,” Fedosova said.
Fragments of a destroyed Russian military vehicle lie against the background of an Orthodox church in the village of Lypivka close to Kiev, Ukraine, on April 11, 2022.  - Sputnik International, 1920, 20.01.2023
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President vs Parliament

In the course of her official visit to the US this week, Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili appeared against the backdrop of the Statue of Liberty to express support for the protesters. “I am by your side. Today you represent free Georgia. Georgia, which sees its future in Europe, will not allow anyone to take away this future,” Zourabichvili said.
Apkhaidze doesn't find anything surprising about the Georgian president’s behavior, saying the French-born politician is simply serving the interests of her masters, and that her sympathies for the opposition have long been evident.
“Georgia is a parliamentary republic. I don’t think that will change. This is not the first time she has opposed various decisions of the Georgian leadership and parliament… As far as Zourabichvili is concerned, she, of course serves the interests, first of fall, of her masters. I can’t figure out whether she’s the president of Georgia or the governor of some American state. But it is a fact that she wants more power, and sees herself in the place of [Georgian Prime Minister Irakli] Garibashvili,” Apkhaidze summed up.
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