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How Georgia's Ruling Party Is Using Laws On 'Foreign Agents' And 'Gay Propaganda' To Maintain Its Grip On Power

Georgians rally in front of the country's parliament to celebrate Tbilisi Pride. (file photo)
Georgians rally in front of the country's parliament to celebrate Tbilisi Pride. (file photo)

TBILISI -- This month, Georgia's ruling party has introduced divisive new laws aimed at combating what they have called "gay propaganda" and "foreign agents." They have justified the legislation in nativist terms, portraying their opponents as serving foreign interests and espousing values alien to Georgia.

Protesters, meanwhile, are gathering forces to defend what they see as a threat to democracy and their country's European aspirations. With critical parliamentary elections looming in October, it bodes another bout of internal strife and ever deepening polarization on Georgia's political scene.

Ahead of the vote, the ruling Georgian Dream Party would seem to be in a commanding position to win an unprecedented fourth straight term in power. Polls show them far ahead of their rivals in the increasingly fractured opposition, and they are riding high on the historic accomplishment of being granted candidate status for the European Union late last year.

But whether out of an abundance of caution, a fear that their electoral prospects may be less rosy than they appear, or a simple desire to crush their enemies while they are weak, the party is opening the campaign with a sharp escalation of their conflict with the opposition.

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In recent days, the conflict has sharpened, with two days of large street protests against the "foreign agents" law. On the evening of April 16-17, police chased and beat some of the protesters. With months to go before the elections, the politics of division seems set to deepen even further.

Targeting 'Gay Propaganda'

In February, Georgian Dream and an affiliated political party, People's Power, began rolling out the idea of a law restricting what they called "LGBT propaganda." In a Facebook post, People's Power listed a litany of recent episodes that painted the picture of a West that had lost its moral bearings. They included a memo by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in which he encouraged State Department staffers to use "gender-neutral" language and be attentive to gender pronouns, and a Pride parade in Spain, in which children participated. Georgia's opposition and NGOs, it said, were working to import these same practices here.

"For quite some time now, pseudo-liberal ideology and LGBT propaganda have been gaining strength and reaching new heights internationally," went the statement by People's Power, which was founded by a group of Georgian Dream parliamentary deputies who broke away in 2022 but continue to work closely with the ruling party. "Processes that originate in the United States and Europe will definitely be embraced by the Georgian pseudo-liberal minority, to which the radical political opposition and associated NGOs and media belong."

Georgian Dream has in recent years been dabbling increasingly in socially conservative rhetoric, with a focus on queer Georgians in particular. After far-right mobs attacked a 2021 Pride parade in Tbilisi, injuring dozens, then-Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili effectively blamed the victims. "When 95 percent of our population is against holding these types of propagandistic parades in a demonstrative manner, we shall all obey that," he said. "The times when the minority decided the fate of the majority are gone."

But in 2023, when other conservative groups were demanding to adopt a law prohibiting public demonstrations by LGBT rights groups, Georgian Dream politicians declined to support it. They cited potential legal problems and the fear of "adding grist to the radicals' mill," in the words of the party's parliamentary faction leader, Mamuka Mdinaradze.

Setting The Trap

Now, though, the calculations appear to be different. On March 25, a month after People's Power's Facebook post, Mdinaradze announced that Georgian Dream would put forth legislation on what he said would be the "protection of family values and children." Among its provisions, it would allow marriage only between "a genetically male and a genetically female," prohibit medical sex-change procedures, and prohibit "popularizing" same-sex relationships.

Because the new legislation would require amendments to the constitution, adopting it would need the votes of three-quarters of the deputies in parliament -- which the party doesn't have. That may be by design: Georgian Dream and People's Power party officials have made it plain that their goal is not necessarily to pass the law but to force opposition politicians into a dilemma. Either they vote against the bill and potentially alienate more conservative voters, or they vote for it and alienate their more liberal constituents as well as their allies in the United States and Europe.

