One evening​ in early March, I stood on Rustaveli Avenue in front of the floodlit Georgian parliament in the midst of a crowd that was swelling rapidly as ever more people, including families with children and dogs, joined the protest. The demonstration had originally been scheduled for two days later, when a new law backed by the ruling party, Georgian Dream, was due to be voted on: any organisation receiving more than 20 per cent of its money from abroad would be forced to register as an ‘agent of foreign influence’. Although its supporters claimed the law was modelled on the Foreign Agents Registration Act that the US introduced in 1938, the people around me were more conscious of a similar measure enacted by Vladimir Putin in 2019, which led to the debilitation of civil society in Russia. Word had spread that the authorities had quietly moved forward the vote on the new law.

Everyone seems to know everyone else in Tbilisi, as was clear from cheerful reunions happening all around me. Friends eagerly discussed the latest developments, while the more active types at the front of the crowd took turns kicking a steel barrier erected by the police. ‘This is my tenth demonstration,’ Nina, a student of audiovisual arts at the Free University, told me. ‘It’s what I do.’ The atmosphere became less relaxed later that night. Police cars were torched, and protesters were met with water cannon and pepper spray. (Afterwards, a friend who received a full dose of pepper spray described the effects as being ‘like Adjika’ – a very hot Georgian sauce – ‘but not so sharp!’)

The crowd was overwhelmingly young. Many of them had been alerted to the protests through the nexus of Tbilisi’s flourishing nightclubs, which feature entertainment ranging from heavy metal drag to the Georgian National Ballet. Acting as communal centres for the generation born after independence, the clubs exert a significant political influence: they are places, one protester told me, ‘for seeing how many we are, and how strong we can be together’. As the March protests gathered force, the clubs closed to encourage patrons to demonstrate instead. Andro Eradze, founder of the LeftBank club, was careful to stress that there was no central co-ordination. ‘It happens naturally, without too much thinking.’ He said a defining moment was the massively destructive flash flood of June 2015, which killed twenty and left the city deep in mud. Lions, tigers and other dangerous animals escaped from the zoo and stalked the streets for days. While the ill-prepared government struggled to cope with the devastation, thousands of young people spontaneously mobilised to clean up the mess. ‘I was part of that,’ Eradze told me. ‘It was phenomenally important for the growth of communal consciousness.’ This was the generation, uninterested in and even contemptuous of established political structures, that stood around me now. Few seemed to have read the draft law, but all of them thought it would destroy any connection they might have to liberal freedoms, because it would involve the removal of foreign funding from the civil society NGOs on which many depend.

Homemade signs in Georgian and English pledging allegiance to Europe and denouncing Russia mingled with Georgian and EU flags. None of the signs was in Russian, and I didn’t see or hear any of the sixty thousand or more Russians who have decamped to Georgia since the start of the war, an unpopular influx that, while boosting the economy (which grew 10 per cent last year), has greatly increased the cost of living – rents have doubled in Tbilisi. Graffiti reading ‘Deport Russians’ has started to appear on city walls. To the outside world, the anti-Russian mood seems to confirm that Georgia is divided, as Ukraine was in 2013, between a popular pro-Western opposition and a regime taking its orders from the Kremlin.

On the international stage, that opposition is symbolised by Mikheil ‘Misha’ Saakashvili, Georgia’s former president, who was arrested on his return to the country in 2021, having been charged in absentia with multiple abuses of power during his rule. Saakashvili is the subject of heartfelt appeals from Western politicians and media outlets demanding his release from prison on health grounds. (He has been on intermittent hunger strike since 2021, claims that he has been poisoned and is serially reported to be ‘near death’. He is, according to the Observer, being held in a hospital in Tbilisi and is ‘gaunt and confused’.) But the only Georgian public figure I saw depicted on protest signs, shown in a torrid embrace with Putin, was Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire oligarch universally assumed to be the true ruler of the country, but who has no official post and never appears in public. Nor were there any politicians among the speakers denouncing the ‘Russian law’ from the steps of parliament. Later in the week, when a former minister who now leads a small opposition party seized a microphone, the crowd chanted ‘Leave’ until the microphone was torn from his grasp by a well-known local artist who declared that ‘this is a time for art and love.’ The general atmosphere reminded me of the anti-Wall Street Occupy movement a dozen years ago, which was eventually clubbed into submission by Mike Bloomberg’s police. Here in Tbilisi the persistent and increasingly angry crowds achieved a better result. After three days of escalating protests, the government withdrew the law.

