Op-ed | How did we defeat the “Russian Law”?

A case of successful struggle

Or, briefly about how we became the first country where people defeated the “foreign agents” law…

It all started at the beginning of March 2022. Facing the street protests, the government of Georgia was compelled to submit an application to join the European Union and thus follow in the footsteps of Ukraine and Moldova. They did not want to do it, and they said so. When forced by citizens to submit an application despite their expressed wish, the government used all kinds of tricks so that the EU would not grant the candidacy to Georgia.

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We observed these attempts in the aggressive rhetoric of the Prime Minister and other high political officials, denigrating Western institutions and politicians. Finally, to add injury to insults, on the very eve of the EC making its decision, the director of a critical media channel, Nika Gvaramia was arrested on trumped-up charges. He was rightly considered a political prisoner.

People’s patience ran thin, and the anti-Western policies triggered large-scale street protests in Tbilisi in June 2022, just when they felt the opposition was too weakened to take to the streets. Yet, it was not political leaders but Georgian non-governmental organizations that stood at the head of the protest movement, which created a new headache for the authorities.

Since September 2022, they launched and gradually intensified a disinformation campaign against Georgian CSOs, essentially copying the spirit and methods of a similar 2011 campaign in Russia.

The coordinated campaign included verbal attacks from government politicians, disinformation stories prepared by propagandist media, and a campaign on social networks.

Its purpose was to foster negative attitudes towards Georgian non-governmental organizations and to discredit them in public eyes. Already in September, there were rumors that a legislative initiative was being prepared by the majority in the parliament, aiming to limit the activities of Georgian CSOs.

In February 2023, the government considered that society was already sufficiently primed. The ruling majority registered a draft law in the parliament. It was avowedly addressing the problem of transparency of non-governmental organizations – the problem that was entirely made up. The government had and still has full access to the information about the financing of CSOs. “Transparency problem” was obviously a window-dressing – but a functional one.

When initiating the draft law, the government wanted to focus on the discussion of the details of the draft. It tried to cajole CSOs into going through the legislation article by article and to avoid focusing on its ultimate goals. When talking about the draft law, the ruling party officials rehashed the same arguments that Vladimir Putin offered when a similar law was being debated in Russia.

For example, Irakli Kobakhidze, the leader of the Georgian Dream, claimed that referring to Georgian non-governmental organizations as “foreign agents” did no harm to their reputation. “Agent,” especially “foreign agent” in Russian and in Georgian, means “a spy.” But is calling an insurance agent an agent insulting?! Kobakhidze asked with feigned incredulity. Putin offered precisely the same example before.

Facing the mounting threat, a group of non-governmental organizations decided to gather and quickly take measures against the announced law. We felt that it posed a threat not only to Georgian CSOs but also to the civic space, the country’s democracy, and its European integration.

Representatives of 24 organizations attended this first meeting. They formed a core group and set about working against this draft law.

The subgroups were created, which worked autonomously in the frames of a shared single strategy to achieve a common goal. Some of them reached out to the grassroots and other non-governmental organizations; others worked with international organizations, and others still planned and held events, communicated with the media, drafted legal opinions, offered legal assistance, and helped with strategic communications. Each subgroup had its own tasks and had coordinators who constantly shared information with others.

The analysis of the presented bill revealed that its content and goals were similar to those of Russian law, which was presenting the European Union and the U.S. as threats to our country. This bill was essentially directed against the West.

By this time, we were already familiar with the experience of other countries with similar laws.

We also knew that there was no precedent when the authorities were forced by public protest to abandon the adoption of a similar law. So we knew exactly what not to do, but we didn’t know exactly what to do.

After several days of work, we completed the analysis of the government’s main narrative, what attitudes it was trying to form in society, and what behavior it wanted to induce in people.

We decided to act differently. We decided that, unlike in the past, we wouldn’t answer the government’s accusations and wouldn’t justify ourselves when faced with lies. Instead, we would show the public why the government was doing this. With this strategy at hand, we went onwards.

The protest was organized with the participation of many independent actors, and I do not want to belittle anyone’s role. However, here I will highlight a few issues that played an important role in the success of the Georgian people against the “Russian law”:

  • We managed to mobilize civil society around the issue. We created a common group on the social network, in which more than 2000 civic activists from all over Georgia joined. Here, we constantly exchanged information about current processes and planned activities;
  • From the first days, we resisted the temptation of making light of the issue. Yes, the accusations of the ruling party propaganda machine were ridiculous, but we explained the seriousness of the situation to our friends and colleagues. When activists in Russia tried to ridicule the government for similar proposals, the jokes were good, but the laws were passed, and the crackdown followed. With this, we restrained the temptation of our colleagues to decorate their Facebook profiles with James Bond photos, saying, “I am the foreign agent.” Such witticisms would only help spread and confirm the message to the government;
  • We also refrained from entering into the discussion about transparency. This was just the pretext for the ruling party and not a genuine discussion. So, we did not do what the government wanted. We aimed to explain to the public the true content and objectives of the law. We had to do it succinctly and clearly, and we formulated it thus – it was “a Russian law that would keep us away from the European Union”;
  • We also had to explain the severity of the situation to diplomats and international organizations – but avoid asking for advice on what to do. We met with the ambassadors of friendly states and told them – we know how to act; we are not asking for your advice, but you can help us. Our primary request was: do not hide the truth, do not embellish the situation. Say things as they are. And they did it;
  • We talked to critical media, politicians, activists, regional organizations, students, professors, etc. We explained to them the goals and strategy of the law, how to oppose it, and asked for their help. And they did it perfectly.
  • Apart from saying what was happening, we had to show it to the public. We did that by producing and releasing lots of small videos, by holding small events with a lot of visuals. At some point, we realized that others were doing it without us. Once the strategy was clear to the partners, they already knew what to do;

We monitored and analyzed the situation daily. Based on this, we worked in the directions where it was most needed.

We also tried not to be radical. We always left face-saving options to the ruling party, left them the possibility to backtrack. It turned out in the end that our assessment of the stage we were at, which tactics could and could not be used, was correct.

A common threat – the Russian law – united us, and we resisted the temptation of bringing other matters to the table, issues that could have been used for deepening cleavages. We operated according to a plan that we updated periodically. And we were doing our best to make the resistance non-violent.

Our hope was to force the government to back down by the time the third and final hearing was to be held in the parliament in June. But their resolve turned out to be weaker than we thought. Things sped up. The protest of the Georgian people turned out to be stronger than the government had ever imagined.

And the Georgian people won. I won’t say that the government has lost. Because yes, many of those people may not see it today, being blinded by the veil of power. But, perhaps, when they lose power years later, they will remember the initiation of this law as one of the most stupid things they did, and maybe they will be grateful to the Georgian people who stopped them from adopting the “Russian law.”

This post is also available in: ქართული (Georgian) Русский (Russian)


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