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Georgia’s Vibrant Limbo

The nation teeters between hope and despair

“Sometimes empty is more full,” Giorgi Maisuradze, a leftist intellectual and professor at Ilia State University, wrote on Facebook as he posted a selfie from an empty lecture hall on May 15.

The post was part of a recent viral selfie trend in Georgian academia. Many professors have stood by thousands of their students across Georgia who have walked off campus in opposition to the ruling party’s fixation on passing and enforcing the law that would label their friends, civic activists, and journalists as “agents of influence.” The protest wave grew into anger after the government’s heavy-handed crackdown on the protesters, delivered both by the police and yet-unidentified thugs.

On May 14, the ruling Georgian Dream majority passed the Rubicon and adopted the law. Only an ephemeral presidential veto now stands in the way of enacting it formally.

This final pretense of parliamentary democracy followed more than a month when thousands protested. As protests have grown in size and passion, they engaged more Georgian cities and expanded to more social groups. Authorities have attempted to suppress the protests through police brutality, massive intimidation campaigns, and thuggish violence, including against political leaders. Police continued to arrest those accused of violence against law enforcement; they threatened harsh punishment.

So far, the threats and officially condoned violence have only brought more people into the streets. Even after the law was passed, student-led, spontaneous, simultaneous, and creative rallies continued shaking Georgian cities and paralyzing traffic. They capture the attention – and often the sympathy – of those otherwise indifferent to the political situation.

President Salome Zurabishvili, a fierce opponent of the controversial law, promised to use her veto power, which will at least prolong the process. However, the ruling majority can easily overcome that veto. The day passes, and hope flickers as people stand up in thousands to defend their liberty, but despair grows as repression gains momentum. Georgia is now stuck in sort of a vibrant limbo between newfound optimism created by the glimpse of citizenry committed to a democratic future and the shadow of violence that breeds the hard-to-ignore uncertainty.

Vague Future of Big Awakening

“Long live the united national front that brought Zura Japaridze and Giorgi Maisuradze together,” Beka Kobakhidze, a prominent historian, jokingly wrote on Facebook. The historian was expressing amazement at how the ongoing protests have attracted everyone across the ideological spectrum – from right-wing libertarian politicians to left-wing academics.

The current situation and the scale of what many call “decentralized” resistance is something most Georgians never expected to see. Government attempts to dismiss this movement as “LGBT-led protests” or to blame it on their arch-rivals, UNM, seem to have hit their limits.

The protesters have grabbed back the flag of patriotism from the populist ruling party. Their genuine faith and reverence for “ancestors” who fought for freedom have enmeshed into inspiring images of their own heroic and peaceful dedication. Playful youth in colorful raincoats flooding Tbilisi and braving the police in bad weather keep inspiring “light versus darkness” narratives.

Protesters facing riot police on the day of the final adoption of foreign agents law, May 14, 2024. Photo: Guram Muradov/

The rallies are organized by various youth activist groups. That includes groups like Daphioni, Talgha, GEUT, and Martianelebi, as well as students from various universities. So far, their diversity has made it difficult for the ruling party’s propaganda to pin down their identity and target and neutralize the resistance.

Yet, while the absence of one clear leader is a strength of the ongoing resistance, some fear that a lack of coherence and a clear political direction would ultimately doom the protests.

Fearful of extinguishing the embers of resistance in the highly polarized society, opposition politicians have struggled to find their voice and place in the ongoing protests. Some prominent opposition leaders were booed as they took the stage at a May 15 rally. While there are early signs of an emerging “European Platform” of pro-Western opposition (someone even suggesting such a possibility would have been laughed out of the room just two months ago), it has yet to take shape. The oft-repeated calls for a nationwide workers’ strike have fallen flat.

What are the options?

One political figure whose leadership is more welcomed by the street is Salome Zurabishvili, the 72-year-old figurehead president who has recently transformed herself from a widely hated Georgian Dream ally into a Gen Z favorite “slay queen.”

Zurabishvili recently told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that she would be “leading the pro-European front” of the opposition parties and civil society towards the looming October elections. There are fears that the government might use the new law to hijack elections, for instance, by hobbling the election observation groups.

But before Georgia gets to elections, the President must decide how to wield her veto power. Once the parliament passes a law, the president has up to two weeks to either sign the bill into law or “veto” it by sending it back with her “motivated objections” – amendments or changes. The time for Parliament to consider the proposals is not strictly defined, but the ruling party can override the veto with a simple majority, as it has done many times already.

Yet, the Georgian Dream leaders are now making much of that veto, telling the Western partners and the hesitant Georgians that they would amend the law if they received “constructive criticism” from Western partners through the presidential objections.

The president called the offer “manipulation” and vowed “not to play these games.” Civil society actors also say the law must be withdrawn unconditionally.

According to the Constitution and the rules of procedure, there are two ways. Once the parliament schedules a hearing on proposed amendments, it can either accept them entirely or reject them (also entirely, no modifications are allowed) and re-vote the original text of the law. If the motion passes, the vote is overridden.

Alternatively, parliament could decide not to debate the president’s proposals, thus shelving the veto until the next convocation, to be elected in October. This would effectively turn the October elections into a referendum on the ruling party’s policies.

Conundrum for the West

It remains unclear how much the West will want to get involved.

Georgia became an EU candidate country in December, and Brussels has to decide whether it is ready to begin accession negotiations. The Commission has issued a clear warning that adopting the law “negatively impacts Georgia’s progress on the EU path.”

European Council President Charles Michel spoke by phone with President Zurabishvili and Prime Minister Kobakhidze, and posted he would continue “to help Georgians to work towards a European future, including by helping to find the best way to address legitimate concerns of all sides.” The mention of “legitimate concerns of all sides” has angered the law’s opponents.

In a more immediate sense, the ball is in the court of the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission. The Commission’s urgent opinion on the pending legislation was expected to arrive before the final adoption of the law but has been delayed. Once it arrives, however, it could still influence what the President will propose as part of the veto procedure.

As Western attention intensifies and a steady stream of Western officials and politicians arrive in Tbilisi, some think that sanctioning the Georgian Dream MPs, officials, or Ivanishvili himself may help nudge them away from the abyss. In his May 14 briefing during his visit to Georgia, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James O’Brien duly warned of the “consequences” if the law is enacted in its current form.

While Georgian Dream politicians try to look unconcerned about the prospect, and Ivanishvili seems to have made provisions to shield himself from the impact of such sanctions, not everyone in GD can afford such luxury.

The final adoption of the law has already been followed by a small financial shock. The Georgian currency rapidly depreciated and the shares of Georgian companies fell. Even usually cautious businessmen could not hide their concern about the prospects of a “collapsing” economy.

Nini Gabritchidze

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