Public Life, Religion and Politics

The Georgian Protests: Dramatic Days, an Unexpected Outcome

Published on: March 17, 2023
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Early on March 9th, the Georgian population learned that the Georgian Dream party announced the withdrawal of the draft on transparency of foreign influence. It was on March 7th that Parliament of Georgia, with a majority from the Georgian Dream party, passed the first reading of the controversial law on “foreign agents” (any organization receiving funding from abroad!). The law would limit freedom of the press and of non-governmental organizations, destabilize civil society by limiting contacts with the Western partners, and block potential for the country’s Euro-Atlantic expansion, and most importantly, safeguard the ruling party’s chance of winning elections in 2024.

Two days of protests followed, with thousands of people gathering in front of the Parliament, where police and special forces were mobilized against the demonstrators. First-day clashes ended with some people being injured and many detained; most of the protesters suffered from tear gas or the strong stream of a water cannon. Despite that, the next day more people went out, people of all ages, but the young dominated the scene. Thousands of angry citizens protested against the potential change to Euro-Atlantic choice of the nation.

Today, among those who are in opposition to the Georgian Dream, there is disagreement on the question, “How did we get here?”  

Many claim that it was clear in 2012, when the coalition of the Georgian Dream won the elections, that their billionaire leader, who was discredited for having “collected” his wealth from the ruins of the Soviet economy, could not be trusted for building democracy on his own. That is an undisputed matter; however, the coalition seemedwell balanced with some younger Western-trained politicians and political parties with deep roots in the de-sovietization of the Republic of Georgia. The most significant background in the victory of the coalition, undoubtedly, was the rise of intolerance towards the ruling United National Movement (2004-2012) among the Georgian population.  

The coalition soon turned into a system which could not tolerate, and could not be tolerated by, clear-cut Westerners, and the system methodically started getting rid of them. Within years the Georgian Dream demonstrated more and more proof that official rhetoric about the Euro-Atlantic aspirations of the Georgian nation hardly coincided with steps taken toward its realization. The bill on “foreign agents” was the last drop which would start a process of the substantial disintegration of Georgian civil society and the silencing the free media.  

It’s been well illustrated that the bill has a close affinity with a 2012 law in Russia, although its initiators misleadingly were referring to the American bill on Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Those who have witnessed the transformation of the coalition from up close know that maintaining an official discourse in one direction does not exclude taking actions in the opposite direction. There were several occasions when the Georgian Dream acted against the will of the choice of the Georgian people, the majority (85%) of whom have chosen to strive for becoming a member of the EU and NATO.

The demonstrations on March 7th and 8th in the centre of Tbilisi (and in other Georgian cities as well as outside the country) were remarkable in their vitality, with an unusual number of youth and student participants, all united with one message: “No” to the Russian law, although there were other related messages condemning everything connected to Putin’s Russia, confirming the European aspiration of the Georgian nation and expressing full solidarity with the people of Ukraine. International partners, especially the USA and the EU, undoubtedly supported the unfailing demand on the part of the majority of the population, and their role in the decision to withdraw the bill should have been important. On the March 10th, Georgian Dream voted again for the same law and it did not pass. The bill was withdrawn, but the legislators remain in the same place, perhaps with more similar initiatives to come.

The power of the young people, especially of students who do not wish to live in a country under the Russian “protectorate,” will be difficult to ignore. This wave, hopefully, will lead the wide spectrum of the opposition forces to a clear political consensus and a joint leadership. The latter was missing during the massive protests, but this weakness has also been its strength, because the divided opposition finds it hard to stand together. The opposition will have to do something about it, to take lessons in learning a team-work.

And a legitimate question on the part of readers of this site is “Where was the Orthodox Church?” A number of individual priests made statements, speaking courageously against the pro-Russian law. Fr. Zaza Tevzadze clearly stated: “This law is needed for the purpose of bringing the Georgian people into full isolation from the West, leaving it with Russia. It has further plans than hitting NGOs and free media, leading Georgia to standstill.”

There was no official statement on the part of the Patriarchate of the Orthodox Church of Georgia (OCG) until the March 9th, when the ruling party declared the “withdrawal” of the new law was on its way. The OCG claims being one of the oldest symbols of the Georgian nation, with its historic role being privileged with a special status in the Constitution of Georgia. The statement, apart from being overdue, lacks coherence and integrity in expressing solidarity with the majority of the citizens, mentioning neither the “foreign agent” law nor the disproportional punitive measures taken by the Georgian police and special forces to disperse protesters: “Individual priests’ posts in social media or preaching on political themes, expressing extreme sympathy or criticism of our northern neighbor, have been circulated. …we declare it unequivocally that such things are unacceptable for the Church, as well as for Christian spirituality, as it has been noted numerous times by the patriarchate or His Holiness himself.”

In the past, the head of the Orthodox Church of Georgia, Ilia II (born in 1933), would show up among protesters, expressing solidarity, saying a prayer, giving instructions that were not always taken well, but still mingling with his flock (mingling with people in dangerous situations was Eduard Shevardnadze’s way of conduct as a leader of the communist party and as the second president of Georgia). But in the last few days, on the part of “official” Orthodoxy, there was neither any sign of concern for its own people courageously withstanding disproportionate use of force against them, nor any sign of sharing their joy for an important achievement.

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

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Public Orthodoxy is a publication of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University