March 24, 2023

In Front of Parliament: Georgia’s March Protests

Salomé Jashi

Still from drone video of the March protests, Tbilisi.

“We don’t follow the flow, we are the flow” read large letters on one of the hand-drawn posters. Thousands had come together on the central avenue in Tbilisi, in front of Parliament, to protest what had become the Georgian government’s manifestly anti-European, pro-Russian turn.

In early March Georgia’s Parliament initiated and approved with the first hearing the draft of a new “Law on Transparency of Foreign Influence.”1 The draft law was short and simple. It said that any nongovernmental organization or media outlet was obliged to register as an “agent of foreign influence” if 20 percent or more of its funding came from outside the country.

To give a bit of background: With a high poverty rate in Georgia and the government failing to provide sufficient services to the public in the context of a fragile democracy, European and US institutions are the main, and often the sole, source of funding for civil organizations to implement their projects and ideas. The work of these organizations spans multiple fields: human rights; education; supporting and empowering women, LGBTQ+, disabled, and other underrepresented communities; independent media, arts, and culture; programs for agriculture and medicine; and more. Indeed, almost any initiative that brings positive change or bolsters self-expression is supported by an EU or US fund, be it private or public.

The draft law would suddenly label a substantial portion of Georgia’s population, who are beneficiaries of such funds, as agents of foreign influence. Following the government’s rhetoric, these would be agents who represent and disseminate ideas and values that come from a foreign country, who force non-patriotic values upon the population, who perform “LGBT propaganda,” and who undermine the authority of the Orthodox Church.2

During the past decade, apathy and indifference took us over. There was a flow, a slow current that we were all quietly drowning in. The country is ruled by non-present but omnipresent oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili. After serving as prime minister for a year in 2013, today he holds no official position but is still in charge. We never see him anymore. Once in a rare while he publishes open letters. His power lies in “envelopes of cash,” both metaphorically and literally. The almost all-male political party absurdly called Georgian Dream is an extension of Ivanishvili and holds an absolute majority in Parliament. The current prime minister was once the head of his investment fund; the minister of interior affairs is his former bodyguard; a recent minister of health was said to have been his personal dentist. You get the picture. Another detail: Ivanishvili made his fortune in Russia.

Apathy and indifference took us over. The energy was gone. Nihilism flourished. The media was split in two: a pro-government outlet that featured only government officials or people affiliated with the government, and an independent or pro-opposition media that officials refused to talk to. There was no common space, no dialogue. The government easily marginalized anything critical, labelling it as “anti-Georgian.” We laughed about them, because they seemed so comical, like little men trying to play bigshots, in those suits, making ridiculously stupid statements. We laughed until it hurt. We’d protest in the street, get hit by batons, disperse, the smoke billowing, the energy gone. There are so few of us now.

We saw the government encouraging right-wing religious fanatics to take over and be violent. A couple years ago these right-wing groups assaulted journalists and cameramen, beating up about fifty of them when they were in the field reporting on a planned Pride parade. One of the cameramen died soon after, possibly from his injuries. No one was convicted. This violent gang, on the day they rampaged through the city, erected a large metal cross right in front of Parliament. The cross, although its construction was not sanctioned, still stands there on the main avenue, in front of the most important building in the country, which is supposed to be the symbol of a secular state. It doesn’t just stand there still; it is protected by a pop-up fence and a twenty-four-hour guard. To me this cross is now a symbol of violence backed by the government, a symbol of how illegal and immoral the government has become.

There is so much background to the story of what happened in early March in Tbilisi. At times it is interesting to live in this country. Or rather, to live this country. You often feel you are part of something alive, a living organism that at times gets out of hand. Other times you feel you are in charge. The country breathes, sighs, gasps, or sometimes just snores. You feel it all over your skin because it touches you. It’s part of you. You are part of it. We grew up together. I was eight. My first memory of “in front of Parliament”: a group of people demonstrating, demanding Georgia’s independence. Russian tanks rolling in, like large snails, soldiers killing protesters with shovels and poisonous gas. Most of the victims were young women.3

I cannot count how many protests have happened in front of Parliament since then. It’s like the public mouth. To describe it, the facade of the Parliament building consists of multiple columns with a large pedestrian space in front of it, opening out to the city’s central avenue.