Police officers block counterprotesters in July 2021 during a rally in support of those who were injured when a Pride march was disrupted by violent groups.
Police officers block counterprotesters in July 2021 during a rally in support of those who were injured when a Pride march was disrupted by violent groups.

"If the opposition does not support these constitutional changes, the public, including their supporters, will realize that the opposition has chosen the LGBT flag over the national flag," said Guram Macharashvili, a People's Power deputy, in comments reported by Georgian media.

Salome Samadashvili, a member of parliament from the opposition Lelo party, told RFE/RL that the main pro-government television station, Imedi, had formerly been "boycotting" her, refusing to air any of her comments. As soon as the "gay propaganda" bill was announced, however, "I had Imedi running after me in the parliament with a microphone, asking if I would vote for the constitutional amendment banning gay propaganda."

"This is a trap for the Georgian opposition," said Kornely Kakachia, the head of the Tbilisi-based Georgian Institute of Politics think tank. "They don't have a good choice here. It is lose-lose for them."

Having set the trap, though, Georgian Dream then diverted attention away from the issue by dropping another bombshell: The party announced on April 3 that it would be bringing back a law that would create a registry of NGOs and media outlets that get money from abroad.

Return Of The 'Foreign Agents'

The bill was first proposed just more than a year ago and drew comparisons to laws in Russia that have used the "foreign agents" label to slowly strangle critical voices over the past decade. The bill sparked huge protests last spring that forced Georgian Dream into a rare retreat, withdrawing the legislation.

In reintroducing the law, Georgian Dream leaders have framed the initiative just as they did with the "gay propaganda" bill, painting themselves as the guardians of Georgian interests standing up to the alien agenda that the opposition represents.

"Georgian people will watch very carefully and see which button they will press when the vote is held," the speaker of parliament, Shalva Papuashvili, said to Georgian media about the newly reintroduced law. "They [the opposition] have a difficult choice: They have to choose between the Georgian people and their foreign patrons."

On the day the law was introduced into parliament, posters were plastered across Tbilisi and other cities in Georgia promoting the law. They were posted directly next to signs that had been put up weeks before, depicting an array of Georgian opposition leaders under the rainbow flag.

"Georgian Dream wants to connect these two topics very much," Tamar Jakeli, one of the founders of a new liberal political party, the Georgian Greens, as well as one of the leaders of the gay rights group Tbilisi Pride, told RFE/RL. The party "thrives on polarization, and the source of their power actually comes from the extreme polarization of the society," she said. "From polls you can see that whenever there is a sense of peace and victory and hope among Georgian people, that's when Georgian Dream loses support a little bit. But whenever there is polarization, then they can go all in and demonize everyone."

Tamar Jakeli, one of the leaders of Tbilisi Pride
Tamar Jakeli, one of the leaders of Tbilisi Pride

The introduction of the laws has also dovetailed with other related efforts, such as one to reverse a policy mandating gender quotas for women in parliament and another pushing back against an EU recommendation to invite "international experts" to conduct "integrity checks" on Georgian judges.

All of these together "are perceived by many conservatives and nationalists as a broad anti-liberal, anti-globalist revolution, about which they have dreamed for many years," wrote Dmitri Moniava, a columnist for RFE/RL's Echo of the Caucasus. "These are precisely the people Georgian Dream is trying to unify by means of the second edition of the 'foreign agents' law."

Public Support

Polls show that targeting "gay propaganda" could be an effective means of gaining support in largely socially conservative Georgia. But the "foreign agents" laws could represent a steeper climb for Georgian Dream.

A series of surveys has shown that "homo/bi/transphobic attitudes are still strong in Georgia," according to a 2022 report by the Tbilisi-based NGO Women's Initiatives Supporting Group. "Compared to other minority groups, negative attitudes and distancing are most pronounced towards the LGBT group." The report found that many Georgians perceived "the fight for legal equality/self-expression of the LGBT group as 'imposing one's lifestyle on others' and propaganda." The group also found that, while attitudes have softened in recent years, Georgian women account for almost all of that shift, with Georgian men's positions staying relatively unchanged.

