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Georgian Protests Try to Reverse Russian Pivot
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Georgian Protests Try to Reverse Russian Pivot

The Caucasus nation’s ‘existential choice’ between Russia and the West.

Happy Monday! It’s literally our job to stay up-to-date on the news, so maybe that’s why Declan kept sending us play-by-play updates of the ongoing rap battle between Drake and Kendrick Lamar over the weekend.

Editor’s Note: My note was intended more as a public service announcement—don’t get on Kendrick’s bad side.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Israeli government officials on Sunday raided the offices and seized the equipment of the Qatari news outlet Al Jazeera, hours after the government ordered the outlet closed on the grounds that it posed a national security threat. “It’s time to remove the Hamas mouthpiece from our country,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement.
  • The Canadian government on Friday charged three Indian men for their alleged involvement in the murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, an Indian-born Sikh nationalist whose murder last year Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested was orchestrated by “agents of the government of India.” The CBC reported that the three men were members of an Indian criminal gang and that police were actively investigating their connection to three other murders in Canada, among which one victim was an 11-year-old boy. Canadian investigators said they are looking into possible connections between the three men and the Indian government.
  • The Justice Department unsealed an indictment on Friday alleging that Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas and his wife accepted nearly $600,000 in bribes from oil companies owned by the Azerbaijani government and the Mexican bank, Banco Azteca. In the 54-page, 14-count indictment, federal prosecutors say Cuellar attempted to influence policy to strip funding to Armenia–a rival neighbor to Azerbaijan—and sought to change federal money laundering laws. Cuellar and his wife pleaded not guilty in court on Friday and were released on a $100,000 bond.
  • Politico reported Saturday that the Biden administration has approved $60 million in military aid to Haiti to help the effort to quell gang violence that has recently crippled the island nation. The assistance reportedly includes small arms and armored vehicles sent to the Haitian National Police and other countries supporting Haiti. Kenyan security forces are expected to deploy to the Caribbean country by the end of this month. 
  • U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) said Friday that it paused construction of a floating pier off of Gaza for the delivery of humanitarian aid, citing “unsafe conditions” caused by stormy weather. The pier will be further assembled in Israel’s Port of Ashdod until it is safe to install in Gaza. “Once in place, the temporary pier in Gaza will allow for the delivery of additional humanitarian aid to Palestinian civilians in need,” CENTCOM said. As many as 1,000 U.S. troops are involved in building the pier, which officials had hoped would be completed by the end of last week. The project came under mortar fire by terrorists late last month. 
  • Virginia state police on Saturday arrested at least 25 anti-Israel protesters who had set up an encampment at the University of Virginia (UVA). University administrators called in the state police after what UVA President Jim Ryan called protesters’ “repeated and intentional refusal to comply” with university policy and “physical confrontation and attempted assault” of university police. As part of the ongoing protests across the country, demonstrators disrupted the University of Michigan’s graduation, and some students walked out of their own Indiana University graduation to join the protests on Saturday. Police have arrested or detained some 2,300 people on more than 40 campuses since April 18.
  • Republican National Committee (RNC) chief counsel Charlie Spies resigned last week after less than two months in the position. A spokeswoman for the RNC said that Spies’ departure stemmed from “potential time commitment conflicts.” However, NBC News reported on Saturday the longtime Republican election lawyer—who formerly worked with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and has criticized election fraud conspiracies—was “pushed out” of the position he accepted in early March to head the RNC’s legal team.
  • Mystik Dan—led by trainer Ken McPeek and jockey Brian Hernandez Jr.—won the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, narrowly edging out Sierra Leone and Forever Young in the first three-horse photo-finish ending since 1947.

