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A letter from a Georgian student – Georgian youth deserve better

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The recent period in Tbilisi saw the streets being swept up in waves of demonstrations against the law on “transparency of foreign influence”. The oppositional media constantly regurgitates the idea that the youth of Georgia, Gen Z, unequivocally upholds protests. I have seen claims that this is a “Children’s revolution”, and that the demonstrations have grassroots origins. This narrative is strong in the media and it goes unchallenged. The fervor of the ongoing political crisis doesn’t let even slightly critically minded voices enter the political discourse. Nonetheless, the narrative of a united, de-ideologized, bottom-up mass movement, led by young people, is misleading. First and foremost, it discredits all the voices, especially leftist voices, which critically examine the contents, goals, and political actors behind the scenes. Furthermore, the continuous radicalization of discourse does not protect “democratic values”, but seriously hinders them – the political narratives are set in stone, and any deviancy is punished. 

Interviews taken from the demonstrators of both sides (the ruling party held their own demonstration) showcased that neither side really understood what the bill was about. Only after such clips were published online did some participants read the proposed legislation. According to the bill (now law) any organization receiving more than 20% of its total income from abroad must register as “an organization pursuing the interest of a foreign influence” and must make its finances public. 

Reading the bill is only the first step toward understanding the whole picture. We must pull back the curtain to view the political machinations behind it. The “Georgian Dream” party plays on existing nationalistic sentiments and portrays itself as attempting to regain Georgia’s sovereignty by introducing this bill. Meanwhile, the protestors think of themselves as trying to keep Georgia away from Russia and continue on the “Euro-Atlantic path,” which this law supposedly undermines. Yet this bill is not exclusively about affirming our sovereignty. In reality, the Georgian population got caught in the crossfire of two goliaths – the ruling party and partisan NGOs (and by proxy – oppositional parties). “Georgian Dream” has been tracking anti-government NGOs  activities in recent years. For example, ISFED (International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy) falsely claimed that the 2020 parliamentary elections were rigged by the ruling party, only to later retract these claims after international observers sided with the government. Considering Georgia’s post-Soviet history, the ruling party’s fears aren’t baseless. Participating in and even leading the processes of regime change is not a novelty for Georgian Civil Society. In 2003 the pro-Western, but decaying regime of Eduard Shevardnadze was toppled by the Rose Revolution, behind which stood even more pro-western and militant Mikheil Saakashvili, backed by Georgian NGOs such as the Liberty Institute. As an expert on post-communist societies Stephen Jones writes

Theories emanating from Russia and from Shevardnadze’s former allies suggest the whole revolutionary process was an American conspiracy involving governments and civil society sponsors like George Soros. While crudely conspiratorial, these assessments are not a complete fantasy (58).

There is a reason the ruling party looks askance at the NGOs and would want to put brakes on the ever-expanding influence of partisan NGOs. The compromise reached after the first round of protests against the “foreign agent” bill in 2023 was predictably fragile, as at the beginning of 2024 the organization “Transparency International – Georgia” received a grant of over half a million euros “to strengthen civil society as an actor of change.”

I am not surprised that the Georgian Civil Society isn’t happy about the legislation. It is evident that Georgian Civil Society lacks grassroots origins and most NGOs are indeed financed from abroad. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, all previous social organizations were either dismantled or weakened. In their stead huge financial resources were poured into the nation from abroad, transforming the nature of Civil Society from a conglomeration of grassroots movements into a professional, salaried technocracy. The stigmatization brought on by this law might be a blow to an  already seriously low level of trust toward NGOs amongst the Georgian population. This is tragic for those earnest organizations that are actually grassroots-led and truly dedicated to the people, most notably the independent trade unions. To organize a counter-offensive, influential NGOs tracked how Georgian youth would react to the bill and the narratives they have established themselves. They saw that a portion of Georgian youth voiced their discontent with “Georgian Dream” and the proposed legislation back in 2023. These young voices were captured and instrumentalized as means to achieve their goals. As it happens in many cases, originally grassroots protest is repurposed by powerful organizations and given political narratives and framing that suit their aims. Political actors utilized the current socio-economic conditions of the youth who were raised in the depressing realities of post-Soviet Georgia, have never seen the so-called good life, and have no bustling present to live in. Only the dream of the future hasn’t been taken away from us by the shockwaves of deindustrialization, massive privatizations, wars, and social ruptures of the 90s. The space of hope was monopolized by pro-EU forces and it was given to us like a medication to control our youthful impulses. A mythologized view of the EU is cultivated in the minds of Georgian youth, especially in the capital where ideological hegemony is almost uncontested. This view is fully supported and at times weaponized by Western-funded NGOs – ongoing demonstrations are a good example. 