Street protests in Georgia have a long record of success. In 1978, when Soviet power seemed incontestable, thousands flocked to the same spot on Rustaveli Avenue, then the home of the powerless Supreme Soviet of Georgia. The Kremlin had decreed that Russian should replace Georgian as the official language. Protest in Soviet times was very dangerous: in 1956, a demonstration protesting against Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin, and his slurs about the late dictator’s fellow Georgians, had been bloodily crushed by the military. But in 1978, Eduard Shevardnadze, then the local Communist Party boss, persuaded the Kremlin to hold back the troops and accept Georgian as the official language – an unprecedented concession by Moscow.

Just over a decade later, with Soviet power beginning to crumble, Georgians gathered again, demanding the right to secede from the USSR. On 9 April 1989, the crowd was beaten back by troops wielding shovels – twenty were killed. It was a turning point. ‘Before the massacre of 9 April, maybe some people were for independence but most were not,’ according to Tedo Japaridze, who would later become foreign minister. ‘The next morning, everyone in the country woke up a patriot.’ After independence in 1991 Georgia descended into chaos. ‘Everyone who lived through the 1990s is still traumatised by those years,’ one of this year’s protesters told me, and he counted off the various civil wars and insurrections of the period – ‘at least four’ – on his fingers. Parliament itself was the site of pitched battles, with one post-independence leader making a last stand in the cellars. Shevardnadze, politically recast, became president in 1995 and began rebuilding a country now shorn of the breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Shevardnadze made progress in stabilising the country, negotiating the evacuation of Russian military bases and crafting a new constitution: he even applied to join Nato. But his regime was marked by widespread corruption. Spearheaded by a group of young politicians that included Saakashvili, the opposition denounced the 2003 parliamentary elections that reinstalled him as rigged and took to the streets. Brandishing red roses, Saakashvili and a band of followers stormed into the parliament chamber, interrupting Shevardnadze mid-speech and chasing him away. He resigned shortly afterwards.

‘It established a precedent in Georgia,’ a Georgian Dream MP told me. ‘When they occupied the Capitol in Washington on 6 January, the US government didn’t fall. But when Saakashvili took over the chamber the government fell. So now there is the idea that if you physically occupy the parliament, the government will fall.’ Among those fervently invested in change were the growing number of foreign-funded NGOs engaged in the promotion of ‘civil society’. There may also have been more shadowy forces at work. The late Greg Stephens, an operative with the US political consultancy Black, Manafort and Stone, exclaimed proudly at a meeting in London: ‘I did Georgia. $30 million. So cheap!’

Saakashvili kept his promises, for a while. In a whirlwind of frenetic activity, he swept away much of the corruption that most affected ordinary citizens. The notoriously venal traffic police force was dismissed en masse. Ministers from the previous regime were arrested and hauled off in the full glare of TV cameras, sometimes in their underwear. The irksome bureaucracy that forced people to secure, through bribes, the necessary paperwork for mundane things like driving licences was streamlined, and public service offices established. International architects were commissioned to put Saakashvili’s stamp on the city of Tbilisi. On the banks of the Kura river, mushroom-shaped concrete canopies top a mammoth Public Service Hall. A pair of steel and glass cylinders, intended to house an exhibition centre and concert hall, and universally known as ‘the tubes’, were built near the palace Saakashvili selected for himself – a neoclassical former tsarist police headquarters now surmounted by a glass dome. Mindful of the central role the building had played in political unrest, he moved the seat of parliament 140 miles out of town to Kutaisi, Georgia’s second city, housing it in another dome. Due to a poor choice of glass – they were trying to save money – MPs sweltered in the humidity. ‘There’s nothing much to do in Kutaisi,’ one of them told me. ‘So members passed the time in feasting and drinking.’

These grandiose projects predictably earned Saakashvili praise in the West, especially since they accompanied wholesale deregulation and other manifestations of neoliberal ideology. Among his demonstrations of fealty to the US, Saakashvili dispatched Georgian troops to serve in the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. The main road to Tbilisi airport was named after George W. Bush, who on a visit in 2005 proclaimed: ‘The American people are with you.’ Despite this, Putin appeared, initially at least, to be prepared to indulge his southern neighbour. Saakashvili’s takeover had been facilitated by the Russian foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, who persuaded Shevardnadze to accept his fate and resign, and Saakashvili’s first private meeting with Putin in Moscow went well, although he kept his host waiting for half an hour while he swam laps in the hotel pool. It even seemed possible that there might be a peaceful resolution to the problem of South Ossetia, one of the territories Georgia lost in the 1990s.