Protests Rock Georgia

Demonstrators hold European and Georgian flags during a rally in Tbilisi, Georgia, on May 3, 2024, against the parliament's reintroduced "Foreign Agent Bill." (Photo by Nicolo Vincenzo Malvestuto/Getty Images)
Demonstrators hold European and Georgian flags during a rally in Tbilisi, Georgia, on May 3, 2024, against the parliament's reintroduced "Foreign Agent Bill." (Photo by Nicolo Vincenzo Malvestuto/Getty Images)

The last time we wrote about protests in Georgia—the country, not the state, in case there’s any confusion—we explained how Georgians turned police sirens into the soundtrack for a street rave. Just as they did last year, Georgia’s ruling party, Georgian Dream (GD), this spring advanced a Russian-style security law designed to squash civil society organizations, sparking renewed demonstrations over the last month with tens of thousands of Georgians taking to the streets, and yes, continuing their dancing

Protesters and opposition groups say GD is continuing to pivot away from the European Union (EU) and America and toward Russia and a more authoritarian system of government. As GD leaders become more vocally hostile to the U.S. and turn to repressive laws to help maintain their power, Georgians are calling for the West to impose sanctions on government leaders before elections this fall.

The Georgian Parliament, controlled by GD, voted last month to advance legislation that would require any organization that receives 20 percent of its funding from abroad to register as a foreign agent, effectively allowing the government to gut independent media and government watchdog groups. The law closely resembles a 2012 Russian foreign agents law that provided the pretext for a government crackdown on civic organizations. “If passed, a foreign agents law would align Georgia with the likes of Russia and Kyrgyzstan,” Freedom House—a D.C.-based non-profit focused on promoting democracy and human rights around the world—said of the law. “[It] would be a step back from democracy-oriented European integration.”

The Georgian parliament’s “first reading” of the bill last month reignited the protests, which grew in size and intensity in the capital of Tbilisi and other large cities following a second vote on the bill. The third and final vote is expected later this month. 

And the raucous atmosphere isn’t confined to the streets: A Georgian opposition lawmaker punched the GD party leader in parliament when the bill was introduced, something not altogether uncommon in the legislature. “The protest is even more significant and larger-scale than last year, and it turns out to be more disciplined than anyone expected,” said Giorgi Kandelaki, a former member of the Georgian parliament who has been at the protests in Tbilisi. 

The protests have continued in the face of repressive tactics by the police, including the deployment of hired mercenaries dressed in black to attack demonstrators—a tactic the pro-Russian government in Ukraine used in 2014 to suppress protests. “It’s a clear sign that the majority is just telling Georgia’s ruling party that they want to be heard,” said Eto Buziashvili, a Tbilisi-based research associate with the Atlantic Council and former adviser to the National Security Council of Georgia. 

Protesters and opposition lawmakers argue that the ruling party will use the foreign agents law to hollow out government accountability groups and dissent in advance of the country’s October elections. “One of the key motivations for this law,” Kandelaki told TMD, “is to demolish the civil society infrastructure that does election monitoring.” He added that “[foreign monitors] themselves rely on local watchdogs to do election monitoring.”

Many current and former U.S. State Department officials—including those whom TMD spoke to—agree with the assessment. “The intent of the law is to silence critical voices and destroy Georgia’s vibrant civil society, which serves as a critical check on government in any democratic nation,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said on Wednesday

GD, the ruling party in Georgia since 2012, has grown more explicitly anti-West in recent years and increasingly aligned with Moscow—a strange shift for an American partner that Russia invaded in 2008 and which, as of December, is an official EU candidate nation

The recent pivot could be the result of concern that a full-throated embrace of the West—and EU membership, to boot—risks antagonizing Russia and sparking another costly war. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, the Georgian government has maintained a warmer posture toward the Kremlin than its Western partners, refraining from criticizing the invasion or joining sanctions against Moscow. Consequently, Russia reinstituted direct flights between the two countries that had been banned since 2019, and trade between the two nations has also soared

But it’s also possible that aligning with Russia gives GD the best chance of remaining in power— and stands to benefit the party’s central figure, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made much of his fortune from Russian investments in the 1990s. The oligarch founded GD in 2012, served as prime minister between 2012 and 2013, and was GD party chair until 2021. After Georgia received EU candidate status, Ivanishvili announced his public return to politics—although observers of Georgian politics say he’d remained the guiding force for GD since leaving politics the first time.

“The transparency that comes with pursuing membership in the EU—independent judiciary, rule of law, all of these things that come with pursuit of Euro-Atlantic orientation—run counter to his personal interests,” David Kramer—the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor in the George W. Bush administration—told TMD. Amid the protests over the foreign agents bill, GD also passed a new tax law last month that critics say is designed to benefit Ivanishvili’s offshore holdings. 

