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Stand up for Georgia

Monday, 20 May 2024, 14:16

The images coming from the streets of Tbilisi last week are, to Ukrainian eyes, chillingly familiar. We all know well the sight of hundreds of thousands taking to the streets all night to protest a government decision that moves their nation closer to Russia and farther from Europe. We painfully remember frightening waves of black clad riot police indiscriminately beating and arresting demonstrators, and disturbing reports of shady physical and digital harassment of critics by anonymous thugs.

Though Ukraine currently faces an existential physical threat from Russia and an uncertain future, our democracy and our European orientation is strong. This is all thanks to the efforts of those who took part in the Orange Revolution and the Revolution of Dignity and those fighting now – and the sacrifices of those who paid with their lives. 

One of those people was my father, Georgiy Gongadze, who would have been 55 years old this month, if he had not been killed in Ukraine 24 years ago, for the crime of being a journalist and reporting the truth. A proud Georgian-Ukrainian, he worked to publicize the cause of Georgian freedom in Ukraine and was injured in Abkhazia in 1993 while filming fighting there. Later, he settled in Ukraine and called out government abuse in his reporting. War in Georgia may not have killed him, but government thugs did. His war injuries later helped identify his body, which was found mutilated and burned in the woods near Kyiv in November 2000, a month after his disappearance.


He would have been distressed to see where the road down which his motherland has gone. Right now, Georgians are facing the same crossroads Ukrainians did and are choosing to take to the streets to preserve their freedom. Ukrainians and our government should stand firmly with them.

Georgia is going through what it would be fair to call a "Maidan moment" – one of the largest protests in the history of an independent Georgia. The people are pushing back against a government led by billionaire oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia. He has fully embraced an aggressive, authoritarian anti-Western stance, all while his own country remains occupied by Russian forces.

The main concern of the protestors is the so-called "foreign agent law" passed this week by his Georgian Dream party, which protestors call the Russian law. This is a law which would require any organization receiving foreign funds to be labeled an agent of a foreign power and expose all their work to government inspection. Critics call it a transparent attempt to totally clamp down on civil society and independent media, based on similar laws in Russia. Accordingly, protestors have adopted #NotoRussianLaw as a slogan. This law is part of a steady stream of illiberal measures the Georgian Dream government has implemented that are making Georgia less free. Everything from the judiciary, to the economy, to the media is being brought under Ivanshvili’s control. 

If you look at any photo of the protests, you will find many Ukrainian flags waving in the night air, along with Georgian and EU flags. Georgians have resolutely supported Ukraine during the full-scale war, because they know first-hand what it is like to be menaced and occupied by Russia. Estimates suggest that between 50 and 60 Georgian volunteers have died fighting for Ukraine since February 2024, including two last week.

Despite its people’s overwhelming support for Ukraine and European integration, the Georgian Dream-led government has distanced itself and walked backwards into the Russian embrace since February 24th. Their actions include allowing direct flights and visa free travel for Russians to Georgia, allowing Russian business to flourish in the country, and potentially permitting Russian sanctions evasion. Russia has killed thousands of Georgian and Ukrainian civilians, and now Russian citizens are invited to treat Georgia as their vacation spot and bank account. 

Most recently, Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze has defended the unpopular law by saying it is necessary to protect Georgia from "Ukrainization," a statement which the Ukrainian government has rightfully denounced. Ivanishvili has said a "global war party" in the West is fomenting war in Ukraine in a recent screed that may as well have been written by a Kremlin speechwriter.

Meanwhile, government critics face government orchestrated harassment and arrest, and protestors are beaten in the streets. Response from the EU to the deteriorating situation has been predictably slow, while the US hinted that sanctions against Georgian authorities could be next. But a stronger, pro-protest coalition is forming. This week, the foreign ministers of Lithuania, Iceland and Estonia, who have strongly supported Ukraine, have visited Tbilisi to engage with protestors and urge for the withdrawal of the law.

In a powerful speech to thousands crowding the street in front of Parliament, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis explicitly connected our struggles. "Ukrainians are dying every day for the right to be free Europeans. Belarusians, who dared to dream and speak for freedom – have been silenced by the terror of police and the KGB. I don't want this to be the future of Georgia." 

If you look at the video of his speech, you can see a tall flagpole with three flags waving proudly – EU, Georgian, Ukrainian. Georgians know that Ukraine’s fight is their fight too. Ukrainian leaders and citizens should pay close attention to what is happening in Georgia and provide whatever support possible for the protest movement and for the withdrawal of the law. The Ukrainian government should put out a clear, strong statements condemning the law and the crackdown on protests. When Ukraine faced its own democratic reckoning, we asked the same of our allies. 

To be clear, the road ahead is not easy. The protest lacks clear leadership, and for many years the opposition has been in chaos, failing to effectively counter Georgian Dream and leaving Georgians politically disillusioned. Meanwhile, many face poverty and a lack of economic opportunities, and emigration rates are high. The next election is months away and the threat of interference seems to only be growing.

But there was a time decades ago when this description could have applied to Ukraine too. Ukrainians endured bloodshed, bitter cold, and broken promises, but prevailed – and continue to while we face our biggest threat yet. Ukrainians should stand with Georgians at this critical time, and hope that the cost of the protestors’ success is not as high as the one we paid.

In a documentary he made about Ukrainian volunteers fighting for Georgia in Abkhazia, Georgiy Gongadze said the following: "One of the misconceptions of mankind is that a disaster that has come to their neighbors will not affect them. But just as a natural disaster in one part of the world affects natural processes in other regions on the planet, so do the processes of one society affect the lives of others." The war in Ukraine has undoubtedly caused Russia to pull Georgia closer. Its people are saying: enough. They deserve our support, as we physically battle the aggressor who has come for us both.

Nana Gongadze is Digital Communications Specialist at the German Marshall Fund. Previously, she was Head of Advocacy Communications for Razom for Ukraine and has also worked in communications at Axios, the Smithsonian Institution, and the National Museum of Women in the Arts. She has a bachelor’s degree from American University in public relations and art history. The opinions in this piece reflect the opinions of her alone, not of her employer. 

Disclaimer: Articles reflect their author’s point of view and do not claim to be objective or to explore every aspect of the issues they discuss. The Ukrainska Pravda editorial board does not bear any responsibility for the accuracy of the information provided, or its interpretation, and acts solely as a publisher. The point of view of the Ukrainska Pravda editorial board may not coincide with the point of view of the article’s author.

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