Tbilisi takes the lion’s share of foreign investment. Famously coveted “career development paths” (meaning – working for big NGOs or private companies) are largely only available in the capital. Most of the academic, cultural, and social life is crammed into Tbilisi. Post-Soviet deindustrialization and de-collectivization have been especially debilitating for the regions – jobs are scarce, higher education is unavailable, and cultural and social life becomes a memory of a distant past. Neglected in the 90s, the provinces in the following decades (aside from the city of Batumi) were duped by promises of never-approaching changes and developments. The opportunities that the Tbilisi residents more or less have are bereft in the regions and therefore aren’t touched by the same virulent passion as Tbilisi-based NGO activists, academics, or “organizers.” The people of the regions are dissociated from this system, therefore its propaganda hasn’t infiltrated the minds of the majority. As their interests were hardly being discussed by either party, the provinces showcased their usual indifference towards the political upheavals of Tbilisi. Only minor marches were organized in some other large cities. There’s a huge broken bridge between the regional youth and the youth of the capital.

It is cynical how political institutions – governmental or oppositional – utilize the enthusiasm and desperation of the youth when it helps them achieve their goals – whether it’s the “Georgian Dream” party using Ilia Chavchavadze’s words “Language, homeland, faith” to co-opt nationalist young people, or whether it’s the opposition parties and NGOs claiming that Georgia’s European future is threatened. Both sides have shown themselves to be hostile or totally indifferent towards the actual challenges faced by students – accessibility of education, poor infrastructure in universities, a serious deficit of students’ housing, lack of proper career development possibilities, miserable youth employment prospects, which force young people to leave, low salaries in Georgia, and so on. Every subsequent government has failed to tackle these challenges or even place them on the order of the day. Frequently overlooked and under-reported is the uniformity in economic policy amongst Georgian political parties. This is why the socio-political contents of genuine student movements stay the same as they continually go unsatisfied; however, the current demonstrations are far from this content that characterizes social movements, and despite some efforts, they’ll never become what they’re not. 

Tireless campaigning is done to shape and control the protests, to keep them within the ideological borders of the anti-law movement and alleged Russian capture of the state. Top-dog NGO activists and political party leaders frown upon or prevent the rare attempt to bring a leftist slogan to the demonstrations. Leftist influence or capture of these protests has been a failed project from its inception. Anti-law protests are definitively neoliberal protests – protests were kicked off and sustained by neoliberal forces. They have such institutional powers that they will not let go of demonstrations and not let them “descend” into a leftist movement – not that there is a capacity or possibility for such an intervention to change the discourse. 

In many other cases, Georgian youth proved their agency in smaller-scale activism, but the reaction they are met with differs like day and night. The students of Georgian universities have protested the poor conditions they’re forced to endure only to be met with either dismissive or even aggressive remarks and actions by the university administrations. Students have created social media groups to coordinate more effectively. We have shown an admirable tendency toward cooperation, a key aspect of any grassroots movement. These student social media groups are also usually organized democratically, calling for every student of their respective universities to participate in protests fighting for better conditions. The reaction from university administrations has been unrelenting, as they prove unable to stomach the fact that young people dare to raise their voices against them in a collective manner. As they realize that a united student movement can bind their hands, they discourage coordination and urge young activists to submit their complaints separately to the administration, knowing well that they can easily discard such individualized attempts at making change. Administrative measures taken by universities are cynical and appalling. The aforementioned social media chats and groups are often infiltrated by university administrators in order to monitor each student’s online activity – what they like, post, and comment. Many students have received warnings, like administrative writs, for membership in such groups. Additionally, the administration repeatedly tries to put dents amongst students, undermining our unity. Some are unfairly rewarded, praised, and celebrated, while others are ostracized as crazy radicals. This artificially creates infighting in the student body, thus weakening or even dismantling the movement. Every student protest is turned into a waiting game – which side will out-resource the other – and this game is rigged against the youth. The state, while not actively taking such sabotaging measures against the students, has shown  indifference toward the demands and woes of the youth, allowing university administration to trample on any movement they can overpower. In a quick summary –  when students fight to improve their lives, they’re mocked as radicals and annoying whiners – but because they look at the young generation as a useful political weapon, the narrative has changed instantaneously, amidst the current demonstrations the students promptly were declared “the most progressive part of society”. Once unfazed and uncompromising, university administrators aligned with the protests have switched their attitudes toward students – all we hear now is praise and cheer to continue our “heroic demonstrations.”

