GEO

Lessons, We can learn from Georgian Activism – From 2018 until today

This case study was developed by CAT alumni, lawyer and civic activist Mariam Gabrichidze for the Centre for Training and Consultancy (CTC).

Introduction

Protests in Georgia have been intensive in recent years. It somehow is like a routine, when the government makes something wrong, they know that on Rustaveli avenue, the main street of Tbilisi will be loud, full of angry people. In this paper, I would like to highlight case studies and main explorations, what we activists have learnt in recent years’ protests in Georgia. Briefly, it will be about the common mistakes, which organizers make during manifestations. I have been involved in activism for more than 4 years, in some period- there were days that I’ve attended 3 performances or activities as an independent activist, then with my fellows, I co-founded Democracy Defenders Georgia, activist organization, which promotes democratic values, activism and Georgia’s EU Atlantic Integration.  This case studies will be from my personal experience and perspective, which I think will be useful for new-comers in activism to plan their manifestation or any kind of activities properly to avoid frustration, disappointment and anger. I have highlighted several lessons, which we Georgian activists received as an experience in the recent years.

Here are case studies analysis of the most popular, impactful and inspirational protest cycles. I’d like to underline that as an activist, I appreciate these manifestations’ organizers commitment and work and I‘ve just analyzed them as an outside person – from the independent activists’ perspectives how the manifestations work.

Lesson #1 – Identify what protesters want, if you take sole decision  – It will make  people frustrated

FEEL MOMENTUM

First case which should remembered as a one of the impactful protest was manifestation “We dance together we fight together” organized by White Noise Movement and nightclubs, it was supporting liberal narco-policy and also against police brutality at Bassiani and Cafe Gallery.

Background:

On May 12, 2018 hundreds of protesters gathered on Rustaveli Avenue Tbilisi to protest against the police raid in Club BASSIANI and Cafe GALLERY in order to arrest drug dealers, police brutally invaded clubs during the rave events.

On May 12, 2018 police used disproportionate force against people in the Club Bassiani and Cafe Gallery, clubbers kicked out of clubs and they joined several thousand people    in front of the Parliament. The protest was very tense, the right-wing extremists tried to break the police cordon and set a counter-protest.

In this period, Internal Minister Giorgi Gakharia appeared in front of Parliament and apologized to protesters. One of the organizer who was from the White Noise Movement, Beka Tsikarishvili announced a pause in demonstrations to “monitor progress”[1] but protests would have been continued if the demands were not accomplished. This pause, which was actually resumed in 28 May was the reason of frustration of demonstrators. The problem was that one the one hand, organizers wanted to take pause but on the other hand protesters wanted to continue the riot, because they were too much angry. Also, it was noticeable that there was not any consensus between organizers, unfortunately it seemed from out of the space that pausing the demonstration was the idea of the organizers, who were in the meeting with the internal minister of Georgia. 

Conclusion:

The frustration of the part of protesters was caused of the organizers’ pause, when it was the momentum and the mission of protest would be achievable, unfortunately part of the organizers thought differently. It was kind of conflict of interests or clash of different interests of organizers and participants of the manifestation.

Lesson #2  – Make protest tactics right – it is the MOST crucial thing

One of the most impactful and inspirational protest was 2019 June’s protest organized by Shame Movement. It was antioccupational manifestations’ cycle which lasted approximately 100 days.

Background

In 2019 Georgia had one of the most remarkable protest, it was called “Gavrilov Night”. It was absolutely spontaneous protest, which caused Russian politician, Sergey Gavrilov’s visit in Georgian Parliament in  the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy (IAO), a body set up by the Greek parliament in 1993 to foster relationships between Christian Orthodox lawmakers[2].He was seated in the Parliament’s chair’s seat and started his speech in Russian, it angered politicians (Opposition) and Georgian citizens. Sergei Gavrilov is one of the 447 MP who voted for Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s independence in Russian Duma.  Also, according to Georgian Parliament Member Giorgi Kandelaki, Gavrilov was taking part in the war of Abkhazia against Georgia[3]. (Therefore, this fact that a Russian MP, who always fought against Georgia, sat in Georgian parliament and spoke in Russian, made hundreds of Georgians angry and so many people gathered in front of the parliament and some of them threw eggs to Gavrilov and made him to leave Georgia sooner as he had planned.

