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After 'Foreign Agent' Law Defeat, Georgian Protesters Set Sights on Elections

Protesters rally outside the parliament in Tbilisi on May 18.
Protesters rally outside the parliament in Tbilisi on May 18.

TBILSI -- If Georgia's protesters couldn't force their government to back down by turning out in the streets, could they defeat it at the ballot box?

The protest movement, the fiercest opposition to the ruling Georgian Dream party in its 12 years in power, failed in its primary goal: to pressure the party to drop a controversial bill on nongovernmental organizations and media. On May 28, the parliament overruled a veto by President Salome Zurabishvili, and the "foreign agent" bill will now become law and start taking effect this summer.

At a rally that evening, Zurabishvili, whose position is largely symbolic, addressed the crowd. "Are you angry today?" she asked. "Get angry, but let's get down to business.... We must now do everything to prepare for October 26, which will be our answer to today."

October 26 is the date of the next scheduled parliamentary elections, when Georgian Dream will try to gain a fourth term in power. Dissatisfaction with Georgian Dream has spiked since the party reintroduced the "foreign agent" bill, which would require any media outlet or NGO that gets more than 20 percent of its funding from abroad to register in a list of entities "pursuing the interests of a foreign power." Opponents have framed the bill in existential terms, fearing its passage is the prelude to a crackdown on critical voices and a turn away from the West.

But having lost the battle over the bill, many opponents of the government see their only option now is to vote out the ruling party in October. It's an uncertain prospect, though, given that the country's opposition parties --largely vestiges of the former, widely disliked ruling regime -- have consistently failed to win the hearts of Georgian voters. The playing field in which they contest elections, many also fear, is becoming increasingly uneven.

Opposition To The Opposition

Georgians' lack of faith in electoral politics as a way out of the crisis was on full display during the protests. Many Georgians were inspired by the apparently leaderless nature of the events and the fact that young people -- not the old, discredited parties -- were taking center stage.

Although the protest events were coordinated by a coalition of party, NGO, and activist groups, party leaders took care to stay behind the scenes; if politicians took the stage at rallies, they tended to be younger faces. At one gathering on May 15, when some party leaders did address the crowd, they were jeered by the crowd and had lasers pointed at their faces.

Tamar Jakeli, a founder of the Georgian Greens
Tamar Jakeli, a founder of the Georgian Greens

That episode was a "reality check" for the party leaders, said one protest organizer, Tamar Jakeli, a founder of a new liberal political party, the Georgian Greens, as well as one of the leaders of the gay rights group Tbilisi Pride. "They should not put their egos first," Jakeli told RFE/RL.

In this new stage, though, the parties will by necessity come to the forefront. "Now we really have to think about the elections," Jakeli said.

"We know, and [the party leaders] also know, that we need unity in this process.... If we are going to try to get Georgian Dream peacefully out of power, we need opposition politicians to at least act in a manner that is coordinated and somewhat in line with what the protesters want."

There is plenty of skepticism about the opposition's chances in October.

Polls -- albeit taken before this wave of protest -- consistently show Georgian Dream with a dominating advantage over their rivals. Compounding that disadvantage, the opposition is splintered into many small parties. A new electoral system under which a party has to clear a threshold of five percent of the vote to be represented threatens to leave all but the largest opposition forces completely shut out and give the ruling party a dominant majority.

And the one party most likely to beat the threshold, the United National Movement (ENM), remains toxic for a large portion of Georgian voters because of its excesses during its time in power, before Georgian Dream ousted them in 2012. Yet it remains the single most popular opposition party, meaning that, in the event of an improbable opposition victory, ENM would be effectively back in power, a result unacceptable even to many Georgian Dream opponents.

Further, the government has in recent weeks displayed a new level of willingness to deal harshly with its opponents. Police have beaten protesters, including apparently targeted attacks on opposition leaders. Liberal NGO leaders have found their houses defaced with defamatory graffiti and have blamed Georgian Dream. Ordinary protesters have gotten threatening phone calls, and the apparently coordinated nature has given rise to claims that state data was used to find them. Given all that, many fear the ruling party may have few qualms about cheating in the vote.

Several steps are already being undertaken to mitigate the opposition's biggest vulnerabilities.

