Part 1 of a series. Read part 2 here.
A sleek, refurbished three-story building stands on an otherwise unremarkable stretch of Akaki Tsereteli Avenue in Tbilisi’s Didube district, on the fringe of the city center. Now an event space called “The Factory,” the structure was previously a Coca-Cola bottling plant. And if you are to believe top Georgian government officials, it’s also served as a den of satanists.
The Factory was used by the Franklin Club, a non-governmental organization dedicated to promoting free markets, rule-of-law and individual liberty, for a June event marking the second anniversary of its founding. The club says its values align closely with those underpinning the European Union, which an overwhelming majority of Georgians are eager to join. Yet, in the eyes of the ruling Georgian Dream government, Franklin Club activists are bent on fomenting a Western-backed revolution.
The club – which is named after Benjamin Franklin, a signer of the American Declaration of Independence and framer of the Constitution, as well as an icon of the Enlightenment – has contended with various forms of governmental harassment over the past two years. And the group’s leaders don’t expect the pressure to abate anytime soon, given that Georgia is gearing up for parliamentary elections next year.
“They try to silence opposing voices,” said Revaz Topuria, one of the organization’s founders. “The government wanted to shut us down, they wanted to make us quiet, they wanted to deprive us of funding and the popularity we were getting.”
Georgian Dream appears ready and willing to use all means at its disposal to tilt the playing field in its favor during the run-up to the 2024 vote, underscored by its airing of unsubstantiated claims that its political opponents have been plotting a coup. Georgian Dream currently has a stranglehold on power in the country and is ostensibly a supporter of the country’s EU accession bid. But party leaders at the same time are increasingly employing illiberal practices, striving to control the press, the non-governmental sector and the courts. In effect, Georgian Dream is trending in a Hungarian direction – ready to enjoy the potential economic benefits of EU membership while balking at the EU’s social and political obligations to uphold standards of equality, tolerance and openness.
Government-tolerated harassment of Georgia’s LGBT community is perhaps the most visible sign of Georgian Dream’s drift towards illiberalism. But its targeting of the Franklin Club underscores that Georgian Dream’s wariness of liberal values is all-encompassing.
The government’s hostility toward the Franklin Club activists is perhaps more rooted in their ability to reach young Georgians with effective messaging than in the ideas they advocate. Group members are tech savvy and skilled at marketing, producing podcasts and organizing campaigns that reach wide audiences.
The Franklin Club’s difficulties began in late 2022, when Asaval-Dasavali, an anti-Western newspaper, ran a story ominously comparing the group to a Masonic lodge. A subsequent television piece broadcast by government-friendly Imedi TV claimed the Franklin Club had an operating budget of $100 million, hinting that nefarious foreign forces were financing its programs. (The claim was proven false in a subsequent court proceeding).
The television report also denounced the club as the second-coming of Kmara, a youth-activist organization that played a prominent role in 2003’s Rose Revolution, in which former president and Georgian Dream bête noire Mikheil Saakashvili led a non-violent uprising that ousted Eduard Shevardnadze from power. Levan Ramishvili, a political scientist who helped found Kmara, is a member of the Franklin Club’s board.
Kmara’s main contribution in 2003 was its effectiveness in mobilizing youth opposition to the Shevardnadze government. “Kmara succeeded in breaking through the public’s political apathy, particularly among young people,” wrote one of the group’s founding members, Giorgi Kandelaki, in a personal account of the 2003 events. While the group doubtless assisted Saakashvili’s rise to power, Kandelaki and others insisted Kmara was non-partisan and merely dedicated to promoting an anti-corruption agenda. Kandelaki presently is an opposition politician. [Editor’s note: in 2001, Kandelaki was also a Eurasianet editorial intern].
These days, Georgian Dream officials and their supporters remember Kmara not as an effective youth activist organization but as a bunch of subversives bent on rabble-rousing. Such impressions have heavily influenced government actions towards the Franklin Club; it is as if officials see the group’s activists as Kmara revenants intent on breaking Georgian Dream’s grip on power in the 2024 elections.
The idea for creating the Franklin Club originated in early 2021. At that time, Topuria, a lecturer at the University of Georgia, would often gather with friends to chat about politics while playing board games. Conversations frequently centered on the topic of political apathy among young people. He and other co-founders also bemoaned the lack of political science and civics instruction in Georgian schools. So, they decided to do something about it.
The founders formally registered the organization in June 2021 and launched the Franklin Academy – a classroom-based lecture series on topics ranging from human rights to business ethics and art. In form, the academy functioned as something of a mix between an old-school, neighborhood political club and Rotarians.
The club at first used classrooms at the University of Georgia to conduct its programs. There were initially around 25 participants. But after the club’s social media platforms gained traction, numbers started surging. The Franklin Club was filling a niche that officials couldn’t.
“Politicians are still not able to address issues that are relevant for youth,” said Shota Kakabadze, a policy analyst at the Georgian Institute of Politics, explaining why young people in Georgia tend to be disaffected from politics.
By early 2023, as buzz surrounding the club was building, government officials grew wary. They dropped hints that budget constraints might necessitate a reduction in state support for the University of Georgia, whose facilities the Franklin Club was using, according to Alexander Zibzibadze, another club co-founder. Several months later, worried that officials would leverage a normally routine accreditation process to punish the university for providing assistance to the club, its leaders took preemptive action; they severed the Franklin Club’s relationship with the university.
Zibzibadze and other leaders insist the Franklin Club is non-partisan; the organization advocates on behalf of liberal values, not any particular political party. At the same time, the club’s leaders note that Georgian Dream’s policies have increasingly targeted the liberal values they hold dear.
A pivotal moment for the group occurred in early March 2023, when the government attempted to push through the so-called foreign-agent legislation that critics asserted was designed to muzzle Georgia’s NGO sector. Franklin Club activists joined in protests against the bill; popular opposition eventually forced the government to back down on March 9. Topuria and Zibzibadze said all Franklin Club members participated in the events of their own volition without any coordinated call to action.
Public anger over the “foreign agent” bill was widespread, spanning all sectors of society. As part of its damage-control strategy, Georgian Dream leaders sought to demonize elements that it alleged were misleading young people. In a live interview on March 12, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili singled out the Franklin Club, saying it “poisons” and “brainwashes” young people. He went on to say that during the early March protests, Franklin Club activists “were wearing the uniforms of satanists” and threw Molotov cocktails at security forces, attempting to provoke a melee.
“These charlatans are deceiving you, telling you that [Georgian Dream] does not desire a European way,” Garibashvili said in comments broadcast on Imedi TV, referring to Franklin Club members and other activists.
Irakli Kobakhidze, Georgian Dream’s chairman, kept up the pressure on the Franklin Club, calling out one of the group’s biggest donors, the Atlas Network, as a promoter of global violent and non-violent protests.
Zibzibadze maintained that the group disavows political violence; the notion that Franklin Club activists would toss Molotov cocktails caused him to shake his head, roll his eyes and issue a short, aggrieved laugh. At the same time, he is acutely aware that the government’s words and actions are no joke. In the aftermath of officials’ verbal attacks, would-be local donors seemed hesitant to continue their support.
In response, group leaders decided to press pause and search for a new route forward. For a time, they canceled projects, let staff members go and decreased their salaries. They were confident that the Franklin Club would survive but weren’t sure where the funding would come from. The summer was a time of adaptation.
“Truth is very hard to defend when the government is against you with a propaganda machine,” Topuria said.
To be continued…
Brawley Benson is a U.S.-based reporter and recent graduate of the Columbia Journalism School who writes about Russia and the countries around it. Follow him on X at @BrawleyEric.