‘Georgia is now governed by Russia’: how the dream of freedom unravelled

<span>Protesters Ekaterine Burkadze and her nephew Paata Kaloiani: ‘We have to protect our republic and our peaceful future in the EU.’</span><span>Photograph: Daniel Boffey/The Guardian</span>
Protesters Ekaterine Burkadze and her nephew Paata Kaloiani: ‘We have to protect our republic and our peaceful future in the EU.’Photograph: Daniel Boffey/The Guardian

The army of riot police had finally retreated from Rustaveli Avenue, the broad thoroughfare in front of the parliament building, back into the barricaded parliamentary estate.

The last hour on the streets of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, had been violent. Snatch squads had grabbed protesters as officers, beating their shields with truncheons, surged forward to push the chanting crowds away from the graffiti-scrawled, imposing parliament building.

It was Tuesday afternoon and the MPs inside needed to get out after passing the hated “foreign agents” law – which they did. But the police retreat, under a light shower of plastic bottles and eggs, was raucously cheered nonetheless. Then the crowd started to sing: “So praise be to freedom, to freedom be praise.”

It was the Georgian national anthem, Tavisupleba, or Freedom, a bitter sweet reminder to some of the older protesters of a time of great promise – and disappointment.

Tavisupleba, composed by Zacharia Paliashvili, was adopted in May 2004, along with Georgia’s new national flag and coat of arms. They were symbols of a new era after the non-violent Rose revolution swept away the corrupt Soviet hang-over administration of President Eduard Shevardnadze, a former Soviet minister of foreign affairs.

If then there was hope, now there is anger. The significance of the “foreign agents” law may seem arcane to those outside Georgia, but for those on the streets it is an attempt to smear dissenting western voices as traitors.

Civil society organisations and media receiving more than 20% of their revenues from abroad will have to register as “organisations serving the interests of a foreign power”.

The legislation is said to be part of an unravelling of all that has been achieved, albeit in fits and starts, since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“Georgia has been protesting for 30 years,” said Ekaterine Burkadze, 45, as protesters’ horns sounded in the background and the rain fell. “But in the beginning they all seem more or less acceptable.”

Two decades ago it had been Mikheil Saakashvili, a US-educated and media-friendly ally of the west, leading the revolution. He became president with 96% of the vote but the support was genuine.

In his first term, his anti-corruption zeal and determination to bring Georgia closer to Nato and the EU won him accolades at home and abroad, and impressive economic growth.

By the second term, however, international monitors and domestic NGOs were warning of the growth of a kleptocracy and creeping authoritarianism. Saakashvili’s zeal and purpose, which had been so attractive, started to wear thin.

“The reforms were very top-down and they had to be fast,” said Ghia Nodia, who served as the minister of education and science in Saakashvili’s cabinet in 2008. “The idea was we don’t have too much time. There was a concentration of power and, of course, Saakashvili is a power junkie, if you will, and there was really no opposition.”

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Well-intended policies were executed in a manner that would store up long-term political problems.

Saakashvili wanted to reform Georgia’s universities, which were “rotting and corrupt”, said Nodia. Rectors were appointed by the ministry of education, academics forced to reapply for their jobs and institutions merged, all in a two-year frenzy.

The universities’ autonomy was restored but many intellectuals and opinion makers had been thoroughly disillusioned.

Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, after a confrontation between Tbilisi and Moscow over the breakaway region of South Ossetia, appeared on the face of it to replenish Saakashvili’s political stock.

When he announced a ceasefire after five days of conflict he was cheered by those who, a year earlier, had taken to the streets calling for his resignation.

But Russia continued to occupy 20% of Georgia. Saakashvili’s apparent disregard for upsetting Moscow would come to be portrayed by the opposition Georgian Dream party as reckless.

Then there was a major domestic scandal. Video footage emerged on the eve of the 2012 election, broadcast by the opposition-supporting channel TV9, that appeared to show a half-naked prisoner weeping and begging for mercy as two guards kicked and slapped him, before raping him with a broomstick.

Saakashvili called the incident “a horrific affront to human rights and dignity” and vowed to bring the guilty to justice.

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The scandal spoke to a perception in Georgia that what had started as a “zero tolerance” approach to crime had warped into something far more sinister.

The mysterious billionaire and leader of Georgian Dream, Bidzina Ivanishvili, who had made his fortune in Russia in the 1990s, issued a statement condemning “these acts of torture by the Georgian government”.

In the election, Ivanishvili’s party swept to victory on a platform that promised to restore civil rights and reset relations with Moscow while pursuing EU membership.

Saakashvili accepted the voters’ decision, in the first peaceful democratic transition of power in Georgian history.

More ominously, the Kremlin welcomed the result. Few saw the creeping danger.

David Katsarava, 46, is in hospital requiring surgery for fractured cheek bones after a brutal beating by riot police during the violent hour on Tuesday before the national anthem was sung.

He is well known in Georgia for his work monitoring the “line of occupation” between Georgian-held territory and where Russian troops now sit.

Katsarava supported Georgian Dream in 2012. “We thought that with the changing of this government we can come back again in the right direction,” he said. “This was a big, big mistake. Nowadays, we see that Georgia is governed by Russian government.”

The story of the past 12 years has been of Georgia talking up its prospective membership of the EU while pursuing incompatible policies – and getting away with it, he said.

Nodia, who today runs a thinktank, said it was after 2018 – when it had briefly appeared that Georgian Dream’s preferred presidential candidate, and eventual winner, Salome Zourabichvili, might lose – that the Georgian government turned.

“I think Ivanishvili believed that the west was behind it,” Nodia said. “Ultimately, he wants to stay in power.”

Anti-western groups, some on the far right and not formally associated with Georgian Dream, started targeting the government’s critics in the streets or at protests.

Saakashvili, who had left Georgia shortly after the election, was convicted in absentia in 2018 for abuse of office and sentenced to six years in prison. He was arrested on his return three years ago and remains in detention.

Giorgi Kandelaki, who was an MP in Saakashvili’s United National Movement party, said the reset in US-Russian relations under the then US president Barack Obama provided the context for what has happened, with the west willing to accept Georgian alignment with Moscow – all the way up to the Ukraine war.

“Ivanishvili had been saying all these things for years, but no one wanted to listen,” Kandelaki said.

It was only when Russia invaded Ukraine that the Georgian government had to pick a side – declining to join the west in imposing sanctions. Even then, it was granted EU candidate status in December.

Gabrielius Landsbergis, Lithuania’s foreign minister, who was in Tbilisi this week, conceded the EU was culpable in “managing the decline”.

“I’ve been here before,” Landsbergis said. “We were saying the same things about electoral law, about the way judges are appointed, about so many things, and no steps were taken. It was escalating and we didn’t meet that escalation.”

Back among the protesters, Burkadze and her 21-year-old nephew Paata Kaloiani are facing many more days and nights on the streets. “We protested at the Rose revolution, we protested against Saakashvili. Now we are here,” she said. “We have to protect our republic and our peaceful future in the European Union”.