A threatening standoff in Georgia

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Tbilisi in 2024 is disturbingly reminiscent of Kiev in 2014. Thousands took to the streets in the Ukrainian capital a decade ago after a president close to Russia pulled out of signing an integration agreement with the EU. Mass protests are taking place in the Georgian capital today against a law proposed by a government ruled by a Moscow-linked oligarch that would suppress opposition – and dash the country's hopes of joining the EU. After demonstrators and riot police gathered on Monday, the Georgian parliament will pass the law in a final reading on Tuesday.

This is no minor disturbance in a distant land. Georgia was the first former Soviet republic to launch a pro-democracy “colored” revolution in 2003 and felt the wrath of Vladimir Putin with an invasion five years later. Since then, Russian troops have occupied about 20 percent of Georgia's territory. Mikheil Saakashvili, whose early reformist rule later turned into soft repression and cronyism, was defeated in the 2012 elections by an umbrella coalition called the Georgian Dream, financed by Bidzina Ivanishvili – which did billions of dollars in business in post-Soviet Russia.

Ivanishvili and his party – although he is now only honorary leader – have since moved between mending fences with Moscow and paying lip service to Georgians' hopes of joining the EU and NATO, despite little progress being made on the necessary reforms. The ruling party tried last year to pass a law forcing non-governmental groups and media outlets that receive foreign funding to register as “organizations serving the interests of a foreign power,” similar to a law targeting civil society in Putin’s Russia was destroyed. The EU made it clear that the law was incompatible with Georgia's membership hopes, and the government gave in after strong protests. But just months after the EU granted Georgia candidate status, Georgian Dream now appears determined to pass the law.

This could be partly an attempt to improve the ruling party's chances in October's elections. But locals speculate that Ivanishvili and loyal elites who benefit from friendly relations with Moscow would prefer EU membership not to happen; Brussels has made the start of accession negotiations conditional on progress in “de-oligarchization” and curbing high-level corruption. While polls show that around 80 percent support EU membership, the government is also capitalizing on the social conservatism of Georgian society, particularly in rural areas, and stressing the EU's commitment to values ​​such as LGBT rights.

The demonstrators in the capital are in no mood to give in. Although the stakes are high, violent unrest is in no one's interest, especially when Russian troops stationed in the breakaway region of South Ossetia are barely an hour from the Georgian capital. The best hope for the pro-European majority would be to oust Georgian Dream from power at the ballot box in October. But the fragmented opposition lacks leadership and the foreign agents law is a powerful tool at the authorities' disposal.

The situation is a test for EU diplomacy. Given Georgia's slow progress over the last decade, Brussels must not hesitate to send a clear message to the ruling party and suspend the country's EU candidacy if the law is passed. It should also signal to Georgia's oligarchic masterminds that he will face sanctions on his assets if there is a bloody repression of the demonstrators.

But the EU also owes it to the pro-European Georgians who have risked their security to express their anger at their government's actions to make it clear that the path to membership remains open if the law is repealed and there is real progress on reforms. Western countries should also do everything they can to maintain ties with Georgian civil society and opposition. The country's post-Soviet history has seen cycles of advances in democracy followed by partial setbacks. Georgians' hope must be kept alive that this vicious circle can be broken.

Anna Harden

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