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Fear of a scenario like in Belarus

After the president's veto, the Georgian government has one last chance to withdraw the “agent law.” Its opponents are already thinking about the October election and fear a scenario like the one in Belarus.

By Silvia Stöber, currently Tbilisi

Things are rough in Georgia's parliament. Insults are thrown back and forth, scuffles break out, and sometimes people are hit. During crucial sessions, opposition MPs are thrown out of the chamber.

Amid all the provocations, it is difficult to remain calm, says Ana Natsvlishvili of the opposition party Lelo. But the point is to fulfil the parliamentary mandate with dignity.

But she also wanted to send a signal: During a recent parliamentary debate, Natsvlishvili wore ski goggles and a respirator like the protesters in front of the building – out of solidarity and to denounce the police violence against the demonstrators.

Toxic and inspiring at the same time

Four men stand guard at the entrance to her party office in the train station district, far from the spruced-up city center; the door is well secured. The station is a hub between the city center, the suburbs and the whole country. They want to be open to people, says the 39-year-old. On the other hand, opposition politicians have to protect themselves.

Like many others, Natsvlishvili always carries pepper spray with him. There have been too many attacks on prominent government opponents recently without the police responding to emergency calls.

The mood is toxic, and it is degrading how the government ignores the people who have been protesting against the “foreign influence” law for weeks. At the same time, however, it is inspiring to see how resilient society is.

Not back into Russian orbit

It is about nothing less than Georgia's independence, and the government is driving the country back into Russia's orbit with its policies. But there are enough people in this country who know exactly what that means.

After decades of crisis, the EU is like a safety net that the government wants to take away from them. The threats of suspending visa liberalization are particularly tricky. Thanks to the travel opportunities, people can see for themselves how good life is in the EU. The government's propaganda is therefore no longer as effective “because people are witnesses to the difference,” said Natsvischwili.

Her party has already drawn up a detailed program on how the EU's conditions for starting accession talks can be met. An important point is the question of which weaknesses in the system of separation of powers have led to an oligarch being able to conquer the state. “We should set up a state-supported think tank that ensures that no new oligarchs are born.”

Convincing the voters

But in order to implement this policy, the weak and divided opposition must position itself in such a way that it represents an alternative to the ruling party in the parliamentary elections in October.

Natsvlishvili divides the voters of the “Georgian Dream” (GT) into four groups. There are those who the ruling party can control through their work in the public sector. In addition, there are more than 600,000 people who are dependent on social benefits – there are numerous documented cases of these people being threatened with losing their benefits if they do not vote for GT.

A third group benefits from tenders that are awarded to companies close to GT in a non-transparent manner. Finally, there are those who have simply believed the propaganda of the governing party.

The large proportion of the population that does not believe in any party would also have to be convinced. In order to overcome the five percent hurdle, electoral alliances would make sense, but this is made difficult by existing legislation, which could still be changed at short notice.

Mobilizing first-time voters

Dachi Imedadze wants to convince young people to go to the polls. His organization Shame Movement was founded in 2019 in protest against the appearance of Russian Duma deputy Sergei Gavrilov in the Georgian parliament. He and his colleagues calculated that 150,000 young people will be able to vote for the first time this year, which could have a decisive influence on the outcome.

But who to vote for? He doesn't know yet, says the 25-year-old. “Either you don't participate and say none of them are okay, or you go and vote for someone you like the least and then pray for a better future.” He is counting on the parties forming two or three technical alliances.

Imedadze wants to convince first-time voters to go to the polls.

Fear of a scenario like in Belarus

The Shame Movement is the focus of government propaganda, although they only support the protests, while younger groups from universities and even schools are calling for action almost every day. Like MP Natsvilishvili, Imedadze believes it is important to stress that all age groups take part in the protests, and that people should also convince their own parents and grandparents. On Saturday, employees from the health sector took to the streets for the first time.

Imedadze is prepared to register Shame Movement as an “organization under foreign influence” and accept restrictions as long as he can pursue his goal of “getting as many people as possible to the polls.” Like many, he expects there to be significant manipulation and does not rule out a crackdown on the opposition movement, as in Belarus.

MP Natsvlishvili sees things similarly. She is therefore calling on the EU to impose sanctions on those responsible in the government. In addition, the international community should help, for example through long-term observation, to ensure that the election is as free and fair as possible. And she is calling for very clear messages, “because diplomatic language does not work in the hands of the Russian propaganda machine.”

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