But Saakashvili soon provoked Russia by adding military police to the unarmed peacekeeping patrols in South Ossetia, sparking unease in Washington, where officials fretted that their hyperactive protégé might get everyone into trouble. ‘Can you ask Misha something for me?’ Colin Powell said to Georgia’s foreign minister. ‘Does he have to poke the bear in the eye every day? Maybe just once a week!’ By 2006, the Russians had decided that Saakashvili was both untrustworthy and a pawn of Washington. ‘They used a Russian phrase: “You can’t have a handshake with this guy,”’ Zurab Abashidze, a former Georgian ambassador to Moscow and currently the government’s senior adviser on relations with Russia, told me.

It was dangerous to provoke this mood in the Kremlin, especially since various events were bolstering Putin’s suspicions that he faced an irredeemably hostile West. Georgia and Ukraine were accepted as prospective members at the Nato summit in Bucharest in April 2008. Earlier that year the US and its allies recognised Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia, a precedent that had ominous implications for Georgia. Encouraged by ambiguous messages from the White House, which he chose to interpret as promises of support, Saakashvili sent the Georgian army into South Ossetia in August 2008, where they rained indiscriminate artillery fire on civilian neighbourhoods. The Russians counterattacked, advancing to within an hour’s drive of Tbilisi. After Georgia’s defeat, Russia established military bases in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and recognised them as independent states. But the consequences of Saakashvili’s rash initiative weren’t all bad: copious aid soon began flowing from the US and EU to Georgia, now a certified victim of Russian aggression.

What was happening inside Georgia itself was of no interest to Saakashvili’s Western fanbase. With the treasury empty at the time of his takeover, his initial reforms had largely been financed through the privatisation of state assets such as the huge Rustavi metal concern, sold to a local oligarch at a knock-down price. But the money-raising initiatives had gone further than that. During my visit I talked to business figures who described the extortion practised by Saakashvili’s officials, who would often bring criminal charges that could be settled only through plea bargains and hefty payments. ‘It was kidnapping,’ a banker who himself spent six months in jail told me, ‘in exchange for ransom.’ I asked the director of a foreign-financed NGO if she supported the demands for Saakashvili’s release as a political prisoner. ‘That gangster a political prisoner?’ she exclaimed. ‘Come on!’ The extortion, she said, had extended to small businesses. She told me the story of a vineyard owner who had refused to pay off a local official. After Saakashvili promoted the official to a senior post in the ministry of agriculture, the official had taken revenge by cancelling the vineyard’s export licence, leading to the firm’s bankruptcy and the owner’s suicide. By 2012, Georgia had the largest prison population per capita in Europe, and police torture was widespread.

For a while, the richest Georgian of all remained immune from regime exactions. Bidzina Ivanishvili, a poor village boy from western Georgia, made billions in Russia in the turbulent 1990s. Nicknamed ‘Python’ in business circles there, he prospered in commodities trading and banking while prudently keeping his distance from high-profile (and bloodstained) industries such as oil and aluminium. He moved into the inner circle of the oligarch elite after helping out Yeltsin in the 1996 Russian presidential election, and was rewarded by being allowed to participate in the ‘loans for shares’ scheme that propelled a select few to untold wealth. Many of his fellow oligarchs moved to Western Europe, but Ivanishvili came home to Georgia, investing in hotels and real estate. In the most literal sense he remained aloof from his countrymen, building himself a glass castle perched on the ridge high above Tbilisi. Another landmark contributed by the reclusive billionaire came in the form of a vast new Georgian Orthodox cathedral, its gold cupola visible across the city. It was an astute investment. The church, long repressed in the Soviet years, rebounded in popularity and wealth after independence, a position that endures to this day. Ilia II, the deeply conservative patriarch, remains the country’s most popular figure according to polls, even though he has warm and supportive relations with his counterparts in the Putin-friendly Russian Orthodox church.

As Saakashvili’s expropriations gathered force after 2008, Ivanishvili came to believe that he too was under threat. He took decisive action by founding a political movement, Georgian Dream, to contest the elections due to be held in 2012, and deftly assembled a coalition of opposition parties under its auspices. Running on a platform of reform and lavish welfare promises, including free healthcare for serious operations and free washing machines for all (every house in his home village got a new roof), Ivanishvili transformed himself into an effective stump speaker and politician. ‘He actually listened to what you had to say,’ Stefan Tolz, a Tbilisi-based filmmaker who covered the race told me. ‘Saakashvili, on the other hand, was only interested in what he had to say. He reminded me of Donald Trump.’ Two weeks before the elections, a TV station owned by Ivanishvili broadcast a dramatic video of police officers beating prisoners. Despite Saakashvili’s protests that it had been staged, Georgian Dream swept the polls and Ivanishvili became prime minister. Emissaries from Washington, where faith in Saakashvili still ran high, asked him nervously how he intended to rule Georgia. ‘I am not going to rule Georgia,’ he said, winningly. ‘I am going to govern an institutionalised democracy with a full-scale engagement of civil society.’ Reassured, the visiting US senators instructed Saakashvili to accept his defeat.

