"People's Power": anti-Western movement in the service of the ruling party of Georgia
People’s Power movement
People’s Power is a new social movement in Georgia voicing severely anti-Western sentiments under the auspices by the ruling Georgian Dream party.
After Russia invaded Ukraine, there has been increasing criticism in Georgia of the authorities for not providing enough support to Ukraine.
The Georgian opposition demanded supporting the sanctions against Russia, and protests in solidarity with Ukraine have gathered tens of thousands of people, among whom were those loyal to the government just recently.
The growth of dissatisfaction with the actions of the government (or rather, its inaction) was directly proportional to the number of people who rushed to the central squares of Tbilisi to express their solidarity with Ukraine.
The Georgian authorities reacted to this with restraint, perhaps realizing that the situation is unlikely to develop into a full-on political crisis — the opposition in the country is weak and divided, and the ideological godfather of opposition is securely in prison.
However, criticism from the West has been very annoying to the government — it has spurred the discontent among the populace, long been tormented by suspicions that European integration was not among its priorities.
And then a new force appeared on the political arena, proclaiming its mission to be “protecting Georgia from Western pressure.” This movement is widely believed to be a project of the ruling party and under its full control.
The leaders of People’s Power accuse Western partners of trying to draw Georgia into a war with Russia, question the country’s Euro-Atlantic course, and promote Kremlin-like initiatives.
A draft law on foreign agents is already in the Georgian parliament. The logic they offered was uncomfortably similar to that made in Russia when their respective law was passed.
“On Transparency of Foreign Influence” proposes to create a “register of agents of foreign influence in order to ensure the transparency of foreign funding”. All NGOs and media that receive 20% or more of their income from abroad will have to register.
The authors refer to the “advanced experience of democratic countries”, in particular to American legislation. The Russian law on foreign agents is not mentioned at all.
However, the opposition and the civil sector of Georgia are sounding the alarm, convinced that the real goal of the project is to restrict the work of NGOs and the media. Almost all non-government-controlled electronic media, as well as the vast non-governmental sector of Georgia, operate on Western funding.
People’s Power calls Georgian NGOs nothing but “US agents”, adding that the US finances only “harmful projects” in Georgia and instructs the populace on how to prepare a revolution.
“Most of the money from the US goes to NGOs, and it would be better if they stopped receiving this money,” Sozar Subari said in a speech in parliament on November 17.
Subari himself used to head the Liberty Institute, an authoritative NGO, worked as a journalist for Radio Liberty, was an active participant in the Rose Revolution, and thereafter worked as an ombudsman.
“… and personally demanded war with Russia”
The Georgian authorities planned to apply for European Union membership in 2024, but plans changed after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Georgia, together with Moldova, applied for EU membership on March 3, 2022, immediately after Ukraine. However, Europe has decided not to grant this status to Georgia yet.
Shortly after this refusal, thousands of protesters took to the streets in Tbilisi, who criticized the authorities for not doing enough to guarantee Georgia’s European future.
Then, four deputies from the ruling party suddenly announced that they were leaving in order to freely speak “the truth about the West.” They say Georgian Dream are pulling their punches when it comes to criticizing the West.
They argue that Western partners have tried to put pressure on the alleged informal ruler of the country, Bidzina Ivanishvili, and are trying to force Georgia into war against Russia.
Soon several more deputies and officials from local governments left Georgian Dream, and all repeated that they were leaving in order to “freely and openly speak” some “truth about Western officials”.
They shared conspiracy theories that in exchange for the status of an EU candidate, the West had ordered Georgia to partially give up its sovereignty and go to war with Russia. The underlying idea in all these theories is that being refused EU candidacy status was good for Georgia, and Ivanishvili was to thank for it.
The rebellious truth-tellers were especially aggressive towards the US embassy in Georgia and Ambassador Kelly Degnan. The ambassador, the deputies said, had personally met with Ivanishvili and “demanded something.”
