Georgia: From a beacon of democracy to growing authoritarianism

By Mariam Nikuradze

It feels like just yesterday that in Georgia, we were celebrating our new visa-free regime with the EU and the signing of the association agreement and the DCFTA. There was a time just a few years back when people would still ask just how pro-Western the Georgian Dream Government was. There was a time, just a few years back, when I believed that journalism was seen as an honourable profession, and that no one could touch us.

But one day, I woke up to the reality where I had to ask myself the question: is the fieldwork I have to do today safe for me? Should I display my press badge or not? Will something happen to me? What about the helmet? What about the gas mask?

I, my colleagues at OC Media and our media partners, and many in the Georgian press more widely, are dedicated to our mission of informing the public, holding power to account, and through this, upholding democracy and inspiring positive change.

But despite this mission, we now face the reality that in a matter of weeks, we may all be declared foreign agents by a government still somehow shamelessly pretending to be pro-European. And some years from now, who knows, we may even face the reality of having to relocate to a country more tolerant of dissent.

In just two years, Georgia has turned from an aspiring member of the European Union and NATO into an anti-Western and even verging on pro-Russian country, one where freedom of speech and freedom of the press is in mortal danger.

If you had told me five years ago that Georgia was capable of adopting a Russian-style law on foreign agents, I would probably have laughed.

But after tightening its grip on the judiciary; after passing worrying amendments to the law of broadcasting; after imprisoning the head of the largest opposition TV channel; after watching the beating of 56 journalists in a day and doing nothing to stop it, or to punish the organisers; after attacking its Western allies, their leaders and ambassadors — yes, I am now convinced this government is capable of doing just that.

What is also concerning is that from my conversations with certain Western officials and institutions, the extent and rapidity of this turn from the West — and the values it represents in Georgia — have not fully sunk in.

For years, both under the UNM and Georgian Dream, the country was (rightly) seen as a beacon of freedom and democracy, and for some, it is difficult to see past this reputation. ‘Georgia is fine’, they will say, ‘yes, it’s going through a rough patch, but of course they aspire to join the EU, and of course nothing like this could actually happen.’

But this is wishful thinking.

For the West, such a law must be a red line, and one which the consequences of crossing are clearly communicated — not just in private conversations behind the scenes or limply worded statements of concern, but in clear and publicly stated terms.

It is time for people, both Georgians and the country’s friends in the West, to wake up and take action before it is too late.

Mariam Nikuradze is the co-founder and co-director of Tbilisi-based OC Media.

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