Protests in Tbilisi and the Foreign Agents Law
Updated: Mar 14
On March 8th, 2023, Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, saw a massive protest rally in response to the newly enacted Foreign Agents Law. The law requires non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that receive funding from abroad to register as "foreign agents" and comply with strict reporting requirements.
The sign on the window of Magnolia film shop read, "See you at the protest!"
Inside was a large bustle of people browsing different packs of film. All of the high-speed film had already sold before I walked in. It's a ridiculous notion to shoot a protest on analog gear, given the much more practical options available currently. But nonetheless, this was the busiest I had ever seen the shop, and there was a sense of community glowing within the walls.
The feeling of comradery wasn't limited to the film lab. It felt like the entire city was alive with a sense of preparation. The night before, there had been a small protest of only 500 people. The demonstration, though peaceful, was met with teargas and pepper spray. The city was angry not only over the new law but also for having their right to freely protest be trampled upon. If there had been any thought that the last response would quell the population, one only had to walk outside to feel the heavy air of anticipation to quickly dismiss any idea that the people were going to just lie down.
The demonstration was organized by NGOs and civil society groups, who argue that the law threatens the country's democratic institutions and civil society. They claim that the law is part of a broader trend of restricting freedom of speech and civil society activism in the country. To make matters worse, a nearly identical law was passed in Russia in 2012. The Russian government utilized this piece of legislature to fundamentally destroy the freedom of the press.
The government has defended the law, arguing that it is necessary to prevent foreign interference in the country's affairs. The government has also pointed out that the law is similar to laws in other countries, including the United States, which require NGOs to register as foreign agents if they receive funding from foreign sources.
I walked with my close friends, Saba and his wife, Doduna. This would make for the 4th massive protest we had gone to together in the last few years. People were gathering on the steps of the parliament building listening to different people giving empowering speeches. Though I couldn't understand what they were saying, I could feel the energy they were giving to the crowd, which seemed to double in size every time I turned around. This wasn't a group of 500 people; thousands upon thousands of people were filling the street, and the tension kept growing higher.
At a certain point, the tension came to a halt, not in an explosive way, but rather a plateau. I turned to Saba and asked if he thought it would be like the day before.
"It won't be unless they attack us," he replied.
The building was now completely surrounded, effectively barring the entrance for any members of parliament to enter and sign the Foreign Agents Law.
And then came the sound of explosions. From the right of the building, people began to yell; this was followed by a loudspeaker playing a message to disperse. Desperate to see what had happened, I ran in the direction of the commotion. The road on the side of the building was steep, and people were struggling to hold their positions. The police force had the high ground and was attempting to push the group back. I followed another guy with a camera up the hill. He found a large cement block about a meter and a half from the line of police.
There was an acrid smell in the air, like spicey food mixed with sulfur. It burnt my nose to breathe in, but it wasn't unbearable. The cameraman next to me suddenly bent over and began to dry heave. For a foolish second, I assumed that my addiction to ultra spicey food had saved me, but then I heard more explosions. The police began to beat their batons on their shields and slowly started marching forward. A young man wielding a tree branch took a swing at the front of their shields in a hopeless attempt to stall them. The water cannons were activated, knocking down protesters as they attempted to hold the line. Then more explosions followed by the disgustingly patronizing sound of the loudspeaker telling the people to go home. Suddenly I couldn't breathe, and my eyes were closing in pain. Without even the slightest ability to force them open, I was blind.
I could hear the riot cops marching forward. I reached out for anything to hold onto.
More canisters erupted. I felt a hand grab my jacket collar.
"We have to go now. Move!" said a voice in my ear.
I finally managed to open my eyes for a split second to see it was the photographer that had been standing next to me. He now had a gas mask and goggles on. He guided me down through the stampeding crowd until I lost him in the masses. I felt the urge to puke, but I could not stop. Our bodies were pushing into each other as we staggered and stumbled down the hill.
We reached the main road where it had all begun but couldn't stop there either. The filthy clouds of gas followed us, and more canisters we being launched excessively.
We ran further down the road and into the park. A horrible feeling was growing inside me. It was a feeling of defeat. We couldn't hold the line.
I wandered around in the haze with others choking and coughing around me, texting Saba to reunite with the group. We eventually regrouped at a friend's nearby restaurant. Everything was on the house, and an excellent bottle of chacha was brought to the table.
"We need to re-fuel," Sandro, the owner, said, who had also been out that night.
Once our stomachs were full, we headed back out into the night. The protesters were back on the main street (Rustaveli). It was comforting that we had regained some ground, but we were not even close to surrounding parliament again. Doduna and most of the friend group eventually took their leave. However, Saba's father, Archil, arrived with water and some medical masks. We weren't sure if they would help against the gas (they didn't), but we figured we would try anyway. We walked by two police cars on the side road, being trampled and ripped to shreds by an angry mob.
"Wanna get gassed one more time?" Saba asked.
"Why not," I replied.
"I'll be here waiting with the car," Archil said.
A barricade was being constructed from park benches and dumpsters. Someone threw a Molotov cocktail, but their aim was incredibly far off, and all they attempted to do was light a small bush on fire. Other protesters rushed to put out the flame.
As we approached the front lines, I was very glad to know that we had a getaway driver. It wasn't long before more explosions were heard, and a gas grenade landed mere feet away from the two of us. I took a deep breath and ran into the cloud, which had entirely engulfed Saba. Realizing he probably couldn't see, I grabbed his sleeve and pulled him out of the could as fast as I could. As we ran, another grenade then landed right by us. Before I could even curse out loud, Saba gained a second wind and lunged to grab it. He took off like a smoking meteorite straight for the barricade. His throw, far better than the failed Molotov thrower from before, sent the can of poison hurtling straight into the masses of police.
I lost him in the clouds and wheezed out his name.
"I'm here," he eventually responded. "Want to call it a night?"
"Yeah, I think I do."
"This isn't going to end. We will have to be back tomorrow and we need some rest."
The next day we returned as planned but to a surprisingly different atmosphere. A professional sound system had been brought to the steps of parliament, and people were far more calm. Within two hours of standing, it was announced that the vote would be canceled and the law would not pass.
The crowd broke out into cheers of joy, and music played on the massive sound system.
"What happens now?" I asked Saba. "It all feels a bit too easy."
"But it wasn't easy," he replied. "It took the determination of thousands of people, and, unfortunately, we aren't any freer than we were before. We only just held the line. There are still insidious government officials that need to be removed. There is a lot of work to be done."
"It does seem that we the people, are starting to realize our power. We know what we can accomplish if we work together."
"That's true said Saba, and that is what really makes me happy."