Op-ed | March Protests: Why Did It Work?

I was standing in front of the First Classical Gymnasium on Tbilisi’s Rustaveli Avenue when a live tear gas canister, fired from a nearby street, fell at my feet. It was March 8, 2023, the second night of dramatic protests against the ruling party’s “foreign agents” law. Panic ensued, and the crowd began to rush to parallel streets. Then, another tear gas canister reached us. Everything was covered in smoke. Some struggled to breathe; others fell to the ground. For a moment, I thought I was going to die. 

Dato Laghidze is a doctoral student of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the Ilia State University in Tbilisi

Luckily, my fears were overblown – but so were the hopes of the ruling Georgian Dream party that they would get away with the authoritarian law. The tear gas did not mean my death, but their early use signaled that the government was losing control and losing the battle.

Unable to handle the massive protests, Georgian Dream was forced to withdraw the bill, a turn of events that few would have dared predict in the increasingly nihilistic political environment. The defeat of the bill sparked a wide range of theories about what led to the failure of those in power to capitalize on hatred this time. The dominant theory at the time was that the massive participation of younger protesters in the resistance forced the authorities to back down. Statements by ruling party leaders also seemed to confirm this view. 

Last fall, my colleague Lela Gvishiani and I decided to take a closer look. We launched a research project, studying the media discourse of last March and conducting semi-structured interviews with protesters.

Now, on the anniversary of the protest’s victory, our preliminary findings partly confirm the crucial role played by youth mobilization. But there was more to the success: the protests brought together a large number of people of all ages and different social groups. One reason for this was the absence of established political parties among those leading the protests. Another key factor was the smart tactics and high level of preparedness of the protesters, who stretched the operational limits of the riot police and made the government’s attempts to deal with the protests by force ineffective.

What Was Different?

“Established political parties ruin every protest in Georgia” – this is what many of our interviewees noted when we asked them what brought so many people to the streets last March. The complaint is hardly surprising: in Georgia, where political polarization is high, many people who are unhappy with government policies still avoid going to political party-led rallies. This is especially true when it comes to the United National Movement, the former ruling party. More than a decade after the end of its rule, the UNM’s poor human rights record makes it unpopular among various segments of society. The ruling party has long tried to use these sentiments to demonize the critics and crack down on dissent, often with success.

But this time, the government was unable to portray it as a “Natsebis” [UNM] protest, as Ani, a university graduate who participated in the March protests, told us. This, in turn, left room for otherwise cautious citizens to join the demonstrations. Indeed, while opposition politicians were busy confronting the ruling party in the halls of parliament as the latter tried to pass the bill, they largely stayed away from microphones during the rallies outside. The decision of the opposition parties to stay out of the spotlight followed an agreement of sorts between them and civil society representatives, who were the main target of the bills in question and thus were given the center stage.

 The turnout on both nights of protests proved that the strategy worked. But those familiar with Georgian protests know that mobilization alone doesn’t guarantee success. New, flexible tactics were needed.

Testing Limits of the Police

Both nights of protests saw dramatic clashes between riot police and demonstrators, with unrest continuing well into the morning hours. 

The role of the younger crowd here was indeed crucial. Their energy allowed them to hold their ground near the parliament well after midnight. Their ability to run to parallel streets, disperse, and reassemble at a rapid pace confused the riot police. Normally, such forces are quite limited in their tactics – it is difficult for them to chase protesters, and they are more effective when they move in formation. Controlling large but mobile crowds was a major challenge for them unless they resorted to more brutal means such as rubber bullets. 

This made the police look somewhat helpless in the face of a flexible and energetic resistance. While younger people moved quickly and exhausted the police, older protesters also remained on the scene, often instructing the crowd to remain calm during dispersals and not let the panic cause harm in a densely packed scene. The protesters’ masking tactics also made the use of tear gas less effective. On the second day of the protest, the demonstrators came well-prepared. Paata, one of our interviewees, pointed out that their tactics were inspired by Hong Kong’s protests and the BLM movement in the United States.

“The next day, I put on my sneakers and sports clothes. We asked our friend at the medical university to give us instructions on how to protect ourselves from the tear gas. We bought milk and distilled water to take care of each other,” Ani said.  Other interviewees also pointed to the effective use of social media and messaging platforms in planning spontaneous gatherings. Telegram, TikTok, and Instagram were used to share instructions, tactics for engaging with police, and safety tips.  

The struggle to deal with protesters made the police look both weak and brutal. Social networks were flooded with photos of young protesters suffering from tear gas inhalation or in ambulances. Media duly documented and even live-streamed numerous police abuses and disproportionate use of force against protesters, including the peaceful ones. This is when the government’s PR strategists realized they were losing. 

Reversed Exhaustion?

Widespread opposition to the foreign agents bill had been building in the weeks leading up to the March 7-8 protests. Nevertheless, the ruling party chose to rush the bill through parliament, possibly emboldened by the failures of previous protest movements. Rustaveli Avenue and the area around the parliament building had seen many large rallies before, but the authorities had mastered the art of waiting out discontent and draining protesters.

Last March, however, the opposite happened: the protesters and their relentlessness exhausted the police and forced the ruling party to back down. Smart tactics and widespread mobilization – in part due to the absence of the usual political constraints – made the victory possible.

But even if the outcome has rekindled hopes for civic mobilization, we must remain wary of basing too many expectations on the repetition of the past. History does tend to repeat itself – but there is no guarantee of similar outcomes, good or bad.

The names of the respondents have been changed to protect their privacy.

The views and opinions expressed on Civil.ge opinions pages are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Civil.ge editorial staff.


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