TBILISI — Fervent chants of “Sakartvelo!” the native name of this country that predated the Western “Georgia,” rang throughout the city’s central streets amid tear gas canister explosions and ear-piercing sound cannons. The air surrounding parliament filled with ominous green smoke.

By 3 a.m., protesters clutching their chests stumbled into alleyways for safety, away from the main thoroughfare Rustaveli Avenue, which was beginning to look like a war zone.

It was the night of March 8, when tens of thousands of demonstrators, predominately Gen-Z and millennial Georgians, took to the streets for a second night to protest a controversial law proposed by the ruling party. Under the measure, NGOs and independent media organizations that receive more than 20 percent of their funding from abroad would have to register with the government as “agents of foreign influence.”

The label would bring cumbersome financial inspections and regulations critics said the ruling Georgian Dream Party would exploit to crack down on civil society.

The legislation came straight from Russia’s draconian playbook, they said, with the specific aim of restricting access to independent media and silencing opposition voices. Protesters called it the “Russian law.”

Detractors also feared the rules would hinder Georgia’s aspirations to accede to the European Union, an alliance 75 percent of the population wants to join. Proponents believe the country’s small size, lack of exports and geographic location—next to Russia and separated from mainland Europe by a sea—make it imperative to be part of the Western union. 

After three days of demonstrations dragged into nights, parliament voted to withdraw the bill. On the afternoon of March 10, a spring sun shone on the demonstrators, who celebrated their victory with signs that read “We are Europe.” 

Georgian Dream’s concession demonstrated that, at a time of public fears the country may be increasingly entering Kremlin’s imperialistic and authoritarian orbit, the people still have a say in determining their own future. 

“There was so much political nihilism in our society before,” says Nini Ghvilia, 29, a project coordinator for the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED), one of the NGOs explicitly targeted by the legislation. “These protests invigorated us and could hopefully pave the way for positive change.”

Sitting on the lawn of a recently renovated hillside park after a weekend of celebrations, she told me how a friend had cut short a vacation in Southeast Asia to take part in the protests. 

Russian propaganda expressed outrage the day after the bill was retracted.

A Twitter account belonging to Russia’s Foreign Ministry threatened protesters calling for the resignation of Georgian Dream to recall a “similar situation in Ukraine in 2014 and what it finally led to.” The reference was to Ukraine’s 2014 Euromaidan protests, which ousted the former pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich and prompted Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

That held little water with protesters. “We were willing to tolerate this regime for however long but any proposal that begins to resemble Russia is a red line that will not be crossed for us Georgians,” a 25-year-old artist who asked to be called David told me in an alleyway behind the parliament building on the last day of the protests.

The demonstration’s success has energized a younger public that was demoralized for months after Russia invaded Ukraine. The civil society activists I spoke to are certain the incident signals a turning point in Georgia’s political trajectory, planting the seeds for a new and formidable political movement.

Over the next two probably pivotal years, the new coalition, whatever shape it may take, has a chance to unseat the ruling party and simultaneously sever Georgia’s ties with Russia, its increasingly hostile neighbor.

A troubling pattern 

The proposed foreign agent law was only the latest in a series of signs that had raised suspicions Georgian Dream may be increasingly cozying up to the Kremlin. Beyond the fact that its founder, the oligarch Bidzina Ivanashvili, maintains close relations with some of his Russian counterparts, its inflammatory anti-Western and homophobic rhetoric, refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion and, at times, criticism of Ukraine from the party’s leaders have tarnished its reputation with much of the public. 

Multiple opposition demonstrations in recent years were disrupted by violent far-right groups whose leaders went unpunished by authorities. Civil society leaders have told me Georgian Dream directly encourages such groups. Pandering to a conservative electorate, Georgia’s Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili has also painted the opposition as enemies of the country’s Orthodox Church.

His characterization of the recent protesters as “Satanists” particularly echoed the Kremlin’s remarks that it is fighting a “holy war” in Ukraine against a West trying to destroy traditional values. 

Georgian media tied to the ruling party began touting the idea for a “foreign agent” law last summer. Nini Ghvilia says the anti-NGO rhetoric began after a series of protests in June spearheaded by an organization called the Shame Movement, funded by foreign donors.

Those protests called for the resignation of the country’s prime minister for refusing to express solidarity with Ukraine and join the Western sanction regime against Russia. Georgian Dream responded by launching a smear campaign against ISFED, the Shame Movement and other NGOs, calling them “spies” trying to stage a revolution in Georgia at the behest of Western governments. 

Civil society activists were already expressing concerns to me last November about the certainty such a law would pass. Irakli Khvadagiani, board director of SovLab, a historical research NGO that seeks to rehabilitate Georgian victims of Soviet repression, told me Georgian Dream was “preparing its audiences” for such a law by having so-called experts speak about its importance on the party’s propaganda networks.

