May 9, 2024

In the Name of Sovereignty: Georgia’s Second Attempt to Pass the “Foreign Agents” Bill

Tamta Khalvashi

Protests in Tbilisi, Georgia, May 2024.

In March 2023, a wave of protests took over the streets of Tbilisi against the “foreign agents” bill, drawing together diverse voices, from civil society activists to students and ordinary citizens. This was a powerful display of solidarity, demanding the bill’s withdrawal. Marked by grassroots mobilization, the protests achieved their goal. The government eventually withdrew the bill due to domestic and international pressure. However, a year later, in April 2024, Bidzina Ivanishvili, the richest oligarch in Georgia and ruler of the country, reintroduced the bill under the name “Law on Transparency of Foreign Influence.” He did so in the guise of defending the sovereignty of Georgia, framing the bill as necessary to protect the country from external interference. A recent speech by Ivanishvili painted a picture of a mythical “Global War Party” in the West conspiring with the “National Movement”—the former ruling party of Georgia (2003–12)—to trample the existing government through revolution. He declared that the bill was thus necessary to control Western-funded NGOs and media outlets, and to defend the country’s national interests. Ivanishvili’s speech shocked most Georgians not just because of its conspiratorial tone but because of its explicit anti-Western stance. Indeed, it was the first time in the history of the post-Soviet Georgian state that the ruling political figure criticized the West and not Russia—with its ongoing imperial interests in the region—for destabilizing Georgia’s sovereignty. Notably, he gave this speech against the backdrop of the European Union granting Georgia candidate status on November 8, 2023. With the language of manipulation characteristic of Ivanishvili’s rule, he ended the speech by promising to realize Georgia’s EU aspirations in 2030 after arresting all the troublemakers in the country.

The trope of traitors, agents, and troublemakers undermining the country’s sovereignty with the help of foreign powers has been the prevalent genre of Georgian nationalism. However, what was particularly striking in Ivanishvili’s speech in the wake of the country’s EU integration was that there was a notable absence of any mention of Georgia’s sovereignty being continually eroded by Russia. In fact, unlike many countries that emerged from the struggle against Western colonialism, Georgia’s struggle for sovereignty and decolonization is deeply rooted in a tumultuous history of Russian imperial intervention since the nineteenth century. Moscow has persistently sought to assert its dominance over the Caucasus, employing political subversion, economic coercion, and military aggression. But Ivanishvili never mentioned any of it. Instead, his rhetoric echoed the narratives often propagated by the Kremlin or Putin himself, painting civic dissent as infiltration by the West, and any form of activism as unpatriotic. This rhetoric is part of a broader reactionary conservative shift in global politics, which seeks to scapegoat civil society, the media, and marginal communities as national threats, in the name of defending sovereign democracy. While such rhetoric challenges the foundations of democracy worldwide, in countries like Georgia, which perseveres on the edge of the violent Russian empire, it jeopardizes the very premise of sovereignty that the bill purports bolster. By embracing this bill, Georgia would align itself and its future with the Russian sphere of influence, where the struggle for sovereignty is, in reality, a tool of imperial rule. It is far from coincidental that a similar bill addressing “foreign influence” has also been proposed simultaneously in Abkhazia, a breakaway territory of Georgia and an internationally unrecognized country on the Black Sea. This synchronicity is emblematic of Russia’s broader imperial strategy to foster regional dependency through internal polarization.

However, the bill threatens to undermine more than just the current geopolitical situation. While most opponents of the bill have legitimately raised concerns about its potential ramifications for the country’s EU integration, further examination reveals that it will also exacerbate existing socioeconomic inequalities. With the highest rate of poverty in the region, Georgia has faced systematic inequality since the end of the Soviet Union due to the absence of distribution systems and social protections. People with disabilities, students, teachers and professors, ethnic and religious minorities, eco-activists, internally displaced people, LGBTQ communities, independent unions, and animal defenders have continually relied on international aid for necessary services. While the bill risks isolating Georgia from its international partnerships, support networks, and funding opportunities, these already marginalized groups are destined for further inequality and stigmatization. The bill will stifle not just their freedom of expression as a basic democratic principle but also leave many of them without essential social, medical, and legal protection. It will also undermine the possibility of any grassroots resistance. In this context, it is ironic, if not tragic, that Ivanishvili and his proponents purport to be defending national sovereignty when they stigmatize protesters and label them as foreign agents. The paradox of safeguarding sovereignty while, in reality, undermining it manifests most clearly in the so-called “offshore bill,” which facilitates oligarchic money laundering. Indeed, after reintroducing the Transparency of Foreign Influence bill, the Georgian Dream majority in parliament passed significant amendments to the tax code, streamlining procedures for bringing offshore capital into Georgia. One notable change is tax exemptions and the lowering of bureaucratic hurdles for offshore entities looking to invest in the country. The bill promises to transform Georgia into a safe haven for money laundering, providing an ideal environment for oligarchs and illicit actors to conceal their wealth and evade accountability.

