Tbilisi’s city center is covered in smoke and Lia cannot breathe. While coughing, she tries to open her eyes, but they burn. She has lost her friends in a crowd that is a storm of panic. She has seen the authorities using water cannons, tear gas and even beating protestors. She is terrified, but determined to fight for democracy in her country.
“When I could no longer breathe, I collapsed and a boy, a stranger, saved me and carried me away,” said Lia Chogovadze, a Georgian student still shaken and filled with emotion.
Chogovadze’s story is only one, among thousands, belonging to those who have been attending the 3 days of heated protests against the controversial foreign agent bill.
The bravery of protesters – including many women – was depicted by viral footage such as the one of a woman battling water cannons with an EU flag, or the one of a 16 year old girl – dancing in their powerful jets.
Foreign agent bill
The bill’s purpose was meant to allow more control from foreign actors – including Russia – on Georgian NGOs and media, causing concerns around transparency, media freedom and freedom of speech.
While the Georgian Parliament officially retracted the bill on Friday, the situation remains tense, as Georgia’s prime minister Irakli Garibashivli described the protests as “an act of violence” and using a similar narrative to the Kremlin, called protesters “fascist”.
Nevertheless, all students interviewed by the Groningen Observer believe that Georgian Dream, the ruling party will pursue its “Anti-Western” and “Anti-American” agenda, and that they expect similar attempts to pass pro-Russian laws, in the future.
This anger and urge to protest as expressed by the Georgian youth has to do with the important inter-generational divide in Georgia, notably in relation to the support for Georgia’s EU membership, as explained by Georgi Butikashvili, a Russian Hybrid Warfare researcher at Ilia University. According to him, this bill and similar initiatives would push Georgia a step away from the EU and its benefits, a thought that is shared by other protesters.
“We absolutely need to have the possibility to study abroad, this bill would literally kill all those opportunities,” said Helena Adamia, a student from Zugdidi, a small city in western Georgia.
Very invested in the protests himself, Butikashvili added that this mobilization is not surprising, as civil society works really closely with young activists, and that pro-EU protests have already occurred in the past.
During the protests, students were first in line to mobilize. One of them was Mariam Kobalia, a medical student at Caucasus University, “all of the 60 students from the faculty along with Tbilisi State Medical University students decided to go to protests and help people out,” stated Kobalia.
Her and her friends gathered money with volunteer’s help and walked around the crowds offering necessary supplies, such as water, sweets, protein bars, and masks. “I was shocked how much water was needed, the crowd made it hard for people to stay conscious,” Kobalia continued.
Nika Romanadze, a Georgian activist and former fact checker was in Prague when he heard about the government’s plans to vote on the controversial bill. He did not hesitate any second, and flew back home to gather with activist groups.
“I didn’t even see my mother, I immediately went to the activist groups, and two hours later, we were in the streets, protesting,” said Romanadze. He later explained that his group is part of a larger network of activists from different backgrounds.
However, there is more to the story.
“I never saw a protest in Georgia, where most people were young people, the so-called Gen Zs,” said Romanadze. “They were extremely organized, used TikTok to communicate, they had no experience yet every one of them played a very precise role in getting the government to retract the bill […]. politicians didn’t cancel it, we Gen Z did”.
When the past meets the future
This does not surprise Gio Chkadua, a teacher of social sciences and history at Free University in Tbilisi. He explains that for the last five years, students have been constantly going to rallies, and through the influence of the internet, they have quickly managed to escape the government’s narrative. Student protests are nothing new according to him.
“We remember very well the student protests against the Russian Empire, against the Soviet Union and the Rose Revolution,” claimed Chkadua. This shows that student protests have always been prominent, although today they involve new technologies.
Despite a lot of them being pro-government, some people from older generations also joined the protests, along with the Georgian youth, he comments.
Enthusiastic to share his protest experiences in other Georgian regions this coming weekend as an activism project, Romanadze believes that these protests only made the civil society in Georgia stronger and more active:
“We only proved to the government that we are a lot of groups, that we can organize, and help each other“.