Riot police officers in Georgia violently broke up a rally in the capital, Tbilisi, on Tuesday as thousands of demonstrators protested legislation against “foreign agents” that they said represented the latest anti-democratic, pro-Russia move in the country.
The events in the former Soviet republic have also attracted attention because of Georgia’s history as the first country that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia invaded, in 2008. Despite losing a chunk of its territory to Moscow in that conflict, Georgia’s government has increasingly tilted toward Russia and away from the West.
Here is some background on Georgia and the demonstrations.
The protests focus on a proposed law surrounding ‘foreign agents.’
Lawmakers this week gave initial support to a draft law that would require any organization that receives more than 20 percent of its funding from overseas to register as a foreign agent or risk a hefty fine. The protesters say they fear it would harm the country’s chances of joining the European Union.
The protesters note that a similar law in Russia has been used to stifle freedom of expression by cracking down on rights groups and other independent organizations.
More broadly, the demonstrations are an expression of concern that Georgia is moving down an authoritarian path and reneging on commitments to foster closer ties with Europe. On Wednesday, as hundreds of protesters blocked the main avenue of the capital, Tbilisi, some chanted: “No to the Russian law.”
Deteriorating ties with Europe run counter to Georgians’ support for E.U. membership.
Many Georgians view joining the European Union as vital to boost trade, entrench good governance and lock in democratic structures that would offer a bulwark against the influence of Russia, its northern neighbor. More than three-quarters of Georgians support a “pro-Western” foreign policy, according to a poll conducted last summer.
Georgia applied for E.U. membership in March last year, one week after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. But last June, the bloc declined to grant Georgia candidate status, while approving the candidacies of Ukraine and Moldova. One analysis said the decision was a sign of Georgia’s “notable democratic backsliding.”
President Salome Zourabichvili, who has said she would veto the law on foreign agents, occupies a largely ceremonial role. Executive power lies with the prime minister, Irakli Garibashvili, whose Georgian Dream party has appeared increasingly hostile toward civil society, Europe and the United States.
The party was founded by a billionaire former prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia and is widely believed to retain the support of the Kremlin. Its leaders have accused U.S. and European officials of interfering in Georgia’s judiciary and lashed out at Western diplomats who have called for political reforms.
There are parallels between Georgia’s and Ukraine’s experiences with Russia.
Georgia, a country of around 3.7 million people in the South Caucasus, gained independence in 1991.
In 2008, using a similar pretext as the one Moscow used to invade Ukraine, the Kremlin sent Russian forces into Georgia to support two secessionist territories, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which Moscow subsequently recognized as independent states. Russian troops still protect the two regions, giving Moscow de facto control over around 20 percent of Georgia’s territory.
“Russia’s wars in Georgia and Ukraine seem part of a single imperial project,” according to the European Council on Foreign Relations. Many Georgians also draw parallels, and argue that had the United States and other nations responded more forcefully in 2008, it might have deterred the Kremlin from invading Ukraine in 2014 and 2022.
Georgia’s relations with Ukraine have also been strained.
Georgia initially condemned the Russian invasion last year and sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine, in a sign of the traditional solidarity between two ex-Soviet republics. But it has declined to join in Western sanctions against Russia. After the government barred a chartered plane from landing in Georgia to transport volunteer fighters to Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine railed against Georgia’s “immoral position.”
Last month, Mr. Zelensky accused the Georgian government of trying to kill its imprisoned former president, Mikheil Saakashvili, who is now a Ukrainian citizen. Mr. Saakashvili, who led Georgia during the 2008 Russian invasion, had sought to move the country out of Moscow’s orbit and closer to the West, pushing for NATO and E.U. membership, and infuriating Mr. Putin.