Part 2 of a series. Read part 1 here.
Under pressure from the government, and having lost a key donor, Franklin Club leaders were laying low in the late spring and summer. But the group was far from dormant.
In June, club leaders staged a one-day event, lining up prominent political figures to discuss Georgia’s EU accession bid. They invited representatives of parties spanning the country’s political spectrum to speak, including Georgian Dream. “Of course, they didn’t come,” said Revaz Topuria, a Franklin Club co-founder, referring to governing party officials. The no-show made it clear that the Franklin Club remained near the top of Georgian Dream’s enemies list.
Held at The Factory, the former Coca-Cola bottling plant, speakers at the gathering presented a variety of perspectives on EU accession. The group’s logo – a purple-tinged portrait of Benjamin Franklin wearing a traditional Georgian chokha, showing that Western and Georgian values “go hand in hand,” according to Topuria – provided a backdrop. The discussion was lively, but the event was not problem-free. A small nationalist mob organized by the Georgia First party showed up to protest outside the venue and harassed participants as they entered the venue, according to Alexander Zibzibadze, another co-founder. Security guards provided by Coca-Cola prevented mob members from forcibly entering The Factory, potentially averting a riot.
Despite this brush with disorder, the Franklin Club demonstrated – with its signature flair for energizing young people – that it remained viable and relevant. Topuria, Zibzibadze and other club leaders used the occasion to catalyze fundraising, forging relationships with new donors during the summer. In early September, they resumed a full slate of programmatic activity, including the group’s flagship enterprise, the Franklin Academy lecture series.
In the coming months, the group aims to launch a public outreach campaign and voter registration drive. The goal is to get young people enthused and active for the 2024 parliamentary elections, as well as improve the financial literacy of pension-aged Georgians. Given the Georgian Dream government’s clearly demonstrated concern over youth activists’ ability to disrupt its reelection game-plan, the Franklin Club’s activities seem sure to arouse suspicion within governing circles, experts say.
Zibzibadze now worries that the June protest outside The Factory and public bullying of the organization could be a portent of things to come in 2024. Franklin Club activists could face physical intimidation from illiberal elements, he acknowledged. The use of violence and intimidation is an increasingly common feature of the political discourse in Georgia. “We do worry about their safety,” he said.
But with Georgia’s future direction at stake over the coming year, the activists and organization’s leaders are willing to assume the risks, Zibzibadze stressed.
Though the Franklin Club doesn’t enjoy mass appeal across all segments of society, its messages resonate strongly with a demographic that has proven indifferent to Georgian Dream’s leadership – Georgians in the 18-34 age group. “[Georgian Dream’s] problem is they have not been able to reach Generation Z,” said Shota Kakabadze, a policy analyst at the Georgian Institute of Politics. “That’s why [the Franklin Club’s] visibility is so big.”
The temperature of Georgia’s political environment is already rapidly rising. In mid-September, Bacha Mgeladze, a spokesman for Georgia’s State Security Service, claimed – without providing any evidence – that anti-government forces in Georgia were plotting a coup financed by foreign elements. Mgeladze alleged that the coup plotters planned to act in the fall of 2023, timing their actions to coincide with an EU announcement on Georgia’s accession status.
The government doubled down on its coup claims in early October, leveling unsubstantiated accusations at USAID, the development arm of the US government, that it was funding subversive programs in Georgia. The US Embassy in Tbilisi described the government’s claims as “unwarranted attacks.”
Brussels is expected to rule on Tbilisi’s accession-worthiness at some point between now and December, and many observers in Tbilisi say there is a good chance it will put Georgia’s EU hopes on hold. Such an outcome would be sure to rile large numbers of Georgians: an overwhelming majority of citizens favor EU accession. It could, accordingly, damage Georgian Dream’s reelection hopes in 2024.
There is a widespread public perception, arguably held by a majority of citizens, that Georgian Dream’s drift toward illiberalism and its coziness with the Russian government are the main sources of EU second thoughts about Georgia’s membership bid. The government’s eminence grise, billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili, has a long and complex financial relationship with Russia. Georgia, likewise, has served as a backdoor trade conduit, enabling Russia to blunt the impact of Western sanctions.
According to the government’s coup scenario, an EU decision to deny Georgia candidate status will give the supposed coup plotters “a pretext to foment public unrest and tensions.” Mgeladze said the phantom plot’s ringleaders included commanders of the Georgian Legion fighting in Ukraine. But he hinted that the circle of conspiracy was far wider, including local civil society groups. He specifically cited the local chapter of a Serbia-based activist organization, Canvas, as being involved. Canvas describes itself as advocating “for the use of nonviolent resistance in the promotion of human rights and democracy.”
Government critics contend that Georgian Dream’s coup plot claims are just a preemptive move to deflect blame for the country’s anticipated EU accession setback. In the days after the controversial claims were first aired on September 18, Topuria said that he was surprised the Franklin Club wasn’t mentioned specifically, given its prior role as a scapegoat during the March anti-government protests.
“I won’t be surprised if tomorrow they come up and say that the Franklin Club is behind all of this,” he said.
Georgian Dream’s scare tactics and its pattern of harassment of perceived political opponents are not surprising to Topuria. He studied Russian disinformation tactics in graduate school, and the irony isn’t lost on him that he has found himself on the receiving end of what bears all the hallmarks of a coordinated disinformation campaign.
“No one really knows the cure,” he said. “No one really knows how you can debunk disinformation in a short time span, and especially when you’re against the big machine that’s called ‘government.’”
The polarization trend already evident in Georgia is widely expected to intensify during the upcoming election season. A clear majority seems ready to accept EU cultural values, but Georgian Dream can count on the support of a solid bloc of those deeply attached to Georgian traditions centered on Orthodox faith and family.
Georgian Dream’s actions over the past year – its desire to adopt Russian-inspired legislation to corral dissenters, its efforts to capture the judicial system and intimidate the non-governmental sector – suggest that it is determined to retain power regardless of the will of the majority. Under the circumstances, experts fear the potential for political violence during the coming campaign is growing.
“The government will use any means it has to stay in power,” said Giorgi Revishvili, a Georgian political analyst and former senior advisor to the country’s National Security Council. “Violence is one of the tools.”
The Franklin Club now must grapple with the uncertainty of if or when those tools will be used against them. But Topuria and his colleagues say they will not be deterred from promoting a Westernized vision for Georgia’s future, agitating for free and fair elections and showing why Benjamin Franklin’s political philosophy is relevant to Georgians in these tumultuous times. “There is no other way,” he said. “It’s the new normal.”
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.