‘They won’t silence us’: beaten Georgia activist says protests will continue

<span>Zuka Berdzenishvili outside his home in Tblisi, Georgia.</span><span>Photograph: Zuka Berdzenishvili</span>
Zuka Berdzenishvili outside his home in Tblisi, Georgia.Photograph: Zuka Berdzenishvili

Zuka Berdzenishvili’s face was a canvas of rainbow colours, his piercing blue eyes partly bloodstained above a pronounced purple bruise.

Berdzenishvili, a prominent activist and co-founder of the Georgian pro-democracy movement Shame, was ambushed and beaten outside his house last week by a group of unknown assailants who pushed and kicked him to the ground.

“I got lucky. I had just arrived home on my scooter and was still wearing a helmet when they started beating me. Without it, my brain would have turned to soup,’ he said, speaking outside the Georgian parliament in central Tbilisi, where a month earlier the ruling Georgian Dream party passed a controversial “foreign agents” law that brought hundreds of thousands of people into the streets to protest.

The “foreign agents” bill, which obliges civil society organisations and media that receive more than 20% of their revenues from abroad to register as “organisations serving the interests of a foreign power”, is regarded by critics at home and internationally as a copy of legislation introduced in Russia in 2012 by Vladimir Putin to silence dissenting voices.

It has also derailed Georgia’s long-held EU aspirations in favour of closer ties with Moscow.

Mass protests in the country have largely simmered out since the law was passed.

Meanwhile, the Georgian government is doubling down on its anti-western shift before the upcoming October parliamentary elections, openly casting critics as traitors and accused of orchestrating violence against them.

More than a dozen NGO workers, opposition politicians and activists such as Berdzenishvili have been physically targeted by unidentified gangs, which are widely believed to have links to the government.

Berdzenishvili’s attack came exactly an hour after the speaker of Georgia’s parliament, Shalva Papuashvili, accused him and other activists in a Facebook post of engaging in “politically motivated terror” sponsored by the EU.

“That post served as a green light to attack us,” said Salome Nikoleishvili, Berdzenishvili’s partner, who found him lying on the pavement outside their apartment, shouting for help.

“Since passing the foreign agent law, the Georgian Dream has been on the offensive,” said Berdzenishvili.

“Their masks are off. They openly declare that fear and violence will be their way to rule Georgia, just like in Russia,” he said.

Georgian Dream, led by the shadowy billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia in the 1990s, also recently introduced draft legislation curtailing LGBTQ+ rights, which critics said was also borrowed from Moscow’s playbook.

But while much of the country’s attention has turned to football and the European Championship in Germany, the anger that brought people to the streets last month remains palpable in the medieval streets of Tbilisi.

“The momentum is with us. Behind these attacks is actually a fear of their own people,” said Berdzenishvili. “But they won’t silence us.”

Berdzenishvili and Nikoleishvili, who have attended and organised countless protests in Georgia over the years, said they had never seen any as united as those that took place last month.

“There was gen Z with tattoos and piercings standing alongside pensioners. People who otherwise have nothing in common were united by their outrage,” Berdzenishvili said.

“This movement is unprecedented. It is grassroots, without obvious leaders,”said Nikoleishvili. “They can’t just jail a few figureheads to stop it.”

The opposition has pinned their hopes on the October elections, and plan to organise a series of protests in the run-up to the vote, in September.

“This will be a moment of truth for us, a historic vote,” said Nikoleishvili.

At stake, she said, was not only Georgia’s path to the EU, which up to 80% of Georgians support, but its independence, comparing the vote to the 1991 Georgian independence referendum.

However, some observers question if the unity seen during the protests will translate into the election results and whether the lack of a clear opposition leader to rally behind could benefit the ruling party.

Georgia’s opposition politics is notoriously divided, with the United National Movement (UNM), Georgia’s former ruling party (2004-12) and most powerful opposition force, a polarising fixture.

“We are calling for the opposition to unite before the elections … it’s very important to make sure that we as the opposition can convert and transform the energy that we saw in the streets into electoral victory,” said Tina Bokuchava, the chair of the UNM.

Tellingly, however, Bokuchava said the prospect of a united opposition was currently not on the cards, saying “some opposition leaders don’t share that vision”.

She was speaking from the party’s Tbilisi headquarters, which is adorned with pictures of its founder and former Georgian leader, Mikheil Saakashvili, who was jailed by the ruling party in 2021.

Concerns over his health and his treatment in jail have mounted in recent months, after he appeared in court over a video link looking frail and emaciated.

Bokuchava said she and her allies in UNM had also been harassed and attacked recently, describing how she had received threatening phone calls trying to silence her.

“We know that it’s the government organising this large-scale terror campaign because there is no way for a private person could have access to personal information like telephone numbers,” she said.

“Ivanishvili is trying to win before the actual election takes place. He is trying to scare people into inaction, into apathy.”

So far, western efforts to bring Georgia back into its orbit have failed.

While the EU has firmly stated that it will freeze Georgia’s accession bid as long as the “foreign agents” law is in place, the US has announced travel sanctions will be imposed on Georgian officials “who are responsible for or complicit in undermining democracy in Georgia”.

Related: About 50,000 protest in Tbilisi against Georgia ‘foreign agents’ bill

Bokuchava welcomed these sanctions, seeing them as a sign that the west was prepared to move beyond mere rhetoric.

In the end, though, Bokuchava said, it would be the Georgian people who would have to turn up in October.

“People realise that this is a unique window of opportunity for European integration,” she said. “That window might close. And we can’t let it happen.”