Calling for the Speaker and other officials to resign, about 10K protesters breached the police cordon in Tbilisi in the evening of 20 June. The protest became more massive in the evening. At night, police used unprecedented unproportional force against protesters – 40 journalists injured, 3 people lost eyes, and approximately 200 protesters injured. After this brutal night, thousands of citizens gathered in front of the parliament the next day. It was the reason for starting the protest cycle, organized by Shame Movement. This protest was very interesting because of its length – approximately 100 days was unstoppable protest in Tbilisi. Protest Organizers had demands – resignation of the chair of Parliament and it was accomplished since the 2nd day of protest, proportional elections (“Georgian Dream” Founder, Bidzina Ivanishvili promised that the next election would be proportional but it was scam.) and the third one, resignation the internal affairs minister Giorgi Gakharia, who became afterwards Prime Minister of Georgia.

What was the main problems of the protest:

I’d repeat that this protest period had an enormous impact to develop and strengthen civil society in Georgia, as  it was the first massive protest and there was lack of experience. The problem was that protest organizers didn’t choose proper tactics to continue the protest. The “never ending protest” lost its importance and unfortunately people had feeling that the protest had no longer been momentous. Afterwards, there were very small quantity of people gathering in front of the Parliament. But performances and other acts, organized this activist groups had influence – in the regions of Georgia, many people started activism.

 Therefore, the lesson was that simple – every demonstration has aim to share with society what your demands are, and people understood that demands. In general, protest as “just gathering” is not always effective to accomplish its aim. Tactics were not seen correctly to accomplish the aim and it caused the part of protesters’ fatigue and frustration.

Lesson 3 – Don’t let opponents follow their agenda within propaganda, make your own agenda

The Against Russian law protest was one of the most successful protests in Georgia’s history. It was not only an effective campaign, it was a successful manifestation, which went to the aim.

Background:

The bill was introduced in the Parliament of Georgia by members of People’s Power, a political party widely believed to be affiliated with the governing party Georgian Dream, ) in mid-February 2023. It required all nongovernmental, noncommercial, and media organizations that received at least 20 percent of funding from foreign sources to register as “agents of foreign influence” with the Ministry of Justice of Georgia, making them liable to additional onerous financial reporting requirements and random state inspections, as well as up to solid quantity (25 000 Gel) of administrative fines for failures to register as foreign agents or submitting incomplete financial declarations[4]. The reason was “transparency”. The situation was similar   in Russia, it caused civil organizations to shut down too. Government said that it was inspired by the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which aims to identify forces primarily engaged in political activities that carry out interests of a foreign country within the United States. But Georgia’s context was different from USA. The “Russian Law” bill was criticized not only by USA, but also EU representatives, the Human Rights Watch called the bill “incompatible with international human rights law.” Protest had support EU high representative Josep Borell, French President Emmanuel Macron[5] (who posted on “X(Former Twitter) Georgians’ commitment to democratic values, press and freedom of association is heard.)

In addition, this protest had a lot of strength back from not only local activists, politicians and institutions but also an international society too. When protest reaches wide audience, it is the step toward of success.

After the very tense several days of protest, when the Special Forces were tired and the protesters still energetic, the ruling party announced that they would drop the bill in the second parliamentary hearing. On the March 10, the Parliament of Georgia officially dropped[6] the controversial bill on “Transparency of Foreign Influence.” This has been declared as a very important win to the civil society of Georgia.