Tired of endless protests, three years ago Tbilisi city officials came up with an idea. Don’t know how to take away the protest space from the public? Learn from them! The municipality constructed large so-called “islands” in the pedestrian area, filled them with soil, and planted trees in them. These “green islands” now divide the area in front of Parliament into several parts. Naturally, the gathering space is now smaller and broken up. From one side of these islands, it’s impossible to see who’s on the other side. Smart, isn’t it? No space to protest—no protest. No protest—no problem.

So again, in early March, as the draft law on foreign agents was making its way through Parliament, I could not sit quietly at home. No one around me could. The subtext of this law endangered everything we had achieved since 1989. After thirty years of fragile yet still relatively free democracy, we couldn’t go back to the Soviet, or more precisely Russian, mindset.

What would the passage of this law mean to me, a documentary filmmaker? I took it personally. It was a personal insult. For example: I come up with a film idea. I develop it, I start filming, I search for funding in Georgia and abroad. Under this law, if my film project is financed by a European or a US source, I become an agent of foreign influence. But it was my idea to make this film. This is my artistic vision. Well, no, the law would basically deprive me of my authorship, branding me as a tool of “foreign influence.”

The draft law was insulting to all nonprofit organizations and media, undermining their dignity, implying that they have no independent vision. That they are the instruments of external powers, traitors, “non-patriots.” Government officials love manipulating us with patriotism.

This draft law devalued individual initiatives. It devalued the individual as such. It framed any kind of expression, artistic or civil, as manipulated opinion, as propaganda, a malign influence coming from some foreign country.

The draft law did not intend to punish these organizations or the people working for them in legal terms, at least for now. But failing to register as a foreign agent would result in a large fine. And registering would result in stigmatization and a loss of credibility. More importantly, we know how it started in Russia. A similar law was adopted there a decade ago. It was even milder than the proposed Georgian law.

On March 8 and 9 the pedestrian area in front of Parliament filled with protesters. And as far as one could see, the whole of central Rustaveli Avenue was full. Equipped with whistles and flags, and wearing masks and ski or swim goggles, all kinds of people were there, from all kinds of professions and backgrounds, and all generations, especially the young. Along with others, they formed the decisive force, a group of resilient frontline protesters “fighting” tear gas and water cannons.

It was amazing to see Parliament the next morning. It was covered in graffiti. The main avenue was full of spray-painted slogans. Burned police cars indicated that the people had taken over. I took a breath. The feeling of a decisive moment was in the air. The energy had exploded, and something would follow. Going down the subway escalator, I observed people’s faces. Was it my imagination or was it obvious what was on their minds? Their conversations, the images appearing on their smartphones, the sounds of the news—we all cared about one thing. Next to me on the platform, two young men were talking about how they’d just bought a proper mask to protect them from the gas. Then the news came in: Parliament would withdraw the draft law. As one of the young men was announcing this, a crowd gathered around him in excitement and awe—the confusing feeling of victory. “What happened?” said an elderly women to a young guy, catching the excitement but not hearing the news. “They withdrew the draft law,” he replied. The woman grabbed his hand, stared at him with a happily confused look, and exclaimed an untranslatable phrase. We had won. For now.

“The state stands on the church, the military, and the police,” said the prime minister later that day.4 We know that the withdrawal of the draft law on foreign agents is a temporary victory. But now we have confidence, we hold our heads high, we have faith in ourselves and in each other. It’s in the air and there’s no going back.


See “Statement of the United Nations in Georgia on the draft Law on Transparency of Foreign Influence,”, February 26, 2023 .


From an official speech given by Irakli Kobahidze, the leader of the Georgian Dream political party, March 12, 2023 .


“April 9, 1989: Soviet Crackdown In Tbilisi,” Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty .


YouTube video, March 12, 2023 .

Protests & Demonstrations, Caucasus & Central Asia, Documentary

Salomé Jashi (Tbilisi, 1981) is a documentary filmmaker and producer from Georgia. She has been attracted to filming micro-environments from the very beginning of her career. Her visual approach is observational, minimalist, and poetical. Her Taming the Garden (2021) premiered at Sundance and Berlinale Forum and was nominated for a European Film Award. Her previous film, The Dazzling Light of Sunset (2016), was awarded at Visions du Reél and her earlier work Bakhmaro (2011) was nominated for the Asia Pacific Screen Awards. She is a cofounder and board member of Documentary Association Georgia.


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