Tblisi (Georgia)
20 Days in the Caucasus

Inspiring struggles for democracy in lands of conflict.

Photo credit: via Flickr, CC BY 2.0 Deed

The three countries of the Caucasus—Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia—form a focal point between Russia in the north and Iran and Turkey in the south or, in other words, between West and East, between Europe and Asia, the Caspian and Black Seas.

The region, when it gains notice in the rest of the world, is often defined as a setting for conflict. But as I spent 20 days traveling through the Caucasus, on my way to Bucharest and the 2024 Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy, I was inspired by local communities, by history, and by the struggles of people to defend and develop democracy.

No place was more striking than Tblisi, the Georgian capital. I walked the streets, following the current protests against the dismantling of basic democratic rights. The center of the action is right in front of the parliament, in the main street Rustaveli Prospekt. 

The trigger for the protest is a controversial proposal for a new law, which stipulates that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that receive more than 20 percent of their funding from abroad should declare this in future. According to the Georgian government, this is intended to limit the alleged influence of foreign countries on civil society in Georgia.

In response, tens of thousands of different people have been taking to the streets for weeks to demonstrate against the proposed law—because many projects to promote democracy in the country, a candidate for European Union membership, are financially supported by EU states or the United States.

Members of parliament came to blows over this in April. Just days after my arrival, the police used tear gas and rubber bullets against the mostly peaceful protests and arrested numerous people, including the leader of the largest opposition party "United National Movement" Levan Khabeishvili. President Salome Zurabishvili called on the police to immediately stop their violent crackdown on what she described as peaceful young demonstrators.

There, as elsewhere in the Caucasus, I met with representatives of electoral authorities, committed representatives of non-profit organizations or authorities and demonstrators. I was struck by the youth and sophistication of those working to uphold and expand democratic practice.

Between meetings, I found myself visiting numerous relics from the former Soviet era, geologic wonders, and UNESCO World Heritage sites. The trip was full of memories of the horrors of tyranny, and signs of resistance to it.

In the town of Gori in Georgia, I visited the original birthplace of the former Soviet dictator Stalin. This included the armored train car he used to travel to Yalta on the Crimean peninsula on the Black Sea in 1945, after the end of the Second World War, to the peace conference with the then presidents of the USA and Great Britain. 

The Museum of Horror has a small section documenting the suffering of the people of Gori, who were bombed again by Russia in 2008.

At the same time, I experience magnificent chanting rituals in a centuries-old men's monastery. In a cave monastery from the 12th century, space for living, for storing wine and for religious celebrations was drilled into the sandstone on 13 floors, in 600 rooms. In this monastery - a world heritage site of unique quality - I light candles for the people of Ukraine and remember them.

In Armenia, I met people displaced by the war over Nagorno-Karabakh started from Azerbaijan, and heard them talk of what they had lost but also what they saw for the future. In the neighboring northern autonomous regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, I saw the constant and painful pinpricks of the interventions of Russia's president, and  I found myself thinking often of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus (around 535 - 475 BC), who pointed out:

“War is the father of all things and the king of all. It turns some into gods, others into men, some into slaves, others into free men." Or perhaps committed democrats!

Time and again, I found the fracture points of the earth, where the plates rub against each other or pull apart, resulting in earthquakes and eruptions. From Azerbaijan’s capital Baku, I traveled south along the Caspian Sea to small mud volcanoes. These form a surreal and unique situation: bubbling, gurgling, puffing pools in which minerals develop unique color patterns. Occasionally they belch quietly as they spew out thick, matt gray, cold mud. Then I visit the "holy fires", which have been burning since time immemorial as gas escapes from fissures in the earth and ignites: Unique.

But it was in Georgia that I saw the greatest fissures, and the greatest struggles for democracy.

In Tblisi, the big question was: Is Bidzina Ivanishvili—the former prime minister, founder of the ruling "Georgian Dream" party and Georgia's richest man—now leading the country in the Caucasus away from Europe?

He made his fortune in Russia in the 1990s and has since brought the country closer to Russia. In 2012, his party won the election and Ivanishvili became prime minister. Although the billionaire retired from politics years ago, he is currently one of those responsible for the political conflict and crisis in Georgia. He recently promised that Georgia would be a member of the European Union by 2030, but at the same time, he is also a fierce polemicist against the European Union and NATO and welcomes the highly controversial law, which is based on the Russian "agent law" and is intended to lead to stricter controls on non-governmental organizations.

This action was clearly criticized by the EU, among others. EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen condemned the violence against the demonstrators in the capital and warned the Georgian government against enforcing the law. "Georgia should stay the course towards Europe", she said, though, in the worst case scenario, its EU candidate status could be revoked. Germany's Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock called on the government in Tbilisi "not to willfully obstruct the path to the future".

The goal of joining the EU is explicitly enshrined in Georgia's constitution. And Georgia, like Ukraine, concluded an association agreement with the EU in 2014. The application to join the EU was submitted shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in March 2022.

Salome Zurabishvili, the Georgian president, criticized the proposed law. She announced that she would veto it if it was passed by parliament. The problem is that the ruling party can override her veto.

The ruling party has not given up its proposal. But the demonstrators are not willing to give up either. This conflict in the Caucasus will continue. So will the region’s democratic hopes.