What is happening in Georgia and how is it linked to the Ukraine war?
Violent protests in Georgia exposed a major divide between the government and wider population, which first became apparent when official Tbilisi refused to take sides in the Ukraine conflict.
By Nina Akhmeteli in Tbilisi and Kateryna Khinkulova in London.
Clashes between the police and protesters in the Georgian capital Tbilisi brought on by a controversial “foreign agent” law highlight a major divide between the authorities and wider population, which first became apparent when the Georgian government refused to take sides in the war in Ukraine, while many Georgians sympathised with Ukraine and some went to fight against the Russian army.
BBC is blocked in Russia. We’ve attached the story in Russian as a pdf file for readers there.
On Tuesday night thousands of Georgians took to the streets of central Tbilisi in protest, after the parliament passed the first reading of a controversial "foreign agent" law that critics say will limit press freedom and be used to crack down on NGOs and other rights organisations.
Riot police used water cannon and pepper spray to disperse protesters in front of the parliament building, with some in the crowd shouting "Down with the Russian law" – a reference to the fact that the proposed bill mirrors similar legislation from Moscow.
But this issue is only the latest indication of a wider struggle over the future direction of the country between pro-Western and pro-Russian views.
What is “foreign agent” law?
If passed, the law will force all NGOs and media who receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad to be included in a special register and submit an annual financial declaration. Failure to submit such declaration will be punished with a $9,500 fine.
Supporters of the law argue that the US has similar legislation – the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Georgian authorities claim that the move would help to expose “agents of foreign influence” in the country.
Opponents of the law condemn it as an attempt to mimic Russia’s own crackdown on freedom of speech and a sign that Moscow’s influence was growing. Crucially, they see the law as a major impediment to Georgia’s chances of joining the EU.
Georgia’s current ruling party, Georgian Dream, has had a majority in parliament for over a decade now. While in theory it supports Georgia’s orientation towards the EU and its values, in practice it is also friendly with Russia. Many would say it’s a choice born out of pragmatism.
The latest confrontation over a controversial law has exposed a divide which goes back into the country’s past.
Traumas from the past
A former Soviet Republic, Georgia became independent in 1991, but experienced a period of internal instability for much of the next decade, during which the region of Abkhazia proclaimed its own independence.
Tbilisi says the breakaway region was occupied by Russia and has remained occupied ever since.
In the 2000s and 2010s Georgia opened up its economy to foreign investment and tried to clean up corruption and move closer to the EU and Nato.
In 2008, after a five-day war, Russian troops occupied another Georgian region - South Ossetia - a small mountainous area to the north-west of the capital Tbilisi.
The region had proclaimed its independence earlier and it is recognised by a handful of countries, including Russia itself, as well as Syria and Venezuela. South Ossetia is effectively under Russian occupation.
The majority of Georgians are wary of further conflict, and according to opinion polls, most would like to see the issue of South Ossetia and Abkhazia resolved peacefully.
Ukraine War and internal divisions
At the same time, the government’s refusal to openly back Ukraine – or impose sanctions - after the Russian full-scale invasion last February has angered many Georgians, who see this conflict as Moscow’s war of aggression.
This neutrality is emphasised by the giant illuminated display reading “Tbilisi - a city of peace” which the authorities have put up, but it stands in contrast to the fact that many Georgians have volunteered to fight in a foreign legion alongside Ukrainian forces against the Russian army.
One such fighter was David Ratiani, a former military officer who had fought in Abkhazia and later served in the Georgian contingent of the Nato-led mission in Afghanistan. When the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine started, the 52-year-old father of three went to Ukraine and was later killed.
The exact number of Georgians fighting in Ukraine is unknown but thought to be at least in the hundreds. Dozens have died in the fighting.
David Ratiani’s widow, Iya, says her husband was convinced joining Ukraine’s cause was the right thing to do.
“He told me he was doing it for our children, so that they wouldn’t have to pick up arms when they are older and so that they can live in a better country. He said that our country will be better if Ukraine wins in this war and he has to help Ukraine.”
The Tbilisi authorities tried to stop volunteers from Georgia leaving for Ukraine, saying that this would directly draw the country into the conflict. In the end, many still managed to get to Ukraine but Tbilisi had distanced itself from these fighters.
Iya says her last conversation with her husband was on 16 March last year. They were able to talk over a video link. She even tried on a new dress and her husband complimented her on how well the colour red suited her.
She could see that he was preoccupied and stressed. He told her how shocked he was to walk into a Ukrainian home, recently abandoned by its inhabitants who’d had to leave everything behind to flee the fighting.
“He said, ‘This is Georgian history repeating itself in Ukraine’, referring to the Georgians fighting the Russian forces in Abkhazia in the 1990s,” Iya remembers.
War and peace
On the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Georgian government called for calm and insisted that its position was motivated by a desire to “preserve peace”. It also voiced concerns that there are those who want to spread the conflict into Georgia.
“We are the government who avoided Georgia being turned into another theatre of war and who avoided provocations. Had there been a more destructive force in power, by now a large part of Georgia, just like Ukraine, would have been turned into a combat zone. Let us live peacefully and let us each take care of our own country,” Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvii said.
But the opposition, joined by hundreds of its supporters, still took to the streets to mark the anniversary, in support of Ukraine and to commemorate those who had been killed, including Georgian fighters.
Read this story in Russian here.