Georgian leaders come after "liberal fascists" following foreign agent bill's defeat
Many worry the ruling party's rhetoric may give rise to uncontrolled right-wing violence.
"Liberal fascism" has become one of the most commonly used terms in the Georgian ruling party's efforts to discredit those who mobilized resistance to their notorious "foreign agents" bill.
After massive protests forced the Georgian Dream party to withdraw the widely-opposed piece of legislation last week, the party ratcheted up its demonizing rhetoric against the Western-funded NGOs that the bill would have targeted.
"A campaign planned according to the best traditions of liberal fascism was the running theme of the protests incited against the law on agents," Irakli Kobakhidze, chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream party, told reporters on March 14.
"Unprecedented pressure was exerted through organized groups on politicians, prominent persons, and their family members, including minors" to protest the bill, he alleged.
Last week, tens of thousands of Georgians converged on the parliament building in Tbilisi after Georgian Dream and its allies approved their "foreign agents" bill in the first reading. Georgia's international partners had implored Georgian Dream to drop the bill, and various segments of the public had registered grave objections.
The law would have required foreign-funded NGOs, media outlets, and possibly also individuals to register as "foreign influence agents" in what critics saw as an imitation of the oppressive practices of Russia and other undemocratic countries.
And while the bill's authors claimed they were only following Western transparency standards, the European Union repeatedly warned it would damage Georgia's EU integration prospects.
Resistance grew as wider parts of the public came to equate the adoption of the law with a geopolitical turn away from the West. And for two consecutive nights, police struggled to disperse large crowds with force.
After the ruling party was compelled to retreat and vote down the bill, its leaders hinted they would pivot to pursuing its aims through non-legislative means.
And that's what they have done for the past few days, actively demonizing the civil society actors that would have organically faced stigmatization had the bill become law. On the day the bill was voted down, party leader Kobakhidze proclaimed that the bill had already "fulfilled its purpose" by "effecting a lustration of who are in fact agents" in Georgia, including those engaged in "LGBT propaganda" and "denigration of the [Orthodox] Church." (This rhetoric follows Georgian Dream's rejection of accusations that the foreign agents bill would have a stigmatizing effect.)
The bill was defeated, Georgian Dream complains, because certain groups falsely portrayed it as "Russian" and managed to mobilize young people to protest against it.
In an interview with pro-government Imedi TV on March 12, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, further attributed the protests to destabilization efforts aimed at dragging the country into Ukraine's defensive war against Russia, reverting to the conspiracy theory the ruling party often uses against its critics at home and abroad.
The prime minister went on to condemn what he claimed were provocative acts by opposition-affiliated young people and brainwashed "anarchists".
In this regard he singled out the Franklin Club, a university-based group focused on promoting classical liberal/libertarian ideas.
"I saw the photos of some of them and was left astonished," Garibashvili said, apparently referring to Franklin Club members. Some of these young persons "were wearing some kind of Satanist uniforms," the prime minister added.
(Critics were quick to point out that Garibashvili resorted to Kremlin-style propaganda tools to discredit the critics and opponents as "Satanists," and videos appeared on social media showing similar rhetoric by Russian leaders.)
Pro-government media have dutifully pursued the vilification of the Franklin Club, which responded with a statement calling the accusations "disinformation."
In addition to escalating rhetoric against their opponents, Georgian Dream's leaders have allegedly been exerting pressure on their own members.
After the bill was voted down, ruling party MP Davit Songulashvili apologized for having supported it on Facebook, and said its adoption was a "mistake." The post, however, was soon deleted.
Three opposition MPs released a statement on March 16 which excoriated the ruling party for "attacking universities and youth" and quashing dissent within its own ranks.
They went on to accuse Georgian Dream of "inciting hate" and greenlighting "violent groups" through their rhetoric. Such concerns indeed started mounting in Georgia amid the reappearance of Alt-Info, a violent far-right group, in Tbilisi's streets.
The group, which formed its own political party, the Conservative Movement, in 2021, does not hide its Kremlin sympathies and many suspect the unusually large amount of donations they receive could secretly be coming from Russia.
The group orchestrated the notorious July 2021 homophobic pogrom in Tbilisi that left dozens of media workers injured, one of whom died days later. The passivity of police during the violence, and the failure of authorities to bring the group's leaders to justice, raised suspicions at the time that the government may have been tolerating or even cooperating with Alt-Info.
On March 14, Alt-Info and its supporters again marched in the streets of the capital, throwing stones at nearby offices and demonstratively removing and burning the EU flag that had flown in front of the parliament building.
Police soon hoisted a new EU flag and at least five members of the group were fined, but to many observers, the police presence and response were woefully inadequate.
This has left many with a sense of insecurity in the face of possible further violence aided by the government's aggressive rhetoric.
Nini Gabritchidze is a Tbilisi-based journalist.
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