All this is done in the name of sovereignty. However, what we are witnessing, in reality, is Ivanishvili consolidating peripheral authoritarian rule by trying to entrench the power of elite financial interests and undermine any possibility of democratic governance in Georgia. People thus continue to protest in the streets of Tbilisi, demanding that both bills be withdrawn. What will this wave of turbulent energy lead to? How can protesters reclaim the concept of sovereignty so that it is not another version of an exclusionary and reactionary nationalist or imperialist project, but a horizon to enable the emergence of something new? Protesters are literally commoning various parts of Tbilisi by occupying or obstructing streets, squares, and alleys as a mode of collective engagement and resistance to the government. If “commoning” refers to collective practices through which communities assert their agency and challenge dominant power structures, the protests in the streets of Tbilisi can be seen as one expression of it. Indeed, diverse groups and generations have come together in space to resist injustice and assert their right to participate in decision-making processes that affect their lives. Tbilisi is now a space of collective action to reclaim the future through occupying physical infrastructure. Although not explicitly articulated by the protesters, at the core of this commoning, in my view, is a collective desire to redefine sovereignty from below by challenging the existing dominant political frameworks. Articulating or enacting such a desire through existing political actors, including opposition parties and large NGOs, seems impossible, as these actors, too, are regarded with universal mistrust and frustration.

How, then, can these powerful and inspiring protests in Tbilisi catalyze transformative change? How can the protesters create their own narratives around sovereignty, democracy, and governance—narratives that could replace or reshuffle the existing ones? Experts say one way to achieve this might be convening something like a constitutional convention of ordinary citizens. This might as well start out as a minimally formalized attempt to come together and discuss how our polity could be reshaped for the better. What we are witnessing on the ground, however, is a complete absence of any plan on the part of protesters. As one protester told me, this absence could be a strategic way to combat government oppression. As she explained, while traditional activism often emphasizes the importance of careful strategy and clear objectives, the absence of top-down planning and centralized leadership often confuses the government. Indeed, these protests are marked by fragmented, loosely connected, and decentralized collective action in which everyone tries to find their own role. It is thus a manifestation of grassroots movements based on mutual care and practices of sharing. The Facebook group “Daitove” (stay) is one example of a spontaneously assembled collective of caring citizens.1 It brought together around 170,000 people in a couple of days. Daitove describes itself this way: “The group was created to connect people—those who want to be at the rally but live in the outskirts and cannot return home late on the same day, and those who live in Tbilisi and can leave their loved ones at home after the rally ends.” In a country with a growing number of homeless people who have lost their homes to banks or financial firms, this group’s message defines “home” in a new way. Home emerges not as a private property to be protected and secured but as a shared space of civic action and political change. Perhaps these are the citizens who are capable of eventually coming together, debating, and planning to change the current political reality.

On May 8, 2024, the State Security Service of Georgia issued a statement on Facebook accusing the protesters of planning the “Maidanization” of Tbilisi. The statement claims that “Georgian citizens outside the country are actively involved in these criminal plans, in particular certain Georgians fighting in Ukraine.” When I read this I immediately thought that my activist friend was right: the government is confused by the decentralized nature of protests involving predominantly students and teenagers without any clear plans. So the state is now trying to conjure a plan for the protesters, to demonize them. The instrumentalization of fear and the labelling of protesters as violent thugs is a well-known tactic of the powerful to justify violence. It paves the way for state repression. We have seen this multiple times in recent Georgian history, first as tragedy, then as farce, and again as tragedy. But what will happen now with these protests? We all ask this question of each other, searching for consolation and hope for the future. One thing that those of us who chant “We are this country” know for sure is that we will not surrender.


See (in Georgian).

Protests & Demonstrations, Eastern Europe

Tamta Khalvashi is a professor of anthropology and the head of the PhD Program in Social and Cultural Anthropology at Ilia State University in Georgia. Her research interests combine experimental anthropology and affect theory, focusing on postsocialist urban transformations, peripheral histories, and marginal social identities. She is the author of A Sea of Transience: Politics, Poetics and Aesthetics on the Black Sea Coast (with Martin Demant Frederiksen).


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