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  • Jack Hubbell

Tbilisi Protests The Foreign Agents Law

What Is The Georgian Foreign Agent Law?

Last year, a bill was introduced by the ruling party in Georgia mandating that any NGO, Charity, or other organization with more than 20% income from outside the country register as a "Foreign Agent." At first glance, the bill seems well-intentioned but would also grant authoritarian powers to the government. After mass protests in March 2023, the bill was withdrawn. However, in April 2024, the bill was reintroduced. While Leaders in the EU have clearly stated that this bill will have devastating consequences on Georgia's path to EU membership, it has nonetheless been pushed forward despite massive outcry from the public. 

Crowd of people outside of tbilisi parliament at night

The ruling party has stated that this law is similar to the United State's FARA law, but if you want to look into the difference between the United States FARA law and the Georgian Foreign Agents law, then I suggest you do that here. I, however, support the protest and demand for this law's removal predominantly because of the will of the people. They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and I don't know why this little anecdote isn't brought up more often, but it certainly applies to laws that sound like they are for the better but are often laden with far more insidious plans.

Two people on statue in tbilisi holding georgian and EU flags

Tbilisi Protesters Met With Violence

After a long day of struggling to get through a mountain of work, I sat on the balcony for a brief moment to contemplate the day. It was past 2, and the city should have been calmer, but there was something more in the air. Suddenly, it hit me. After a week of mostly disconnecting and working, I remembered the protests that had been taking place, and like that sudden reminder of a test that you completely forgot to study for, I had an immense feeling of guilt that I had missed the opportunity to share my support for a country that I call home. 

Initially, I tried to shrug it off and tell myself that it would be OK if I went the next day. I then walked back inside and proceeded to pace around the room all while scrolling through videos from the protest, which was looking more and more severe with every newly uploaded clip.

I grabbed my camera, a roll of high speed film and a flash and was out the door calling the cab as I jogged down 10 flights of stairs.

The cab driver got me as close as possible, but I would have to walk the rest of the way through the crowd. In many ways, it felt like walking to a football match. The new arrivals like myself, still full of energy, proudly marching in the direction of parliament. 

As I got closer, I could hear the sound of cannons launching the gas canisters. It was obvious that the peace had already been broken, and this would not be an easy night. A line had been formed across the main road in front of parliament, made of dumpsters, police gates, and anything else useful that the protesters could find to build a wall to prevent the police from advancing further. 

tbilisi protestors holding sign saying no to russian law

As I got closer to the front lines, People were being treated for the effects of the tear gas. There were those who brought giant bottles of saline solution or medical bags of it to wash the eyes of those affected. Near the front of the line, I began to try and take some pictures, but my eyes were suddenly tearing up, and before too long, I lost the ability to keep them open. I stumbled back, furious that I hadn't thought to bring any form of protection with me. But then I heard a familiar voice from my friend Tony.

"Dude are you OK?" 

I hadn't seen the guy in a couple of years, and despite the fact that I now had snot and tears pouring from my face, I was glad to have found a friend. 

"Get yourself back a bit. There's a guy with eyewash. He'll sort you out.

He was right. Only a couple paces away, a hand reached out and grabbed my arm. And I forced my eyes open wide so I could get a splash of the soothing saline solution on my aching corneas.  

Picking up a can of tear gas

It's amazing how fast it hits and how fast you can recover. I tried to get some shots of the kind soul helping others out with their eyes, but the camera flash was acting strange for some reason. After a minute, I was back up where I had left Tony, but I was careful not to venture closer to avoid getting the gas again. We chatted about cameras and made some plans to meet up again the following day with better supplies. 

Oddly enough, the rest of the night moved in the protestor's favor, with the police pulling back. As they did, the protesters continued to move the barriers further. 

moving police baricade

It all felt strange, though. While the police were retreating, the politicians had all escaped the building by now and were sitting in the comfort of their homes. The bill had passed the second reading and was moving forward. Pushing the police back was a hollow victory at best but probably best described as a ceremonious move to satiate the crowd after the protestors had clearly lost the battle.

riot police in tbilisi

Second Night of Clashes Over Foreign Agents Bill

The following morning, I rushed through my work; I needed to buy more film and find a place that still had gas masks in stock. The military surplus stores had mostly been bought out of anything useful, and the lines at hardware stores were out the door. While it was frustrating that my search was going slow, it was incredibly encouraging that the city was collectively stocking up to prepare. After several phone calls, I found a shop that a couple had left in stock. It was at the edge of the city near the airport. I was lucky to have my motorcycle back from the shop, which gave me an advantage against the traffic. I white-lined it down the highway. I know that when tensions are high, mistakes can happen more easily, but a voice in my head seemed to shout louder that when the greater purpose holds such weight, destiny won't allow for such minor interferences, and I made it to the shop in record time to find only three masks left on the shelf. As I neared them, someone grabbed one of the three. I snatched the last two, one for myself and one for my girlfriend. I had made it just in time, as a large group of people were walking down from the other end of the aisle. I felt slightly bad taking the remaining supplies, but it solidified the need to take the best photos I could and write something that could be encouraging. After the masks, some swim goggles completed the final preparations, and it was time to get back on the road to the protests. 

Girl in gas mask wearing georgian flag

We wasted little time getting up to the front, but it was hard to find our friends in the crowd. With everyone recording and live streaming at the same time, phone reception was at an absolute low. 

The riot police were launching tear gas from inside the parliament building as there was an attempt to push inside the courtyard. Protestors rattled the gates but were met with fire hoses and copious amounts of tear gas. A construction site nearby, however, offered the protestors an abundant supply of particle boards that could be held up to protect themselves from the powerful jets of water. Members of the crowd bravely pressed them up against the gates to suppress the water flow, but even with gas masks, the volume of gas being launched into the crowd was overwhelming. Eventually, the project would be abandoned, and the crowd retreated back down the street. What evolved was a slow push and pull of groups cycling in to move the barrier forward, slowly getting closer back up to the gates and then retreating when it became overbearing. 

For some, this was nearly routine. There were older men who had seen nights like this many times in their lives. Most brought no protection other than a bandanna or less, yet they pushed on while occasionally stopping to receive treatment for their burning eyes. 

For hours, this slow push-back continued until it seemed that the police had run out of tear gas. Though supplies seemed to be at a minimum, jets of water and pepper spray continued to flood from the gates. At long last, a new strategy was enacted, and people brought rolling dumpsters from all around the block to stack up against the gates. 

In the early morning, the water was finally shut off as the barricade was now too high to make further attempts to quell the crowd. The people could continue to protest in peace; they also brought garbage bags to pick up any trash that still remained on the streets, doing their best to show that this is not about ruin or destruction but always progress for a better tomorrow.

The Strength Of The Georgian Population

As I've lived here, though, I continue to see that we may have been mistaken in forsaking some of what made us truly human along the way to the West's quest for conquest, capital, and comfort. I witness that in the absence of these things, greater strength can emerge, and a sense of companionship and community can survive. It's the security guards who hold a small feast together on St. George's Day in the downstairs lobby of the office building who invite me for a glass of wine as I head home from the studio. And it's certainly in the care of the next generation, which cleans up the trash on the streets behind them as they shuffle police barricades further.

Maybe as this small nation finds itself on a global stage, it can bring forth the best of itself to share with the world, but perhaps it will always remain a hidden gem for those who seek true friendship. Either way, I find hope that I can trust the spirit of this nation to endure and change into something just as beautiful as it was when I first arrived here.

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