Inside the Georgian protest movement defying the ‘Russian Law’

A conversation with Marika Mikiashvili.

By Johanna Urbancik

“We have not given up. We are ready to fight.” For weeks, Georgians have been protesting against the ‘foreign agents’ law introduced by the ruling party Georgian Dream. The party has been in power since winning the 2012 parliamentary election and has maintained its position through subsequent elections, including the most recent ones in 2020 and 2021. 

Originally, the law has been introduced in March 2023, but due to widespread protests, it’s been withdrawn. After Irakli Kobakhidze became prime minister in March 2024, the bill was reintroduced.

The ‘foreign agents’ law, also dubbed the ‘Russian law,’ requires media, nongovernmental organisations, and other non-profits, such as cultural institutions, to register as ‘pursuing the interests of a foreign power’ if they receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad.

Thousands of Georgians have been protesting against the law and its repercussions on them and their country. The implementation of the law could mean a halt in Georgia’s desired journey into the European Union, as well as brutal crackdowns and forced shutdowns of independent organisations and NGOs.

Johanna Urbancik spoke to Marika Mikiashvili, an activist and member of the opposition, about the evolution of the protest movement now that the law has been passed and what it could mean for Georgia’s future.

The protests started over a month ago. How were they organised in the beginning and now?

I think it was the CSOs who made a joint statement. 

Note: The Civil Society Organisation (CSO) is a non-governmental group that operates to address social, political, environmental, or cultural issues within a community.

In the evening, people didn't care who was making announcements; they just knew that the Parliament was having a procedural session about the law. The information about the protests spread quickly. During the first three days, while Parliament dealt with procedural matters, over 100,000 people joined the rallies in a country of 3.7 million. 

After three days, student groups and young people continued to gather, blocking roads daily. It was a spontaneous effort by various student groups who communicated through shared group chats.

What is the average age group attending the protests? Would you say it’s more of a ‘youth movement’ or are Georgians from all age groups protesting against the law?

I would say it's mostly students and people in their mid-20s. It's a generational clash to some degree, but not a huge one. We have significant support from all generations.

When there are no grand rallies around the parliament meetings, it's just youth initiatives. On social media, it gets branded as a ‘youth protest’, but many of our grandpas and grandmas join us, especially at the big rallies. 

The Georgian Dream's main propaganda isn't about it being just the youth, they also argue that the protests are satanic. Some Facebook pages affiliated with Georgian Dream manipulate videos to make it look like we are performing satanic rituals at the rallies. They also accuse us of being misled by NGOs and political parties. They claim we are destroying traditional values and Christianity. The rhetoric they use is almost identical to that of Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin.

We spent Easter in front of the parliament, turning it into a protest. Despite being labelled as Satanists, we reclaimed the church and demonstrated secularism and civic unity, with people of all religions joining us. This self-organisation and resilience shattered their propaganda, showing our ability to unite and stand strong against their adversity.

The law has been passed and just recently been vetoed by the Georgian president Salome Zourabichvili. The ruling party, Georgian Dream, holds a majority large enough to override Zourabichvili’s veto. On 28th May, the Georgian parliament overruled Zourabichvili’s veto. Now, the legislation has to be signed by the president, who is likely to refuse. Therefore, after five days, the president of the parliament Shalva Papuashvili will sign the law and it will be enacted.

How is the situation at the moment? 

We are still very much in the resistance mood. We have not given up. We are ready to fight. There's no pessimism. The only thing I’d say is that there is some confusion about how to proceed with the movement.

Even though the protests didn’t result in the law being revoked, I still consider them a huge success. It’s hard to describe, but we – as a Georgian society – were in such bad shape before. Now, we’ve proven to ourselves that we’re a proud, confident nation. 

There was a stereotype that Georgians needed centralised leadership to protest. If we don't achieve our objectives in a couple of days, we get tired and go home. But we showed persistence, decentralisation, and self-organisation. I feel it was some sort of mental and cultural watershed moment, which is far bigger and more important than an immediate result. 

The government is still keen on adopting this law, which is why we need to regroup and determine how to proceed. The protests need to be channelled politically. People are waiting for some declaration from the opposition about unity or what coalitions there will be for the upcoming elections in October. The opposition needs to unite because otherwise, the Georgian Dream will benefit.

It would be very nice to have a general strike, but someone would need to manage and negotiate this strike with the different sectors of the economy. The business and public sectors are traditionally the most vulnerable to the Georgian Dream. Many businesses stand in solidarity with the protesters, but they’re afraid of the repercussions of the Georgian Dream, such as being forced to shut down.

Another thing we’re hoping for is sanctions against this regime to remove their sense of impunity. Not only against the powerful actors but also lower-level Georgian Dream members, whose lifestyle is similar to the average Georgian’s. Sanctions would be a shock for them, especially if they receive travel bans. I don't know whether it's a legitimate thing to ask for, but many Georgians equate sanctions with Western support. So, until they are sanctioned, we think the West isn’t standing with us.

What does the ‘Russian law’ mean for the ordinary Georgian?

In Georgian, the word ‘agent’ means ‘spy’, so when they call you a ‘foreign agent’, they imply you are working for foreign spy services and countries, accusing you of being a traitor. This terminology is significant because there is no independent money in Georgia besides that from oligarchs. So all CSOs, whether political, animal shelters or even cinemas depend heavily on Western funds. Labelling someone who receives Western money as a ‘foreign agent’ suggests that the West is an enemy. This law flips the perception of friends and enemies, implying that taking money from the West is bad because the West is bad.

In Georgia, the West is not seen as an enemy but as a home, except for small ultra-Orthodox groups influenced by Russia. Bidzina Ivanishvili claimed that CSOs are tools of foreign powers to impose foreign rule in Georgia through a violent coup, pushing a Russian narrative.

