Georgia’s new iron curtain

Isobel Cockerell

 

It felt like geopolitical tectonic plates shifted when the country of Georgia took a full U-turn towards Russia this week. The country’s de-facto leader and the founder of the ruling “Georgian Dream” party, the oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, accused the West of being a “global war party,” and claimed it has “pitted Georgia against Russia” for decades. He was speaking to a crowd of supporters — who were really public sector workers bussed in from across the country, many forced to turn up at the rally or face losing their jobs.

Re-writing Georgia’s recent history, Ivanishvili said that Russia’s invasions of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 and 2022 were the fault of the West.

The speech follows days of popular protests against the so-called “foreign agents law”, a piece of legislation that wants to force civil society organizations to register if they take money from foreign entities, or face penalties. In his speech, Ivanishvili called Georgia’s vibrant civil society part of a Western spy network and announced their “destruction” after the October elections.

The “foreign agents law” is an important tool in the government’s arsenal. The law is a carbon copy of the Russian legislation which the Kremlin used to attack Russia’s independent media and civic activism. What’s interesting about the law is that it has become a Russian soft power export and a major feature of a modern day authoritarian playbook around the world from Nicaragua to Egypt.

In Georgia, alliances with the West against Russia — which occupies a fifth of the country — is seen by the majority of people in Georgia as an existential necessity. The ambition to integrate into NATO and the European Union is actually written into the country’s constitution. So the adoption of this openly Russian-style law constitutes not only a move towards authoritarianism but also a major geopolitical shift. “It’s a turning point because he (Ivanishvili) officially declared a foreign policy shift,” tweeted Atlantic Council’s analyst Eto Buziashvili.

As I write this, the news has come in that the Georgian parliament has passed the legislation, and more massive protests are being planned. More context on this story in our previous reporting here, and we’ll keep you updated as this story develops.

The Georgia story is also a poignant illustration of how space for free expression is shrinking across the wider region. Over the years, as Russia tightened its grip on dissent, Georgia became home to tens of thousands of Russians fleeing Putin’s regime. In this interview, one of them, Dariya describes how the “foreign agents” law made her day-to-day life impossible in Russia. At the time, neither Dariya nor our team interviewing her, could imagine that Putin’s law would follow her to her new home in Tbilisi.

JOURNALISTS KETTLED AS NYPD STORMS COLUMBIA ENCAMPMENT

5,000 miles away from Tbilisi, where riot police are spraying protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets, the The NYPD has been out in force on Manhattan’s 116th street. Decked out in full riot gear, they stormed the encampment of students occupying Columbia University last night, making dozens of arrests.

“I just can’t believe that Western society, or the world in general, is so terrified in 2024 of college students sleeping in expensive tents,” Columbia Journalism School student Bence Szechenyi told me in a voice note as he disembarked from the 1 train at New York City’s 116th street yesterday morning. He was heading to the gates of his — and my — alma mater, where negotiations between pro-Palestine protesters occupying the campus and the university were at an impasse. Students were occupying a building on campus, Hamilton Hall, renaming it ‘Hind’s Hall’, in memory of Hind Rajab, a six-year-old girl who was killed by Israeli tank fire in northern Gaza in January.

For Szechenyi, the response from both the University and the media over the Columbia protests has been perplexing. “We are talking about college students having a protest. That’s what college students do. The hysteria around it is confusing to me. I’ve spent a lot of time around the camps and it’s literally a drum circle. It looks like Coachella.” He described the distinctly teenage detritus of the camp — Capri-sun juice boxes and packets of skinny popcorn, hipster tote bags and yoga mats. Israeli counter-protester flags have been left untouched by the pro-Palestine students, he said, of whom dozens are Jewish, and have been holding Seder dinners in the encampment over Passover.

Life in the camp sounds pretty kumbaya: there are regular yoga classes, even a pop-up library. “In the more cynical parts of my mind I would call it less of a revolution and more of a Taylor Swift fan club… one thing I can say for certain about the 18-23-year-olds in that encampment is that they’re definitely not Hamas. But you couldn’t always tell that from the institutional reaction.” Classes at the Journalism School have been canceled so far this week — something Szechenyi is outraged by. “We’re supposed to be journalists, we cannot be afraid of 18-year-olds in Covid masks.”

He continued voice-noting me late into the night yesterday, as the NYPD encircled Hamilton Hall and kettled journalists. “We’re cordoned in a little pen right now and they’re arresting people,” he said, as the police stormed the building and rounded up the students, as journalists begged the cops to let them out for bathroom breaks. “It’s crazy that they pushed all the press out.” Szechenyi described the sheer volume of cops out in force in their riot gear — it would, he said, have been “a great night to commit a crime in Brooklyn.”

WHAT WE’RE READING

  • We’ve grown horribly accustomed to the fact that all our data — from social media posts, to emails, to fertility tracking, is harvested up by tech giants and used to sell us stuff or peddle disinformation or, frankly, whatever the companies want to do. Now, our brain waves are up for sale — but a new Colorado law wants to expand privacy rights to protect the insides of our own heads, too
  • This crazy story about a Baltimore County principal who was seemingly caught on recorded audio making blatantly racist and anti-Semitic comments. But investigation revealed that the audio was an AI-generated fake, in a plot by the schools’ former athletic director.

WHAT WE’RE WATCHING

  • Pedro Sanchez is not resigning. The Spanish PM’s announcement marks the end of a week of speculation over whether he would step down campaign of harassment by right-wing opponents targeting his wife. Allegations of “influence peddling” against her, led by the far-right group Manos Limpias (“Clean Hands”), have been backed up by dubious journalism from Spain’s right-wing media ecosystem. This also shows us something else — how the information ecosystem takes no prisoners, turning people off public roles and pushing political leaders to consider just checking out completely.

Disinfo Matters looks beyond fake news to examine how the manipulation of narratives and rewriting of history is reshaping our world.