But polls also show that the issue is not high on the agenda for most Georgians; economic problems reliably show up on the top of the list of issues that matter most. And advocates for gay rights argue that the issue is not a very salient one for Georgia -- unless it is exploited for political gain.

"I think actually most Georgians just don't care about LGBT topics at all. They're just kind of neutral," Jakeli said. "Unless Georgian Dream puts all of its resources into demonizing us and making people care, people just don't naturally care." The law on "foreign agents" also failed to capture Georgians' imaginations the first time around. Surveys taken by the Caucasus Research Resource Centers after the failure of the bill when it was first tabled found that only 18 percent of Georgians thought it should have been passed, versus 53 percent who opposed it and 27 percent who didn't know. Even 28 percent of Georgian Dream's own voters said the law shouldn't have been passed.

Protesters rally against the draft bill on "foreign agents" in Tbilisi on April 15.
Protesters rally against the draft bill on "foreign agents" in Tbilisi on April 15.

Before the introduction of the "foreign agents" law, the opposition was taking a cautious approach to the "LGBT propaganda" law. Their approach was not to defend gay rights, but to accuse Georgian Dream of using the issue to distract voters from what really mattered.

"Georgian voters are smart enough to understand when somebody is trying to take political discussion away from what really bothers them," said Samadashvili, the Lelo parliamentary deputy. "And what really bothers Georgian voters, conservative or not, is the fact that we have extremely high prices, we have an extremely low rate of job creation, and other economic challenges."

It remains an open question why Georgian Dream brought back the unpopular bill, but those trying to rally the public against the government's conservative agenda say it has made their job easier.

Tactically, at least, "it is actually good that there is a topic we can mobilize on more broadly," Jakeli said. "It has attracted so much public interest that not so many people are talking about the 'LGBT propaganda' law." That has been welcome, she said: "We don't want a very heated discussion on LGBT propaganda because we know Georgian Dream is going to do everything to turn public opinion against us, so we think it's better for the public not to be talking about this in a very heated way."

European Values And Georgian Values

Inseparable from the domestic political implications of the laws are their geopolitical implications.

Both bills have been criticized by Georgia's U.S. and European partners, and that has in turn sharpened domestic criticism, as opponents believe that adopting them would be incompatible with their aspirations to join the European Union.

Supporters of the bills within the Georgian Dream and People's Power parties span a wide spectrum of geopolitical views, from pro-Western to anti-Western. On the more pro-Western side of the scale, officials argue that there should not be anything objectionable to Europe.

"Conservative values are not anything forbidden in European society, it is normal," Maka Botchorishvili, the chair of the parliament's EU integration committee, told RFE/RL in defense of the "gay propaganda" bill. (She does emphasize that she doesn't like the word "propaganda," preferring to refer to the problem as "promoting" ideas that she says children, in particular, are not ready to hear.) "The key thing is to not make European integration equal to promoting, for example, gay marriage or things that are very sensitive for Georgian society."

Thousands Protest, And Lawmakers Brawl, As Georgian 'Foreign Agents' Bill Reappears In Parliament
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On the "foreign agents" bill, supporters have defended it by pointing out that the United States and European countries have their own laws demanding transparency for foreign-funded organizations and have accused their critics of double standards. They also complain that Western donors have, even if unintentionally, funded organizations that have a political agenda of defeating Georgian Dream.

"We see how the inflow of nontransparent money increases in the run-up to the elections in Georgia, and most of these funds are directed to supporting radical parties, radical NGOs, and radical propagandist media," the party said in its statement on the reintroduction of the "foreign agents" law. "When donors refuse to recognize their responsibility to the Georgian people, protecting the interests of the Georgian people is the responsibility of our government, elected by the people."

Western officials have pushed back on the claims that the Georgian law is comparable to laws in their countries, arguing that the U.S. and European laws are different and not as punitive and that their laws are designed to prevent the influence of hostile foreign forces, not allies.

