Georgian Fellows stand with protestors

John Smith Fellows Salome Ugalava and Tamar Oniani are at the forefront of efforts to oppose the “foreign agent” law, which has ignited mass protests across Georgia.

Following weeks of protests, MPs have pushed through the legislation brought by the ruling Georgian Dream party. On 18 May, Georgia’s president Salome Zourabichvili vetoed the law, describing it as unconstitutional and “an obstacle” to the country’s EU ambitions. In response, the leaders of the Georgian Dream party have overturned her veto.

The law mandates that if NGOs and independent media receive more than 20% of their funding from foreign donors, they must register as organisations “bearing the interests of a foreign power”. If they refuse, they will face steep fines.

Protestors have dubbed it the “Russian law” due to similarities with legislation the Kremlin uses to suppress dissent.

Threat to privacy and human rights

Tamar Oniani, a John Smith Fellow (Georgia, 2023), is human rights programme director at the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA). “The law will hinder the normal operation of NGOs and media outlets,” she says. “The fact that we have elections in October makes this even more alarming because independent election monitoring will be crucial.

“For us, the most important aspect is the unlimited monitoring mechanism the state will have. We have very sensitive information because we’re free legal aid providers. The state will be able to open our doors at any time and review our files. With media outlets, they will be able to access journalistic sources.

“Civil society organisations and critical media in Georgia are the main bastions for freedom, working for vulnerable groups and democratic institutions. If anything hinders us from operating, not only will lots of services be lost, but democracy in this country will decrease.”

Scale of protests “unprecedented”

John Smith Fellow Salome Ugulava (Georgia, 2017) is a talk show host at Formula TV, a pro-Western independent TV station with national coverage, and editor-in-chief at Formula Digital. Formula is reporting on the evolving situation, using its platform to provide accurate and independent information to the public.

“The scale of this protest is unprecedented,” says Salome. “It’s still growing, with more new groups joining. Tbilisi is usually the centre of political demonstrations, but now Batumi, Kutaisi and smaller cities have joined the protests. It’s also about the diversity. Young people – Gen Z – are the driving force. But it’s not just them. People in their 30s and 40s and older people also are very active.”

Tamar agrees, describing the demonstrations as “peaceful” and “very decentralised.” She says: “There are a number of groups protesting: civil society organisations; civic movements; students and different unions.”

Violence and intimidation

So why has a law that targets the media and NGOs triggered protests from such a broad cross-section of the population?

“The level of intimidation we are experiencing as journalists, protesters and members of society is a playbook we’re going to see in the future,” says Salome. “Especially with the violence they’re using against protesters and all forms of intimidation, like life-threatening phone calls. Many protesters and journalists have been summoned for interrogation. Some have been beaten.

“Now we understand what the bill is actually about and what our future might look like. And it will not just be journalists, media organisations and NGOs – but any active citizen who opposes the government. I think people realise this very clearly. That’s why so many people are on the streets.”

Threat to closer EU ties

The fact that the law puts Georgia’s EU candidacy at risk – and orientates the country towards Russia – is another factor driving the protests.

Tamar says: “This law presents a clear threat for Georgia to be isolated from the West, which will affect every citizen in this country, not only NGOs. More than 80% of the population of Georgia is clearly pro-European. They march in the streets peacefully and put a lot into this. They have many things to lose, such as their jobs, so they are very brave.”

“What motivates us, from the perspective of ordinary Georgians, is that you want yourself and your family members not to live under Russian influence and to aspire to EU integration. We want to protect these aspirations, which are in our constitution.”

Monitoring human rights violations

The legal team at GYLA is supporting the protests in three ways. “First of all, we entered into a parliamentary review procedure about the law,” explains Tamar. “We’ve used this voice our opinions and to help keep society informed about what is going on.”

GYLA has also been closely monitoring human rights violations since the protests began in early April. “We monitor every assembly and protest and alert society when there are violations of the law. For example, when dispersal happens unlawfully or when there is disproportionate force or police brutality. And we also provide free legal aid to people detained during the protests.”

International pressure

Although the government has stated its intention to ignore the protests and overturn the president’s veto, according to Salome there is still cause for hope. International pressure on the government to reconsider its decision is growing. World leaders, such as President Macron and Chancellor Scholz, have expressed “deep concern” over the situation.

“There’s news from the United States that there could be sanctions against members of Georgian Dream,” says Salome. “This would mean freezing their assets and travel bans. We’ve also heard from international funds, such as the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), that they might withdraw funding from Georgia.

She adds: “Concrete steps such as sanctions would be of crucial importance. This would be a huge signal for protestors that the Western world really stands with us.”

Elections in October

With the country due to go to the polls in October, there is an opportunity for change. Formula TV monitors the opposition’s plans to challenge the Georgian Dream.

Salome says: “The opposition is looking much better right now. They’re not fighting with each other as they did in the past. It feels like now everybody understands how important this moment is and is looking for the best combination of parties for cooperation to challenge the government.

“As journalists, we’re asking many questions of opposition members because the public needs to be informed. The Georgian people demand a clear plan from their opposition to beat the Georgian Dream through elections.”

Hopes for the future

She adds: “We all feel like this is the moment when we can overcome the obstacle and ensure we will be able to build democracy: independent courts, independent media, independent institutions, which will ensure our integration into the EU and NATO.”

Salome is still hopeful that this change will be possible through elections. But she says: “What we see right now is just an introduction, and the process will be even harder, considering the Russian influence on our government.

“Sometimes it feels like an emotional roller coaster. But this fight means everything to me because it’s about the future of the country and people, which I truly love.”

Photos by Leli Blagonravova @blagonravova.