In Russia’s ongoing confrontation with the West, the Kremlin’s devastating war against Ukraine is front and center.

But in another former Soviet neighbor with an overwhelmingly pro-Western population, the battle is being waged far more quietly. In Georgia, Russian influence along with democratic backsliding have been mounting largely under the radar—until critics have taken to the streets.

When the ruling party introduced a controversial “foreign agents” bill last year, tens of thousands of demonstrators, predominately Gen-Zers and millennials, protested in the capital Tbilisi for three intense days, forcing the government to withdraw the measure in March 2023.

The pause lasted until earlier this month, when the legislation was reintroduced to parliament in a move opposition parties say could derail the European Union candidate country’s accession as well as NATO membership. A majority of Georgians supports both goals.

Tens of thousands of protesters have been gathering outside parliament once again in mass demonstrations that have led to violent clashes with the police.

On Sunday, some 100,000 people took to Tbilisi’s main thoroughfare Rustaveli Avenue on a warm night, carrying Georgian, European and Ukrainian flags.

Among the crowds, Nino Apakidze—a program coordinator for the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs think-tank—said the government had learned lessons from last year. “They will not want to make fools of themselves again by not getting this law across,” he said.

Protest leaders vow to continue demonstrations as parliament deliberates in the coming weeks.

Anti-government protesters on Sunday. Nearly 80 percent of Georgians support their country's aspirations to join, according to a recent poll

The government’s retreaded legislation would require independent media and civil society receiving more than 20 percent of funding from abroad to register as “agents of foreign influence” or face fines. Many groups survive on US and other Western grants.

The government says the law is needed to ensure financial transparency and combat “pseudo-liberal values.”

Founded by the country’s richest tycoon, Bizdina Ivanishvili—who made his fortune in Russia— Georgian Dream is widely criticized for tacit cooperation with Moscow despite the Kremlin’s invasion of Georgia in 2008.

During a government-organized counter-demonstration Monday, Ivanishvili accused an unspecified Western “global party of war” of interfering in the country’s political process. Without mentioning Russian aggression, he said Western intelligence agencies are using Ukraine and Georgia as “cannon fodder.”

Critics accuse Georgian Dream of using such rhetoric to push authoritarianism, calling the new foreign agents legislation the “Russian law,” a virtual mirror of measures President Vladimir Putin has enacted to silence dissent at home.

Giga Bokeria, a prominent opposition leader who is former secretary of the country’s National Security Council and now chairs the opposition European Georgia – Movement for Liberty Party, says the government’s chief aim for bringing back the bill is to demoralize critics.

“Georgian Dream wants to show that protests are futile,” he said on a visit to Washington last week. “The opposition must battle against the perception of powerlessness, and keep the momentum going through parliamentary elections in October.”

But the government’s actions may be having their intended effect, says ICWA fellow Aron Ouzilevski. Based in Tbilisi, from where he reports on the Russian emigre community in many countries, he covered the 2023 protests. Although last year’s protest victory appeared to have dealt Georgian Dream a blow, he says, this time police are responding more violently, openly attacking journalists and opposition members.

The government gathered tens of thousands of its supporters in Tbilisi, many from from villages and smaller cities, for a counter-demonstration on Monday

In March, the government also enacted another law to expand control over the electoral commission. As in Russia, Georgian Dream’s politicians promote “traditional values” and crack down on LGBTQ+ rights to appeal to conservative, religious voters who form the majority of the largely poor countryside outside Tbilisi.

The West has been sounding warnings. The European Parliament has adopted a resolution condemning the new bill, cautioning Georgia that no EU membership negotiations would take place if it comes into force.

The Kremlin, for its part, has denied pressuring its southern neighbor to enact the legislation.

Despite overwhelming public support for joining the EU and NATO among Georgians, Bokeria says, the weak, splintered opposition’s main challenge is countering government propaganda that successfully portrays Western countries as fickle in their support, and no less a threat than the Kremlin, which must be treated carefully to avoid an invasion like Ukraine’s.

The ruling party is “a threat to democracy and national security whose goal is to enable the enemy Russia to infiltrate our institutions and infrastructure,” he said, “and make Georgia economically dependent on Moscow.”

Aron says young Georgians understand what’s at stake in their vibrant country. “The Western idea of social freedom is cherished in Tbilisi,” he said. “You step out and see young people dressed in diverse ways, colorful graffiti and LGBTQ+ spaces.”

On recent visits to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan—both also former Soviet republics—he says the contrast couldn’t be starker. “Tashkent feels very authoritarian, and its city center sterile,” he said.

Homosexuality is still criminalized in Uzbekistan. And in January 2022, Kazakhstan’s government requested Russian paratroopers’ help to quell anti-government demonstrations across the country.

That’s a scenario most Georgians still say they’re determined to avoid.

Top photo: Some of the 100,000 protesters in central Tbilisi on Sunday