“The Georgian people themselves must draw their own conclusions — either follow the wishes of the embassy and turn Georgia into a second front, or assess how acceptable and legitimate the US intention is to involve Georgia in a military conflict with Russia without any guarantees,” reads one of their numerous appeals.
Anti-Western rhetoric and attacks on Western partners are obviously quite acceptable for the Georgian authorities; so far they have neither criticized nor tried to refute what the People’s Power leaders are claiming. Some representatives of the ruling party even made it clear that they fully share the new faction’s ideology.
The leader of the ruling party, Irakli Kobakhidze, calls members of the movement “worthy colleagues” and like-minded people with whom there are only “tactical differences”.
Today, according to People’s Power, the movement has several thousand members and growing, especially in the regions. Basically, it includes politicians loyal to the government, journalists from pro-government channels, and public figures close to GD.
People’s Power has a separate faction in the parliament of nine deputies, its own TV and online platform, as well as unlimited access to three central pro-government TV channels.
The organization is not in a hurry to call itself a political party and remains a public movement, but everyone who follows Georgian politics is convinced that the 2024 parliamentary elections are where they are aiming.
Georgia is now in its eleventh year run by Georgian Dream, a political party founded by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who defeated Mikheil Saakashvili’s National Movement in the 2012 parliamentary elections.
Today Ivanishvili has no official positions, but he is widely regarded as the most powerful personage in the nation.
In 2024 GD will try to win the parliamentary elections for the fourth time and retain power for another four years.
This is an ambitious plan; despite the fact that the Georgian opposition is very weak and divided today, it will likely not be easy to win the elections.
Judging by opinion polls, the authorities are losing their supporters for various reasons. Support for GD has declined by 6% over the last year, according to one poll.
Experts believe People’s Power to be a satellite for galvanizing grassroots support.
“Georgian Dream needed a satellite that would help it stay in power even longer,” Corneli Kakachia, a professor at Tbilisi State University and director of the Georgian Policy Institute, says.
“In the long term, the goal of this strategy is to be a shield in future political processes and create comfort for the ruling party. It’s like playing good cop, bad cop. Power will be bad cop, Dream will be good cop. But in fact, these people say what Ivanishvili personally thinks and wants.
“They were created not only to make anti-Western statements, but also to play at democratization. Dream has come up with a new puppet for itself, with which it will be possible to form a coalition during the elections. This will give them the opportunity to say — well, everyone accuses us of being one-party, but in fact it is not so, we have a coalition, we cooperate with the opposition.”
The legislative initiatives that People’s Power managed to come up with seem quite natural to some experts:
“Initiatives such as the law on foreign agents will continue in the future. This is what Dream itself would like to say, but does not, trying to save face in front of Western partners,” political scientist Gia Khukhashvili says, who was Ivanishvili’s ally in the beginning of Georgian Dream.
And People’s Power has already announced a second, similar bill concerning the media to ensure “prevention of the spread of lies”.
“The authorities have actually marginalized the opposition, and now the only people standing in their way are the media and civil society, and if they marginalize them too, then Georgian Dream will rule the country for a very long time. This is the path followed, for example, by the governments of Russia and Turkey. So it is no coincidence that Georgian Dream is more friendly with authoritarian regimes,” Kakachia maintains.
Change of course?
Government opponents have long accused Georgian political elites of being loyal to the Kremlin, but until February 2022, this loyalty was not so obvious to society as a whole.
After the war, Georgia still has not officially joined the sanctions on Russia. And in early January, it refused to transfer the Buk anti-aircraft missile system to Ukraine, which it received from Ukraine in 2007. The Georgian authorities explained the refusal by the fact that these complexes were not transferred by Ukraine, but purchased, and the agreement does not provide for their return.
The agenda also includes the issue of resuming flights to Russia. The initiative was taken by Moscow, which has recently been praising the Georgian government for supporting sanctions or joining the war.
True, Tbilisi has not yet agreed to the resumption of flights, but on pro-government channels, experts loyal to the authorities have already begun to talk about good economic benefits for Georgia.
