The repressive, Russia-inspired law restricting the right to association and vilifying pro-democracy activists and media is making its way through the parliament. This is not an isolated initiative. As the 2024 elections near, the Georgian Dream is preparing a ramp to stand on the sovereignist ideological platform, fueled by anti-Western sentiment and underpinned by economic populism.
Only a few months ago, the anti-western, nativist agenda moved from the fringes to the center of Georgian politics. According to the analysis of the political party funding by Transparency International – Georgia, a watchdog, the openly pro-Putin “Conservative Movement,” which spawned from the conspiracy-ridden Alt-info media group, has received the second largest amount of financial contributions in October-December 2022, falling only behind the ruling Georgian Dream.
Last October, when the People’s Power political grouping was announced, its MPs formally quit the Georgian Dream party to profess their sovereignist policies.
But fast-forward several months to 2023, and the Conservative Movement offices which opened across the country are closing down, while the Georgian Dream Chairperson Irakli Kobakhidze and the parliamentary faction leader Mamuka Mdinaradze sing People’s Power tune. Instead of hiding behind plausible deniability, the Georgian Dream has absorbed and internalized the radical discourse.
Conspiracy theories about the West trying to drag Georgia into the war are only one facet of the ruling party’s general skepticism towards Western motives, which is reflected in the apparent desire to “curb the agents of foreign influence.” The law obviously targets European and U.S.-funded groups since purportedly Russia-funded entities do not disclose their funding. This policy is often dressed in nationalist-populist, the identarian discourse of protecting the “Georgianness” through eradicating decadent Western influence.
If the foreign agent laws go through, there is a legion of other legislative and policy suggestions waiting in the wings, structured around an emphasis on traditional values, religion, the sanctity of the family, reduced immigration, and increased restrictions on minority rights backed by protectionist economic policies.
The same group of the ruling majority that proffered the “foreign agent” bills promised to advance legislative proposals to curb “libelous statements” in the media. The legal laundry list of the populist-conservative agenda includes the banning of “statements offending religious feelings” and slapping fines on media and arts for publishing “gay propaganda.”
The ruling party’s chairman Kobakhidze also advanced the natalist agenda: “Georgia’s demographic situation and trends require serious attention,” he said. Rumors have been circling in the professional community that the government, backed by the Georgian Church, is considering restrictions on abortion. This could be dressed as appropriating the U.S. policy, just like the proponents of the “foreign agent” law claim (misleadingly) that it was based on the U.S. Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA). This is not without precedent in the populist-conservative circles – only last year, a similar proposal was made in Serbia, and the populist President Aleksandar Vucic allowed the debate to fester and polarize before shooting the proposal down.
The turn towards national populism has its economic underpinnings. Even as the Prime Minister does not tire of pointing to “double-digit growth,” the repetition belies GD’s insecurity about Georgians’ growing unease with the worsening socio-economic decline. The latest NDI poll showed “rising prices, jobs, and poverty remain top national concerns” and that the “plurality say Georgian economy in bad shape.”
While 38% of the population (CRRC) blames Government for increased prices and one in five Georgian households struggles to buy food, the PM has called in the business association trying, apparently, to implement price controls to keep food prices and inflation low.
The mix of economic populism with “Georgia-first” sovereignism in relations with the West is apparently considered the most effective way to continue to sustainably demobilize the large share of voters (over 61% say no party responds to their needs) and mobilize the radical anti-Western (and pro-Russian) voters.
The Georgian Dream used radicals in pre-election seasons before – the Alliance of Patriots in the 2016 elections, the Alt-Info Conservative Movement – they all served their political purpose as a violent spearhead and a proxy of the ruling party to intimidate the opponents and then faded into the background.
What is different now is that the People’s Power is very close to GD – it is a part of the majority faction and is composed of GD’s “former” MPs. Also, by ramming through the “foreign agents” law (and perhaps another one on libel against media), the Georgian Dream will be handing the People’s Power considerable pre-election gifts. Depending on the reaction inside and outside of the country, it may decide later whether to formalize the relationship as a coalition partner, to re-absorb it, or to hang it out to dry.
Whichever of these scenarios plays out, the genie is out of the lamp: anti-European policies have been openly voiced and defended, and the supporters of liberal democracy feel the chilling effect.
It may well turn out that the genie only grants the wishes of the Kremlin.