The leaders of Georgia's ruling party have been pushing a seemingly paradoxical allegation: that Western-funded NGOs supported what the party calls a Russia-sponsored protest movement against the construction of the Namakhvani hydropower plant (HPP) in western Georgia.
After the protests mired the project in controversy in mid-2021 the Turkish investor pulled out and it was shelved. It was a setback for the Georgian Dream government, which had argued that the dam would have served to secure the country's "energy independence," reducing reliance on Russia.
Georgian Dream parliamentary faction head Mamuka Mdinaradze referred to the case in early March when the party was promoting its ultimately unsuccessful "foreign agent" legislation. "Do you remember the campaign against Namakhvani HPP? We all have information that there were Russian interests, huge Russian finances directed to obstruct the construction of Namakhvani HPP."
Mdinaradze went on to say that the local NGOs funded by Georgia's "partner countries" and organizations based there were supporting the anti-HPP campaign and argued that creating a relevant registry would shed light on such practices.
Such allegations have become routine in the attempts of Georgian Dream leaders to justify to the public their now-dead foreign agent bills, which would have labeled foreign-funded NGOs and media outlets as "foreign influence agents." The party had to kill the legislation on March 10 amid massive protests fueled by Western warnings that its passage would have undermined the country's EU integration goals, and fears that it copied Moscow's undemocratic practices.
But with or without a foreign agent law, Georgian Dream leaders look determined to stigmatize certain groups that get foreign -- particularly Western -- funding. The allegations towards the anti-Namakhvani HPP movement stand out as a rare example in the party rhetoric where alongside the West, the main culprit is Russia -- Georgia's key security threat. (Many believed the bills would have had no effect on those suspected of receiving indirect funding from Moscow, like the far-right violent group Alt-Info.)
Dato Chipashvili, a program coordinator at the Georgian watchdog NGO Green Alternative, told Eurasianet that the move against the Namakhvani protesters was a "primitive" attempt by the ruling party to make the bills seem like they would apply to Russian, not just Western, money.
Green Alternative is among the NGOs that have studied the Namakhvani HPP issue for years. According to Chipashvili, the ruling party falsely blames the "blocking" of the project on the protests, ignoring the fact that it was the company in charge that refused to take part in the internationally moderated mediation back in 2021.
Chipashvili says that mediation -- initiated by the government itself -- had made important achievements in securing an international review of the project, but the company, Turkey-based Enka Renewables, instead chose to pull out of the contract. It then went into arbitration.
Intense locally-led resistance erupted in western Georgia after Enka started preparatory works for the construction of the Namakhvani HPP cascade in 2020. The protests brought together environmental and safety concerns, on the one hand, and worries that the investor contract was agreed to the detriment of the state interests, on the other.
In Georgia's polarized political scene, the protests were a rare instance of diverse social groups uniting around a single policy issue. That unity died after the protest leaders joined the notorious 2021 anti-Pride rally that led to homophobic pogroms.
There was similar unity in favor of the Namakhvani project between pro-government and opposition figures, who both made accusations (without providing evidence) that the protests were sponsored by Moscow to undermine the country's energy independence. Those allegations have now resurfaced in the context of the discussion on the foreign agent bills -- this time for the purpose of denigrating the prominent NGOs that aided the cause.
Varlam Goletiani, the leader of the anti-HPP movement, defended NGOs, and the movement's cooperation with them, during the discussions on the bills.
Certain types of professional expertise can only be found in the NGO sector, he said in a March 5 livestream. According to Goletiani, several NGOs helped with legal, human rights, and environmental expertise while publicly funded institutions and experts shied away from speaking their minds due to the fear of persecution.
The foreign agent bills aimed to ensure that "this sort of professional opinion no longer exists," Goletiani said.
In 2021, Goletiani's movement published audit findings in response to allegations about Russian funding, saying they largely relied on the donations of Georgian emigres.
Energy exports as a path to EU membership?
After the project's termination, Georgian government leaders promised to build Namakhvani and other large energy projects with more active state involvement. While the share of Russian imports in Georgia's electricity consumption remains insignificant, authorities have claimed they still need more power generation through large projects to keep up with Georgia's growing economy.
But those arguments in favor of larger HPP projects are not based on any specific strategic planning, Chipashvili of Green Alternative argues.
According to the expert, Georgia has undertaken responsibility under the Association Agreement with the EU and as a member of the EU-led Energy Community since 2017 to come up with a strategic plan for energy policies. The country is currently developing a National Energy and Climate Plan, which is to be approved by the Energy Community and which is to determine the best way for the country to boost its energy independence, he says
Such decisions "must be based on specific research and planning, including strategic planning and this is precisely the process that is underway," Chipashvili says.
The plans to boost power generation, including through reviving controversial large HPP projects, also come as the country tries to build energy ties with the EU. This includes work on a prominent underwater cable project to facilitate electricity exports from the South Caucasus to Europe, and recurring high-level meetings focused on energy cooperation.
And the government has been open about its ambitions to export Georgian-generated electricity to Europe, which is seeking to diversify its energy sources as it distances itself from Russia. This has led to speculation that the Georgian authorities seek to take advantage of the country's newfound geopolitical importance to get EU membership candidate status while circumventing the challenging path of democratic reforms that Brussels has laid out.
EU ambassador Pawel Herczynski, however, dismissed such hopes earlier, saying that "in order to cooperate economically, we don't need Georgia's membership" in the EU.
Nini Gabritchidze is a Tbilisi-based journalist.