On May 26, Zurabishvili announced a new electoral program called the Georgian Charter and called on all anti-Georgian Dream parties to sign it. One of its key provisions was that, in the case of an opposition win, she -- and not UNM or any other party -- would choose a temporary, technocratic government.

Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili
Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili

Previously, when people would think about the elections, "there were a lot of questions who will be who" in a potential new government, said Kote Chakhunashvili, a leader of Jiuti (Stubborn), a youth group that has been active in the protests.

With the Georgian Charter, "the president removed these questions, because if you agree to this charter you also agree that the government will be presented by the president, not the winning party," he said. "It is easier for me as an activist to explain" this prospect to would-be voters, he said.

So far, all of the major opposition parties have agreed to the charter, save for one: For Georgia, which has not ruled it out and said it is examining some of the technical provisions.

As for the small parties reaching the threshold to get into parliament, there are talks under way between the main opposition groups to form temporary blocs of relatively like-minded parties so that each bloc would be likely to top 5 percent in the balloting. The number of blocs should be limited "so that votes are not wasted and the Russians don't pocket them," wrote Salome Samadashvili, a parliamentary deputy from the Lelo party, in a May 28 Facebook post. Many Georgian Dream opponents portray the party as "Russian" or puppets of the Kremlin.

To combat potential cheating, some of the NGOs and activist groups (including Jiuti) are banding together in a new effort to train young people to get out the vote and serve as election monitors, in particular in rural areas, Chakhunashvili said. Noting that turnout in the first round of the 2020 parliamentary elections amounted to about 1.9 million (around 56 percent of registered voters), "we know that if we get 2.1 or 2.2 million, it will be very hard to manipulate those numbers," he said.

Continuing Protests

Meanwhile, organizers will try to keep up the protest momentum, albeit at a less frequent pace than it has been during the adoption of the "foreign agent" law.

Occasional demonstrations will be planned throughout the summer, as well as other events such as a charity concert to raise money for people who have been fined for their participation in protests, and watch parties for Georgia's matches in the upcoming UEFA Euro 2024 soccer championships, Georgian Greens founder Jakeli said.

"Georgian Dream wants people to feel frustrated, and they also think that we will eventually tire out," she said. "So we also have to save energy and redirect this protest energy into election energy."

Many other protesters, though, lack faith in the elections and are holding out hope for some other means of removing Georgian Dream from power.

Demonstrators Gather As Georgia's Parliament Set To Override Presidential Veto Of 'Foreign Agent' Law
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Following the final passage of the law, "everything in Georgia changed," said Zviad Tsetskhladze, a first-year university student and leader of a youth activist group, Dafioni (Sunset). "Democracy officially ended, and a pro-Russian regime started. So we need to be more careful, and, at the same time, our moves must be stronger, more effective."

He said he favors a nationwide strike and other forms of collective action, taking inspiration from Armenia's 2018 Velvet Revolution, in which mass protests managed to convince the government to step down. "We're going to follow international laws that say if democracy ends in your country, you can change reality in a more strong way," he said.

Others hope that continued pressure, including from Georgia's increasingly impatient partners in the United States and Europe, may cause Georgian Dream to somehow collapse even without an election.

"In general, we Georgians are impatient people, we love entering a battle, but don't love fighting in trenches. Either we win on the first hit or we lose. At least that's the way it was until now. But aside from defeating the [Georgian] Dream, we seem to be also learning patience and trench [warfare], and this [is] perhaps for the first time in the history of independent Georgia," wrote one protester, Beka Danelishvili, in a widely liked post on a Facebook group dedicated to the protests. "With constant pressure coming from within the country, and then the West, the Dream surely will be broken."

For some protesters, there doesn't need to be a strategy. "We are not very plan-following people," said Anna Katamadze, a twentysomething who was with a group of friends at a recent protest. "It's very hard to think about elections because we don't know what tomorrow will be."

"I guess our main plan is to rebuild...and push them," she continued. "Because we see they are worried, they have really gotten into big shit. You can see from the expressions [on their faces], how they talk. We see they are extremely stressed out. And we like it. We'll keep doing this, and we'll see what's going to happen.

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