For People's Power, though, it is the West who is the hostile foreign force.

The party has framed the laws as a means of protecting Georgia from the West. In its statement on "LGBT propaganda," it said that the issue was reason to call into question the country's alliance with the United States: "We need to discuss how worthwhile is a strategic partnership with a state that is undermining state institutions and values in Georgia, constantly trying to organize a revolution and embracing LGBT propaganda."

The combined assault on Georgia's relationship with the West is what has again been a huge factor in drawing protesters to the streets.

'No To The Russian Law!'

When Georgian Dream resurrected the "foreign agents" law, they replaced the most politically toxic part of the law -- the very phrase "foreign agent" -- with the more euphemistic "organization pursuing the interests of a foreign power." It hasn't helped; the law is still commonly referred to as the "foreign agents" law.

And for opponents of the law, though, their epithet -- the "Russian law" -- also has not changed. And it is again proving a potent rallying cry for protesters. Many Georgians consider Russia their enemy for its long colonial rule over their country and for its current backing of two separatist Georgian territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Opponents have already organized several protests against the law, timed for the days that the parliament or a committee will be considering the bill. Large protests were held on the evenings of April 15 and April 16, following the parliament's first committee hearing on the bill and its first discussions in the plenary session, respectively.

Several thousand people gathered in front of the parliament both evenings, with Georgian and EU flags. The most common chant was "No to the Russian law!"

Many Georgians hold negative views of Russia. (file photo)
Many Georgians hold negative views of Russia. (file photo)

One of the protesters was Olga Zukhbaia, who was born in Moscow in a mixed Georgian-Russian family and moved to Tbilisi seven years ago. "I saw them [in Russia] pass the exact same laws, and I don't want it to happen again," she said. "You ban some small marginalized group that no one likes and the next thing you know another big group loses its voice because it's the same rules."

Many of the protesters were convinced that Georgian Dream was simply following orders from Moscow in reintroducing the law; a common belief among many opposition supporters is that Georgian Dream is controlled by the Kremlin. Others saw it as an attempt to rally the country's conservative base.

"They are trying to win the hearts of people like this, homophobic and pro-Russian. They need to divide and polarize people," said one protester, Mariam Khokhonishvili. "We need to show to Europe that this is not what most Georgian people think. We need to be here to show that our opinion is the majority opinion."

It remains to be seen whether the protests gain the momentum that they did last year, but they are already becoming tense. Late in the evening of April 16, many protesters were chased into the side streets near parliament and some, including journalists, were beaten.

Off the streets, the reintroduction of the law has already sparked the sort of broad opposition that it did in the first round, with dozens of leading sports and cultural figures weighing in publicly against the law. "Georgians love nothing more than to see their culture and tradition internationally recognized, acclaimed, and applauded," wrote Nini Gabritchidze, a columnist for the news website

"Given that those who best embody that pride -- from writers to athletes to top national dance choreographers like the Sukhishvili family -- oppose the law and warn of international isolation, the ruling party may struggle to convince people that they are right and everyone else is wrong."

Even if it manages to pass the law over the popular opposition, Georgian Dream risks damaging one of its strongest appeals to the electorate: that it offers peace and stability, as opposed to the chaos agents of the opposition.

"Now it is the Georgian Dream that looks like a disrupter of public peace," Gabritchidze wrote. "And nobody loves disrupters: instead of winning new supporters ahead of elections, the party risks alienating its stability-loving base."

For the party to back down a second time, though, would be a humiliation far worse than the first retreat last year. "It's maybe the biggest and riskiest bet they have made in 12 years in power and is effectively all-in," wrote Moniava, the columnist for RFE/RL's Echo of the Caucasus.

Jakeli, the protest organizer, spoke in similar terms. "They are aware that they're going all-in. So it means that we also have to go all-in on our side," she said. "The next seven months are going to be extremely tough."

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