Why this protest was effective:

The representatives of the NGO sector gathered and together they made a strategy. One of the most important thing was to make their agenda of spreading information. If government propagandists made statement against NGOs and CSOs, they didn’t respond to them – moreover, people NGO sector who were famous and sometimes “annoying” for the part of society they were not participating in TV shows or interviews. CSOs made their own agenda, for example- representatives of NGO sector always said the wording “Russian Law” made the ruling party members to response that it wasn’t “Russian Law” and their propaganda didn’t work at all.

This protest cycle had real challenges, for example, it was really hard to control the situation when there were too many people, with too many different political views. But the organizers were finding the common ideas for all people – touching points- as we, Georgians say in general. The fundament was that everyone in the manifestation wanted Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration and everyone had realized that this bill would be obstacle to achieve the mission. Also, organizers (and I do not mean only the led organizations of the protest because there were approximately 400 NG organizations of Georgia) had very clear and easily understanding information to spread in society what was the bill, why they called “Russian Law”, why this bill would be dangerous for Georgia’s Euro Atlantic integration’s commitment and why it would be a threat for non-governmental organizations and their beneficiaries. They had very clear examples of what NGOs, especially in the regions of Georgia were doing for the vulnerable groups and not only for them and how this bill would affect the beneficiaries’ legal condition in the future.

Conclusion:

In the previous century and the beginning of 21st one, it was effective to express protest in front of the Parliament of Georgia because there were not any communication platforms, internet to organize gatherings, spread information and make attention. But today, when there are so many opportunities to express protest, it doesn’t need to take financial resources or the indicator is not about the quantity of people, it’s all about is to make influence and making your protest the center of attention. Also, in Georgia, it is somehow required that protest activities should meet aesthetic or ethical standards. For example, one of the most remembering action was last year, 7th of March in Tbilisi protesters threw toilet papers[7] at the Georgian Government Chancellery to protest the authorities’ lack of action on the war in Ukraine. The organizers were from Shame Movement, there were independent activists too. They told to police officers that they were not going to throw toilet papers to them, they were throwing a building of government administration. But this performance was not unanimously approved by Georgian society. Even if this action was clear and was in the scope of the freedom of expression, part of society considered that it was not useful action. To me, it was very clear example how you can protest without counting thousands of people, spending too much money just to express your anger and be the center of attention, yes, when you are in civic activism, your main mission is to be in the center of attention, to spread information effectively and give information to the international community.

What can I really say as an activist is that Georgian civil society has been raised and we can say without hesitation that activism in Georgia truly exists, we can analyze our mistakes and take them as lessons. So, as an activist, throughout every activity, manifestation or performance, I have learnt these things and I’d like to share them with you:

  • Identify what you really want to achieve within your actions, are planned activities achievable with your strategy or they need to be reviewed?
  • Make sure, when you are an organizer of the manifestation if people thinks like you, or if you act will the people follow you?
  • Don’t spend too much money, if you want to make protest, you often can make without big financial resources,
  • Don’t respond to government propagandists, make your own informational agenda;
  • If your activities won’t be achievable, keep going – activists are not born to be activists, and you should learn from your mistakes, but the best version will be if you learn from others mistakes, its simple rule and it works in activism too.

Lastly, but not at least, I’d like to finish my case-study analysis with the Chinese proverb, which I’ve read in the 1st day of  CAT Training: – “The one who moved the mountain, is the one who started taking away the small stones.” So, I do believe that every activist can be the one, who will move the mountain and will make a change for better.

[1] https://www.rferl.org/a/georgian-police-raid-on-clubs-triggers-protests-in-capital/29223031.html Available 09/12/2023

[2] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-48710042 Available 09/11/2023

[3] https://civil.ge/archives/309180 Available 09/11/2023

[4] https://www.csis.org/analysis/georgia-civil-society-wins-against-russia-style-foreign-agents-bill Available 09/11/2023

[5] https://twitter.com/EmmanuelMacron/status/1634107450381983744 Available 09/10/2023

[6] https://civil.ge/archives/530648 Available 09/10/2023

[7] https://westobserver.com/news/europe/at-an-anti-russian-rally-in-georgia-police-were-pelted-with-toilet-paper/ Available 09/14/2023