His work accomplished, Ivanishvili soon retired back into the shadows, resigning the premiership in November 2013. But he didn’t give up power. The current minister of the interior, Vakhtang Gomelauri, is his former chief bodyguard. The prime minister, Irakli Garibashvili, is his former secretary. An ex-minister of health was reportedly the family dentist. Such connections mean that Ivanishvili doesn’t need to have direct control, or even to be in regular contact with senior functionaries. ‘I haven’t spoken to him in years,’ one official in a sensitive post said. ‘And the minister of the interior, an old friend, told me he hasn’t spoken to him in a year.’ As far as I could tell, he conveys his desires through assorted employees, including a close relative, who pass them on to the government.

Despite this apparently laid-back approach, he has much to occupy his mind. ‘Ivanishvili’s number one concern has to be personal security for himself, his family, and his fortune,’ an American official told me. ‘He may be conscious of what happened to others who’ve been in the same position.’ He is apparently of the belief that assaults on his fortune are politically motivated. In 2005 he entrusted more than a billion dollars to Credit Suisse’s wealth management division – an error of judgment, since his was one of the accounts pillaged by Patrice Lescaudron, a senior bank official, while the bank blithely ignored warning signs of the thievery. It then refused to repay Ivanishvili, claiming that it bore no responsibility for its employee’s depredations. Ivanishvili sued, eventually being awarded at least $900 million. But after the Russian invasion of Ukraine he began to encounter new difficulties in extracting his money from the Swiss. He put this down to ‘informal sanctions’ intended to change Georgia’s policy on the war, which has been to refrain from any involvement beyond rhetorical denunciations of the invasion. Combined with EU demands for the ‘de-oligarchisation’ of Georgian political and economic life before the country’s application for membership can be considered, Ivanishvili sees ample confirmation that he is the target of a campaign orchestrated from Washington.

Curiously, Ivanishvili’s continued rule, via the Georgian Dream party he controls, is in part dependent on the man he displaced. After his rejection by Georgian voters and a spell of comfortable unemployment in an upscale Brooklyn neighbourhood, Saakashvili found a new home: in 2015, Petro Poroshenko, then president of Ukraine and a friend from university, made him a Ukrainian citizen and appointed him governor of Odesa. But the pair soon fell out. Saakashvili began campaigning against his former ally, denouncing him as the font of Ukrainian corruption. Stripped of his new citizenship by an irate Poroshenko and accused of corrupt dealings with Russian ‘criminal elements’, he was dragged by the police from a rooftop where he was threatening to commit suicide. When Volodymyr Zelensky replaced Poroshenko as president in 2019, Saakashvili saw the chance of a return to power in Georgia. Zelensky’s administration includes associates of Saakashvili’s from his Georgian government, and in October 2021, with their support, he smuggled himself back into Georgia in a refrigerator truck. He clearly expected to be greeted by a flood of popular support, but he was arrested within days, then tried and sentenced on charges stemming from scandals involving beatings and deaths during his years in power. He has been incarcerated ever since, but a well-financed campaign in Washington portrays him as the victim of a plot orchestrated by Putin.

Asked if it would save trouble simply to put Saakashvili on a plane out of the country, Georgian officials tend to reply that they would never be forgiven for freeing a justly convicted criminal. More to the point, he provides an eminently useful political asset for the regime, which uses him as a reminder that the alternative to their rule is a return to the corruption of the old days. And international support for Saakashvili bolsters the regime’s message that the West plans to embroil Georgia in the Ukraine war. ‘The Georgian Dream government is not a “war-minded government”,’ Garibashvili said in March. The Ukrainian authorities ‘wanted Saakashvili to be in power’, so that he would ‘start a war against Russia and join Ukraine, involving Georgia in the war’. The opposition calls this scaremongering, but the message still resonates. As an American resident in Tbilisi pointed out, the government ‘is panicked that if Putin wins in Ukraine, they’re next. And if he loses, he’ll need a quick win somewhere, so they’d be next.’

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