Perspectives: Georgia on the Brink

Gen Z, previously unengaged, may now push the country toward political revolution, catalyzed by the ruling party’s foreign agents law, writes Stephen Jones, director of our Georgian studies program.

This article was originally published on Eurasianet.

The ruling Georgian Dream party has achieved the opposite of what it intended by pushing through the foreign agents law in the face of widespread popular opposition. The country’s incumbent rulers hoped the law would help them cement their hold on power. Instead, they have triggered a previously uninvolved segment of society — what is generally known as Generation Z — to become more politically engaged, giving rise to a powerful political force broadly opposed to Georgian Dream’s political agenda.

Youth-driven protests against the adoption of the Law on the Transparency of Foreign Influence have brought Georgia to the edge of a political revolution. Rebellions there are aplenty, but political revolutions — the forced transfer of political power from one social or political group to another — are comparatively rare events. But Georgia is facing the prospect of one now.

Jack Goldstone, a leading American scholar of revolutionary movements, lays out four conditions for political revolution: The government appears “irremediably unjust” and vulnerable; a broad-based section of the citizenry is mobilized in the streets; elites are unwilling to defend the government; and international powers are unwilling to defend it. Current conditions in Georgia meet most of those criteria.

For now, the police are following orders, and the army is neutral, but members of the Georgian elite are beginning to peel away. Georgian Dream’s international isolation is becoming starker by the day. The EU and the West will not save it — only Russia could do that. 

But the challenge to Georgian Dream’s legitimacy goes far beyond the protests over the foreign agents law. The reformist Georgian Dream government that assumed power following the parliamentary elections of 2012 has evaporated. Georgian Dream, after it lost its liberal coalition partners, no longer espouses the virtues of a democracy. Democratic aspirations have been replaced with a populist right-wing ideology stressing order, unity, the exclusion of undesirable minorities, support for Orthodox Christian values, and control over education, culture, and, more broadly, civil society.  

At the Conservative Political Action Committee conference in Budapest in 2023, former Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili espoused a form of Christian nationalism: “Our main weapon and foundation,” he declared, “is traditional, Christian, conservative family values.” Earlier this May, Georgia’s current prime minister, Irakli Kobakhidze, declared that the state’s higher educational institutions needed to be “qualitatively rearranged,” including the removal of politically biased professorsThea Tsulukiani, the minister of culture, has led an assault on the independence of Georgian cultural institutions, including the Georgian National Film Center, the National Museum of Georgia, and the Georgian House of Writers, where professionals and directors who show insufficient loyalty to the government have been replaced

The foreign agents law, the trigger for the current crisis, is aimed at muzzling criticism of the government from Georgia’s civil society sector. Opponents of the law see it as a threat to individual rights. The government can now demand personal data from “all persons, bodies, organizations, and entities” as part of the process of registering non-state entities acting under “foreign influence.” On May 8, parliamentary speaker Shalva Papuashvili called for the creation of a database on opponents of the law.

Georgian Dream is clinging to a narrative in which two irreconcilable forces are battling over Georgia’s future: The government represents righteousness, order, tradition, and deference to the national church; the opposition, in GD’s view, embodies unwelcome heterogeneity, tolerance of sexual deviance, and is linked to a conspiratorial “global party of war.” Left out of the ruling party’s narrative is that its policies are alienating the European Union and are sinking Tbilisi’s chances of gaining EU membership.

The government has misdiagnosed Georgia’s malady. The mass protests are not just a response to the culture warfare being waged by the government; they are also connected to long-standing problems of corruption, inequality, and a sense of injustice among ordinary citizens. Economic discontent is reflected in the data: According to the Georgian National Office of Statistics, in 2023 the number of residents leaving Georgia doubled over the previous year. Almost 67% of those leaving were citizens of working age, most seeking employment abroad. Meanwhile, Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index for 2023 showed Georgia had experienced one of the biggest year-on-year declines of any Eurasian state in the battle against graft. 

The unjust nature of the political system in the eyes of many Georgians is highlighted by the unchecked, behind-the-scenes power wielded by an unelected oligarch, Georgian Dream’s honorary chairman Bidzina Ivanishvili. Prior to finalizing the foreign agents law, the Georgian Dream-dominated parliament granted a tax holiday to those wishing to repatriate assets to Georgia from offshore accounts. The move was widely seen in Tbilisi as crafted specifically for Ivanishvili, who may face Western sanctions as part of a Western response to the foreign agents law’s adoption.

What Georgian Dream confronts now is a generational challenge. The opposition’s center of gravity has shifted from opposition parties to the street, represented by urban youth. Georgia’s future now may well depend more on what happens on the streets than in the halls of power. So far, the street has been peaceful, following a global tradition of peaceful popular resistance to authoritarianism. (Corazon Aquino’s “People Power” movement in the Philippines in the mid-1980s and the 1989 Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia are examples of how political change can come about peacefully.)

But peaceful challenges to power cannot succeed by relying on moral indignation alone. They require organization and alliances with civil servants, metro workers, journalists, and local government leaders. This in large part explains the success of Solidarity in Poland in the early 1980s. Mass political movements also need leaders who can contain the crowd’s impulse for revenge and who are able to conduct negotiations, if and when the time comes. So far, the Georgian protests have been organized and disciplined, but leadership has failed to emerge.  

While the protesters have been peaceful, government-controlled security forces have not. The police have employed violent tactics. GD’s use of force and intimidation — all publicly visible and shared across the internet — deepens the chasm between the government and the citizenry. This only makes the government more vulnerable and unstable. At the same time, the violence on Tbilisi’s streets, whether stimulated by vicious rhetoric or by brutal policemen, is emerging as the only means of government survival. GD is running out of ways to enforce compliance; its base of support is narrowing, represented by some businesses, the church, and a largely passive rural population.  

The police, civil service, and the army have remained loyal to the government, but Georgia’s post-Soviet history illustrates that such loyalties can change quickly. The government thinks it can exhaust the protest movement and divide the population sufficiently to secure a GD win in October’s parliamentary elections. That is an increasingly risky bet. GD has lost Georgian youth and a whole chunk of its own voters who want to integrate with Europe. The foreign agents law has done more harm than good for GD’s electoral prospects in a free and fair vote. At the same time, any attempt by the incumbent government to manipulate the voting outcome will be exceedingly dangerous in the face of a mobilized population.

GD is running out of good options. Authorities can intensify repression, embarking on a course that will take Georgia toward Russia and lead to greater isolation, or it can negotiate with representatives of “the people.” But choosing that option would make it impossible to control the election outcome.  

The incumbents stand a good chance of losing the elections unless they massively cheat. But election-rigging could also lead to the party’s downfall. GD has hollowed out the middle space, and negotiations look increasingly unlikely, even though they may be the only way to achieve a peaceful change of government. 

Director, Program on Georgian Studies, Harvard University; Professor of Modern Georgian History, Ilia State University, Tbilisi

Stephen Jones is an expert on post-communist societies in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.