The main strategy that the Georgian authorities chose in the early days of the war and which they still adhere to is as follows: the ruling party tries to associate itself with peace, and the opposition, which fiercely supports Ukraine, with war.
For example, most recently, the Prime Minister of Georgia accused the Ukrainian authorities of trying to drag Georgia into the war.
“The ongoing attempts to involve Georgia in hostilities are regrettable… We hear statements from representatives of the Ukrainian authorities on this topic.”
With this position in relation to the war in Ukraine, in Georgia, many do not agree. Before the war in Ukraine Tbilisi’s “non-irritation policy” towards Moscow was seen by many as pragmatic; today, given general consolidation of the West in support of Ukraine, this policy seems otherwise.
Numerous protests have taken place in Tbilisi, the last on February 24.
Among the critics of the government’s foreign policy is Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili herself, who makes tougher statements by the day.
On February 7 she directly accused the Georgian authorities of a “deferential attitude” towards Russia.
“On the one hand, the government’s rhetoric, stubborn decisions and incomprehensible deference towards Russia (…), which contrasts with a strict attitude towards Ukrainians and our partners and often offensive criticism,” Zurabishvili said.
And on February 9:
“Our defeatism is consonant only with the Russian narrative, echoes only Russian propaganda. I can neither explain, nor understand, nor accept this,” the president said, commenting on the words of the chairman of the ruling party, Kobakhidze, who said that Russia has clear military advantages and Ukraine is losing the war.
Experts believe that GD’s main goal is to stay in power by any means.
“The government of Georgia is trying to sit on two chairs,” political scientist Gia Nodia says.
“In my opinion, Georgian Dream has always been, first of all, a “pro-self” force. That is, its main motive is to stay in power. Ivanishvili is actually pro-Russian in the sense that he has more sympathy for Russia, his mentality is Russian, he understands Russia better, and for him the West, Western values, Western thinking are all alien and incomprehensible. In this sense, he is even more than pro-Russian — he is a Russian person,” Nodia claims.
Gia Khukhashvili agrees with this opinion.
“They want to sit on two chairs. Head in Russia,body in the West. They want something like that, and it’s very funny, because the West is not about geography. The West is a family gathered around a value system that has its own rules of the game. And he says: “Do you want to live in my family? Then don’t smoke indoors, don’t disturb the neighbors at night to sleep,” and so on.
But the Georgian authorities do not want these rules, because with these rules it will not be possible to stay in power for life. So these 12 points, which the European Union prescribed for obtaining candidacy status, are a problem,” Khukhashvili says.
According to experts, even if we do not take into account the moral aspect of anti-Ukrainian and anti-Western tactics, the country may be left without the support of Western partners and face to face with Russia.
“Everything will depend on how the processes go, what will happen by the end of the year, whether Georgia will receive the candidate status or not, and how the European Union will assess all this. Much will depend on the reaction of the West. It is also important whether the disoriented opposition spectrum will be able to consolidate and whether it will be able to find a common language with the population and civil society,” Kakachia says.
The key to the future of Georgia today lies in Ukraine, Khukhashvili believes.
“It all depends on current events in Ukraine. Today these issues are not resolved in Georgia, everything is resolved in Ukraine, and not only for our country but also for many other countries,” he maintains.
Experts believe that the concentration of political, human and financial resources around the People’s Power, as well as its close ties with the ruling authorities, will allow this movement to exert some influence on the domestic and foreign political life of the country.
“Yes, public support for the Western course remains high, but I would say that this support is still very superficial. This does not mean consistent support and understanding and knowledge of European values, principles and institutions. This is some kind of vague orientation, so, they say, we prefer the West to Russia, but most do not quite consciously understand why exactly,” Nodia says.
“When the authorities have huge resources, a monopoly on everything, then there is a real danger of weakening pro-Western sentiments. I think that the repetition of these pro-Russian messages will have a deleterious effect,” Corneli Kakachia believes.
People’s Power movement