Note: Bidzina Ivanishvili is a Georgian oligarch worth at least $5 billion. With Georgia's GDP reaching approximately $24.78 billion for the entire country, Ivanishvili's wealth accounts for approximately one-fifth of the country's total economic output. He holds immense influence in Georgian politics as the chairman of the Georgian Dream party. Despite claiming to have withdrawn from frontline politics, he is considered the ‘power behind the throne’, orchestrating political manoeuvres from the shadows.

Since all CSOs depend on Western money, they would need to register as foreign agents, and many would shut down rather than comply. This law affects all CSOs working on women's issues, disabilities, education, and more, leading to a loss of services that people rely on daily.

Additionally, no foreign investor would want to enter Georgia under these conditions, causing further economic decline. Investments require guarantees of safety and protection by the judiciary, which is fully captured by the state, offering no security for investors not tied to the Georgian Dream party. Nepotistic guarantees are unreliable, and the government could change its stance and take away businesses overnight.

If the law is adopted, does that mean loads of institutions will have to close down, or will the government take over? 

They will have to close down. We don't yet know the speed of application of this law. With the current pace of everything they have now, it seems like they will be rushing to shut everyone down, especially before the elections. The crackdown has already happened. People are already demoralised, in jail, or exiled. 

For me, it was a watershed moment when the opposition politician, Dimitri Chikovani, was badly beaten. I realised there was no red line for them. He suffered a concussion, a broken nose, cuts to the face and two black eyes. He was beaten by a group of hooded thugs and claims he was targeted by "Putin's puppets".

They also secretly made amendments to the law. Now, it extends to individuals. Individuals will be required to provide information on CSOs and their employees, maybe even beneficiaries. It’s very vague. They can apply it arbitrarily to anything.

The law now says that individuals who will be asked to provide information will be fined if they don’t comply. Ultimately, they will freeze our assets to the point that it will be impossible for us to live in Georgia.

The information they require from individuals about themselves and other people around them includes personal information otherwise protected by the state, such as their sex lives. You will have to report on your sex life or your employees’ sex life. And if you don't report it to the state, you will be fined. 

Will people continue to fight for Georgia, or will they be forced to leave? You’ve tweeted that a prominent activist, Nata Peradze and her family had to leave the country immediately as an investigation began against her for an alleged coup attempt. 

I think it will depend on the mode of application and how the regime will proceed, i.e. how repressive they get and how quickly they want to shut down everyone. Of course, we will protest again. People are in the spirit to fight. Whether it's effective would depend on many things, but we cannot give up. What forms of resistance we will adopt is hard to tell. 

We never had this feeling before that the government has absolutely no red lines and that they will shoot us all if needed. Of course, there were grievances against governments before, but there was never a sense that the government was Russian and served as an enemy occupier power. This is uncharted waters for Georgia. It's impossible to jail everyone or make them leave. It ultimately depends on whether security services go fully rogue and crack down violently on protesters as they did in Belarus. 

In Georgia, there are indications and rumours that the police might crack because they're not unconditionally loyal to the regime and government. 

Georgian Dream is now claiming to adopt a softer version of the law, possibly making amendments to it, although it's unclear how it could be improved. This move is seen as an attempt to deceive both the public and foreign partners into believing they are addressing concerns. It all depends on the elections in October if they won’t unleash full hell on us before.

What does ‘full hell’ look like?

I don’t know, but something like hundreds of arrests, interrogations, and terrorising tactics such as threatening family members, including pregnant women and elderly relatives. These actions defy Georgian cultural norms and aim to instil fear and insecurity among activists and their families. This government, perceived as Russia's last stronghold in Georgia, resorts to extreme measures to maintain power, knowing that losing Georgia would weaken Russia's influence in the entire South Caucasus region. Georgia is hostage to this regime.

Currently, 20% of Georgia's internationally recognised territory is under Russian military occupation. Are people scared that Russia will repeat what they’re doing in Ukraine in Georgia?

I think it’s more than 20% already. The possibility of another invasion doesn’t stop people from protesting. But when you discuss this topic, most people, especially older generations are scared. 

Unfortunately, there is no tangible guarantee to give these people that it won't happen. Of course, Russia is busy in Ukraine right now. On the other hand, Georgia is a small country, and this government has weakened our military over the 12 years in power. For us, this fear is not paralysing, it won’t make people stay at home.

Would you say the Ukrainian resistance played a role in Georgians mobilising to fight against their government and its Russian influence?

The Ukrainian resistance played a mobilising role for Georgians. Before February 2022, Georgian society was kind of asleep, but after 2022, we woke up and mobilised around Ukraine. It's our war too. 

Unfortunately, the Georgian Dream managed to put a crack in our society, even regarding support for Ukraine. They received tons of criticism for not being supportive enough and for being soft on Russia. Even when they adopted a parliamentary resolution supporting Ukraine, they did not mention Russia once. Amid these accusations, they claimed to have a pragmatic policy that keeps peace in the country. They warned that if the opposition came to power, there would be war. Their warmongering rhetoric made part of our society neutral and scared. This has been their main legitimacy for the last couple of years. Georgians support Ukraine, but they are not fully aligned on the degree of support. 

Without the Ukrainian resistance, we wouldn't have a chance at freedom; we would have already been swallowed. Everyone realises that if not for Ukraine, Georgia wouldn't exist any more.

Follow @Mikiashvili_M on X (formerly known as Twitter) to read her updates on the protests in Georgia.

Interview by @johannaurbancik

Photos courtesy of Ezz Gaber & Marika Mikiashvili