Georgian Dream primarily relies on Facebook and television to spread its message. “They didn’t factor in that Gen Z primarily uses Tik-Tok; maybe they’ll soon try to infiltrate that too,” Nini Ghvilia told me with a smirk.

Having alleged experts or fringe political actors publicly float ideas that may appear draconian or radical at first mirrors Russian tactics. If such ideas are repeated enough, the logic goes, they may soon become normalized. Before Russia invaded Ukraine, radical politicians such as the late ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky spoke about the necessity of such a war on state television channels—an idea the Russian public would probably have been unable to grasp at the time.

Khvadagiani also believes Georgian Dream was mistaken believing the Kremlin would succeed in its conquest of Ukraine in a matter of days. He says the party believed such a scenario would pave the way for a new geopolitical bloc led by Russia that would engulf Georgia as well as Ukraine.

“Georgian Dream is “mentally, politically attached to Russia,” Khvadagiani said in the apartment-office of his organizations, where black-and-white photographs of victims of Soviet totalitarianism hang on the walls. “But once it became clear that Russia wouldn’t take Ukraine as quickly as they anticipated, they realized they had no plan B.”

Now, he added, “Georgian Dream plans to kill the free media, destroy the last remaining opposition parties and kill the civil society segment in the country.” 

With most of its funding coming from abroad, SovLab would surely have been one of the first organizations to face the firing squad had the law been passed. In Russia, the Kremlin used its own 2012 foreign agent law to effectively liquidate Memorial, a storied human rights group dedicated to investigating human rights violations committed by the Soviet regime that inspired the creation of SovLab. 

Weaponizing the trauma of war

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, the ruling party’s leaders have consistently accused Europe, the United States and local opposition of pressuring Georgia into opening a second front with Russia. They refer to the United National Movement, an opposition party founded by former President Mikhail Saakashvili, as the “party of war.”

At one point during the three-day demonstrations, protesters chanted “Sokhumi,” the capital of Abkhazia, a pro-Moscow Georgian province that broke away during bloody violence in 1992 that Russia claimed to annex following its brief 2008 invasion of Georgia. Some observers interpreted the incident as a war cry for territorial reconquest, highlighting Georgia’s own territorial ambitions, which do not take into consideration the voices of Abkhazia natives. 

However, a recent opinion poll showed 95 percent of young Georgians prefer the question of territorial reclamation to be addressed through negotiations rather than armed conflict. “I don’t believe [those chanting] were urging for a military reclamation of Abkhazia but rather a diplomatic rejoining,” Nini Ghvilia said. “But the unfortunate reality is that there is little contact between [Georgian and Abkhaz] societies.”

Nodar Rukhadze, a political activist and co-founder of the opposition Shame Movement, told me in November that he believes Georgian Dream’s rhetoric is consistent with the party’s policy toward Russia over many years. “Their narrative is that Georgia should lower its presence on the international arena, stay silent about its territories occupied by Russia and not characterize Russia as an invader,” he said. 

He believes the party initially came to power by weaponizing widespread shock and trauma after the 2008 Russo-Georgian war. “They ran their 2012 campaign on normalizing relations with Russia,” he told me. “Russian propaganda had done everything in its power to blame Saakashvili’s administration for starting the war, a narrative Georgian Dream leveraged and used to repaint Russia as a friendly neighbor.” 

Up to now, demonizing the United National Movement and associating all Georgia’s opposition with it seems to be have been an effective tactic for Georgian Dream to maintain enough public support. Nini Ghvilia believes Saakashvili’s reputation is tarnished beyond repair and his party, along with everyone associated with it, are “compromised.” 

That probably explains the lack of widespread public outrage about Saakashvili’s imprisonment, which Georgian Dream justifies with accusations of violent crimes he allegedly committed during his tenure. Many ordinary Georgians I’ve spoken to have also said Saakashvili deserves his fate. 

The tide may turn, however. Ghvilia believes a new opposition party may soon emerge, invigorated by the latest display of a politicized public. Contrary to Georgian Dream’s propagandistic accusations that the opposition is seeking a violent coup, civil society activists I spoke to are looking to parliamentary elections next year to replace the ruling party through democratic means. 

“We believe that the government should be replaced by democratically, and we need to do everything to get ready for them,” Ghvilia said. 

Still, Georgian Dream will not go down without a fight. “If anyone wants us not to get the EU candidacy, it is the radical, destructive opposition,” the prime minister said after the protests.

The party’s chairman Irakli Kobikhadze this week characterized Georgian Dream as a “guarantor” for avoiding “a second front.” The same afternoon, a small but boisterous group of protesters from a far-right Christian conservative movement called Alt-Info gathered outside parliament to burn an EU flag.

Unlike the protesters from the previous week, they were not dispersed by tear gas.