Born From Dissent: Social Movements and the Case of Georgia

by Mariam Berdzenishvili

On March 7, 2023, the Georgian parliament passed the “Foreign Agent Law” at its first hearing. This bill involves the registration of non-commercial legal entities and media outlets in the country as “agents of foreign influence” if they derive more than 20 percent of their income from abroad. This law threatens the right to education, work, free flow of information and other civil liberties for Georgian citizens.

The civil society had expressed its discontent about the law prior to the hearing. Impassioned protests took place outside the parliament during the plenary session, and the tension between protesters and police grew rapidly out of control as the law was passed.

What could not be foreseen was how violent the confrontation would become after the announcement. The government mobilized special forces outside the parliament, whose main goal was to scare away the people defending their rights and freedoms. The police officers used tear gas, water jets and vast amounts of pepper spray on peaceful protesters. But they didn’t manage to subdue the spirit of the defiant Georgians, who were undeterred and remained in front of the parliament building for most of the confrontation.

Social movements reflect the faith that people can collectively bring about or prevent social change if they dedicate themselves to the pursuit of a goal. We live in a world where the power of civil resistance is no longer doubted, but the outcomes are very hard to predict. Sometimes these campaigns are repressed, and sometimes they are followed by outbreaks of armed conflict.

Contemporary world politics have been significantly influenced by civil resistance, which includes persuasion, non-cooperation, and non-violent forms of protest. Any historical analysis of decolonization, democratization, the devastating world wars, the Cold War and many other examples would fall short if it did not take into consideration the defiant and non-violent actions of ordinary people. There are numerous instances of successful civil movements, including the 1917–1947 Gandhi movement in India, the US Civil Rights movement, the 1980s uprisings in Eastern and Central Europe, and South Africa’s civilian-based liberation from colonialism and racial apartheid. Social movements like the Philippine Social Movement and the Tiananmen Square incident in China are instances of social movements being unsuccessful yet fruitful, halted by government bodies but still providing a fertile ground for those countries’ future democratic aspirations.

In case of Georgia, social movements have always been a means to democratically express discontent with the status quo. The tragedy that occurred on April 9, 1989, when Soviet troops ruthlessly crushed a nonviolent demonstration in Tbilisi and caused the deaths of twenty-one people, was a crucial turning point in the years preceding Georgia’s contemporary independence. These sad occurrences finally discredited Georgia’s Communist Party and helped the nationalist opposition win the country’s first free elections. In the run-up to Georgia’s March 1991 independence referendum, Gamsakhurdia and other leaders of the country’s pro-independence movement framed their struggle not so much as a campaign to secede from the Soviet Union and create a brand-new state, but as a fight to restore independence, which had been stolen twice: by the Russian Empire in 1801 and by the Bolsheviks in 1921.

Georgians generally conceive of their thirty-year history of independence as a story of social movements finally granting them their deserved independence. In contrast with some other post-Soviet countries, there is a dissonance between Georgian civil society and the government. Georgian people do not perceive the government and the state as the same thing, as political leaders often contradict the will and aspirations of the Georgian citizens. Georgians turn to social movements because they influence public debate, determine the hierarchy of important matters, express interests, allow political entities to identify previously overlooked problems, and influence legislation and public policies. Over time, the Georgian government began to make mistakes that are typical of many governing parties operating in former USSR countries. This is confirmed by the recently deteriorating assessments of the state of democratization in Georgia in the annual Freedom House rankings. The current political elite has disappointed Georgian society with its actions, both domestically and internationally. Georgians are worried that the country’s efforts to integrate with the West might be halted, and may even reverse course, given how suspiciously similar the bill enacted on March 7th appears to be to the Russian “Foreign Agent Law”.

Some scholarly articles suggest that Georgians might be experiencing a déjà vu, because the situation was so similar during the last ruling party’s departure from the parliament. The Georgian government is no longer the voice of Georgian people, which was also highlighted by the fact that thousands of people stood in support of Ukraine while the government failed to condemn Russia’s wrongdoings. After June 2019 and March 2023 two facts became clear: first, that we have no guarantee that the Georgian dream will not use violence against peaceful citizens who fight for their right to freedom and second, that the ruling party and wider parliament is far from introducing rational, pragmatic foreign policy that will benefit the whole society.

After drawing these two conclusions, the difference between the mass protests of 1989 and of 2023 becomes vague: people are still fighting the same fight in a situation they swore they would never return to. In these hard times everyone should remember that information is a powerful tool of domestic opposition movements. Governments, especially repressive ones, fear the free flow of information, for good reason, so it is important to “burst the bubble” and give people who are wearing rose-colored glasses the information as the weapon. As the Georgian motto says, ‘Strength is in Unity’ and as long as Georgian civil society stands together, the fight will be won and the future of Georgian people will be secure.

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