‘We are very strong’: Georgia’s gen Z drives protests against return to past | Georgia

Mariska Iurevicz’s mother has been crying a lot recently. “She is always asking when I’ll be home”, the 22-year-old says. “I think we are feeling the same. We are nervous and some of us feeling unsafe. But we are very strong. We will do everything to change the situation.”

Iurevicz, a philosophy student at the TSU State University in Tbilsi, the capital of Georgia, belongs to one of a myriad of protest groups sprouting out of universities and schools that have been driving the mass protests against the “foreign agents” law being introduced in the east European country.

They have been horrified by the potential repercussions of forcing civil society organisations and the media that receive more than 20% of their revenues from abroad to register as “organisations serving the interests of a foreign power”.

The new law, adopted by parliament on Tuesday, is regarded by critics at home and internationally as a copy of that introduced in Russia in 2012 by Vladimir Putin to silence dissenting voices.

The EU says the law will reduce Georgia’s chances of joining the 27-member bloc. And a deluge of anti-western rhetoric from leaders in Tbilisi, including the prime minister, prompted Washington on Wednesday to warn Georgia, a former Soviet state, not to become an “adversary”. That intervention has already affected the share price of Georgia’s banking sector.

Protesters in EU and Georgian flags face the riot police near parliament on 14 May. Photograph: Alexander Bagrationo/The Guardian

Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets. Georgia’s past feels very present.

The protest group in which Iurevicz is active is called Georgian Students for a European Future. It is regarded as centrist, but the ideological underpinnings of this uprising cannot be pigeonholed. There is the Students for Liberty, which has some libertarian tendencies, and a group called Wave, which includes environmentalists but vehemently describes itself as “not leftist”.

The Franklin Group, named after Benjamin Franklin, a signatory to the American Declaration of Independence, promotes free markets, private property, and individual liberties, while the Shame group focuses on free and fair elections. Dafioni, or Sunset, describes itself as liberal nationalist and members swear an oath of allegiance.

Konstantine Chakhunashvili, 32, says he is one of the few protesters who is not from the younger generation. Photograph: Alexander Bagrationo/The Guardian

It is a colourful mix, and inevitably the groups do not always get on. “It can be difficult”, said one insider. But the factors uniting all those braving what has often been a brutal response from the riot police is that they are resolutely pro-European – and most were born between 1997 and 2012.

This is a gen Z movement, with all the social media savvy and sensitivity this entails, said Konstantine Chakhunashvili, 32, a paediatrician who calls himself a classical liberal and is part of a protest group called Stubborn.

“Most of these groups are dominated by gen Z”, he said. “In my group of 130 people, only four or five of us are not gen Z.”

It is, he said, an impressive generation. “The younger people have it easier when they need to agree something. They come to a consensus. My generation and older are too rough. But, like with today’s event, they organise it in 30 minutes. With older groups and the politicians it is harder to do.”

Vano Abramishvili, a director at Caucasian House, an NGO that runs programmes for young people, said it should have been no surprise to the governing Georgian Dream party that young people would reject alignment with Moscow.

They grew up in a Georgia quite different from that of their parents, he said.

The country has been constitutionally committed to getting closer to the EU and Nato since the non-violent revolution of 2003 ended the Soviet-style presidency of Eduard Shevardnadze.

Abramishvili said people in their 20s were never likely to embrace what has appeared to be a sudden pivot, as the government criticised the west as part of a “global war party”, echoing the Kremlin’s narrative over the conflict in Ukraine and forcing Georgia to swallow the poison pill of a law that could kill its EU aspirations.

Older people join a rally organised by the ruling Georgian Dream party on 29 April aimed at countering anti-government protests. Photograph: Vano Shlamov/AFP/Getty Images

“The only thing they have heard as they grew up was that the European Union was our friend”, Abramishvili said.

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Gen Z’s fury was made clear to the government in March last year when it first tried to introduce the “foreign agents” law, only to swiftly withdraw it in the face of the initial wave of protests.

What followed, said Abramishvili, was an attempt to buy young people’s affections. Unpaid internships were banned in state institutions. “Also, the government cancelled the debt of tens of thousands of students who could not afford to pay and continue their studies, and a couple of months ago they introduced a new strategy for young people”, he said.

Then, on 29 April, Georgian Dream hosted its own youth rally, led by Tsotne Ivanishvili, the teenage son of Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire founder and controlling mind of the party. It did not convince anyone, Abramishvili said.

It is in this context, the young protesters say, that a darker strategy has come into play.

On 10 May, Georgia’s prime minister wrote an open letter to the “sincere youth”, naming a host of the troublesome protest groups and describing them as “violent youth organisations” with “dark and opaque money”. Some high-profile individuals found that they were followed; others were attacked. Parents received calls warning them of dire consequences.

“Half of my friends have had calls or been approached in the street”, said Iurevicz. “Two of my friends were arrested at the protest. They were beaten, and they were told terrible things.”

Mariska Iurevicz: ‘We sing the anthem of the protest.’ Photograph: Alexander Bagrationo/The Guardian

But, Abramishvili said, this generation was not used to – nor would accept – the repression that older Georgians had experienced. “They are quite fearless,” he said.

Older heads aligned with the opposition party, the United National Movement, had originally planned to hold protests only on days when parliament was debating the “foreign agents” bill. Zviad Tsetskhladze, 18, a law student at Tbilisi State University and founding member of Sunset, said it was the gen Z cohort that insisted there should be no break.

There is still plenty of energy to the demonstrations and, despite everything, even joy. The young protesters sing as they march from their universities to parliament, draped in the Georgian flag.

“We sing the anthem of the protest called Gaighime,” said Iurevicz. “It is a beautiful thing. The students are the kindest people. We are singing that everything will be fine and we are together and we will be together.”

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