Georgia's pro-EU Generation Z spearheads 'foreign agent' protests

By Felix Light

TBILISI (Reuters) - For 20-year-old Georgian student Irakli, the almost nightly trip to protest outside parliament is part of a wider struggle where he and his generation have a special role to play.

For weeks, the international relations student and his classmates have joined the huge crowds protesting against a draft law on "foreign agents" that passed its third and final reading in parliament on Tuesday.

"Every event that was important in our history, in the history of Georgia ... was dominated by young people," Irakli told Reuters outside the main campus of Tbilisi State University, where hundreds of students walked out of classes this week.

"It’s a tradition of Georgia’s," he said, citing the youthful nationalist movement that pushed for the country’s independence from the Soviet Union before its 1991 collapse.

Ever since Georgia’s government announced in April that it was reviving a bill that would oblige NGOs to label themselves as foreign agents if they receive over 20% of their funding from abroad, young Georgians in their teens and 20s have been at the forefront of the pushback.

Though opposition to the bill cuts across age groups, younger Georgians have been especially visible and vocal. On Monday, students at a string of educational institutions around the country said they would join an academic strike, demanding that it be withdrawn.

The draft law has been dubbed "the Russian law" by opponents, who compare it to legislation used by the Kremlin for the past decade to crack down on its opponents. The ruling Georgian Dream party says it is needed to promote transparency, combat "pseudo-liberal values" promoted by foreigners and preserve the country's sovereignty.

The European Union says it will be an obstacle to Georgia’s joining the bloc, for which it was given candidate status in December.

The prospect of EU membership is widely popular in Georgia, and the ruling party says it wants the country to join both the EU and NATO, despite recent anti-Western rhetoric.

But for many of the young protesters, the struggle represents a stark choice over whether Georgia should integrate with Europe or rebuild old ties to Russia.


Laliko, a first-year computer science student who walked out of class at Tbilisi State University on Monday, said opposing the law was necessary "to allow us to have the European future that we want, and that we deserve".

Unlike older Georgians, some of whom retain a nostalgia for the Soviet Union, younger Georgians have fewer sentimental bonds to Russia.

Having grown up in a period when Russia imposed a stringent visa regime on Georgians, relatively few have ever made the short trip to their vast northern neighbour, or speak its language.

Many speak good English and some have travelled within the EU thanks to a visa-free regime for Georgians, making them more inclined to see their country's future as interwoven with Europe.

Zurab Japaridze, the 48-year-old leader of Girchi - More Freedom, a pro-EU libertarian party that has a mostly youthful following and has been backing the protests, said that Georgia’s present crisis reflected a clash of generations.

"We have a generational conflict in a sense, where the younger generation is more willing and eager and ready to fight for their freedom while the older generation has some kind of nostalgia for Soviet times."

But if Georgia’s Gen-Zers are clear in their dislike of the government, few are sold on the main alternatives.

Georgia’s fractious and divided opposition parties remain dominated by the United National Movement (UNM) party of ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili, who is now serving a six-year prison sentence for abuse of power.

But though Saakashvili, who led Georgia from 2003 to 2013, remains a deeply polarising figure among those who lived under his government, many younger Georgians have little memory of his tenure.

Student Linako Giunashvili said she hated the UNM and wanted greater political choice. "We want to vote for many, many parties. The more parties there are in the parliament, the more voices will be heard," she said.

Japaridze said that many of the young people who risked arrest at the nightly protests had little interest in the country’s formal opposition politics.

“They are not members or even supporters of any political parties,” he said.

“But they know what they want. They want Georgia in the EU and they’re ready to fight for it.”

(Reporting by Felix Light; Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Alison Williams)