Strongly affiliated with the need to get foreign grants, as an academic’s salary doesn’t allow much luxury in Georgia, high-ranking administrators and many professors hope to profit from the students they otherwise repeatedly neglect. Ongoing demonstrations are a clear example of the ruling class creating faux crises to distract the youth from what truly matters – their living conditions. Through the system of top-down facilitated dissent, students are organized and equipped to march in the streets, defending the rights of the people who actively work against them and their interests. Every year young people see huge political crises and then we are told to “set aside petty bickering” and that we must unite for a common goal, obviously a veiled attempt at engulfing leftist students’ movements into liberal politics. That “common goal” is always ambiguous and never results in real material changes for the people. Unfortunately, the degenerated state of leftism in Georgia allowed left-wing politics to be co-opted into partisan political conflicts that have little to do with class struggle. Actual leftists should distance themselves from these meaningless battles and should in lieu reintroduce working-class topics that affect the youth in the political discourse instead of “left-washing” these neoliberal protests. In a system where the media is entirely controlled by neoliberal forces, achieving this is toilsome. But especially when the whole system is against you, the left must join forces and organize independently.

Concerning this law, Georgian oppositional parties have shown their remarkable ineptitude. During hearings of the bill, instead of discussing its contents and offering amendments, oppositional MPs repeatedly declared – “This is a Russian law!” Yet another chance arose when the Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze announced that the Presidential veto would be a ground for reopening the doors for further discussions of this bill. The future of this opportunity was squashed since the President rejected outright such a process and vetoed it without any suggestions for improvement. In a functioning democracy, the oppositional parties would opt for participating in these discourses and working on creating real transparency legislation which would only do good for the Georgian people. Unfortunately, Georgian parliamentary meetings are characterized by unhealthy debates, frequently involving personal insults and rarely ever addressing actual political topics. Such a political tradition has a damaging influence on people beyond the walls of the Parliament. 

What we have now is a scary dose of polarization, which trickled down to even interpersonal relations. Prompted by radicalized leaders, the demonstrators began judging the people on whether they had attended these protests or not, depicting the conflict as “the delulus versus the slays.” Examples of polarization are many, it is as if public discussions of this topic are decreed to be singular, and nuance has to be persecuted. I have had people ignoring my messages, not acknowledging my presence and even attacking me personally when I have dared to even slightly disagree with them. Some of my acquaintances have told me that they have to lie to their friends that they’re attending these protests, otherwise they will cut them off. Others are coerced into joining their friends in the streets. Participating in the demonstrations turned into a pledge of allegiance in Georgia and if you don’t, expect to be branded as the enemy of the nation. The social fabric of the state is tearing apart, especially in Tbilisi. We notice this, but it has led to further radicalization. We hear media outlets and prominent NGOs constantly exclaiming how the ruling party is the sole cause of political polarization without batting an eye to their “contributions” (to be clear, “Georgian Dream” also plays a part in ongoing polarization). It is evident that this state of affairs cannot be sustained and prevents chances of coming to any kind of reasonable compromise. Without productive discussions, there can be no progress. And a society, where a law on transparency can cause such a rift amongst family members, friends, romantic partners, and colleagues, is dystopian. 

Gio Meskhi studies political science in Tbilisi. He’s interested and is actively researching the history
of labour movements in the Southern Caucasus. Additionally, Gio organizes a historical tour – the
“Revolutionary Tbilisi Walking Tour”.