If GD and Ivanishvili once walked the line between Russia and the West, the events of the last month seem to have tipped the scale decisively toward Moscow. “In the beginning, Georgian Dream tried to camouflage itself as a pro-Western force,” Buziashvili, the Atlantic Council analyst, told TMD. “Their statements were pro-Western, pro-democracy while their actions were not.” GD would have good reason for disguising its intentions: 79 percent of Georgians support joining the EU and 67 percent support joining NATO. The Georgian constitution even includes an article directing the government to “take all available measures” to join those two Western institutions.

But now, GD and Ivanishvili are saying the quiet part out loud. 

Ivanishvili delivered a Soviet-style conspiratorial speech last Monday casting the West as responsible for Russia’s invasions of both Georgia and Ukraine. “The important decisions in this world are taken by the global party of war,” he said of Europe and the U.S., according to the text of the speech provided by GD. “It is this global force that first forced the confrontation of Georgia with Russia and then put Ukraine in even worse peril. NGOs and radical opposition are acting on their behalf. The laws that we are proposing are there to expose those dark linkages. NGOs are pseudo-elite nurtured by a foreign country.” He described NGOs’ calls for judicial and electoral reforms as attempts by the “global party of war” to “engineer a revolution.” 

Kramer described the speech as “a virtual declaration of war against the West” by Ivanishvili. Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili—elected in 2018 to the mostly ceremonial post with GD support—condemned the remarks. “Some are trying to portray our 30-year partners and allies as some foreign and faceless ‘war party,’” she said on Tuesday. “This is a blatant lie.” 

Perhaps cognizant of the enduring popular support for Western integration, Ivanishvili ended his speech by affirming that Georgia would become part of the EU. But opposition figures point out that his Western antagonism makes the duplicity clear. “There is no difference between this rhetoric and [Belarusian President Alexander] Lukashenko’s rhetoric,” Kandelaki, the former parliamentarian, told TMD. “It’s [the] rhetoric of a Russian satellite.”

GD party leader and Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze doubled down on some of Ivanishvili’s rhetoric on Friday. Following a call with Derek Chollet—the U.S. State Department counselor who advises Secretary of State Antony Blinken—Kobakhidze issued a statement that appeared to break off relations with the U.S. He accused the U.S. of working with NGOs to foment revolution in Georgia and said it would require “a special effort to restart the relations against this background.” 

After the call, Chollet assessed the damage. “Georgia is at an inflection point,” he said. “After many years of partnership, we regret Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations now hang in the balance.”

Last month, Alexander Dugin—a Russian philosopher known as “Putin’s brain”—praised GD’s pivot toward Russia. “Georgia is on the right track,” he said. “We have embarked on this path, and we are just scratching the surface. There are still so many liberal agents entrenched in various sectors of the society—among the elite, bureaucracy, education, culture, and business. It’s akin to cleaning the Augean stables, but with God’s help, we will purify them.”

Ivanishvili is not exactly hiding his plans, admitting last week that, after the October elections, he intends to prosecute his political opponents. “We will have the opportunity to give the collective National Movement the harsh political and legal judgment it deserves,” he said. “They will pay for all the crimes against the Georgian people.” 

The elections will determine whether Ivanishvili can bring those plans to fruition. “The issue at stake is much larger than this bill,” President Zourabichvili said on Wednesday, referring to the foreign agents law. “What is at hand is the decision, the choice, the existential choice that Georgia will have to make by the time of the elections of Europe or Russia.” GD has benefited from a fragmented and divided opposition movement. In a national poll released in November, 25 percent of Georgians said they’d vote for GD, compared to 13 percent who’d vote for UNM—the rest of the respondents broke for a dozen other parties each with four percent support or less.

Protesters and pro-democracy advocates are looking to the U.S. for additional support, namely in the form of targeted sanctions against GD leaders. The State Department did sanction four Georgian judges for corruption last year, but protesters think there’s more that can be done. “The sanctions are one of the vital things discussed in Georgia,” Buziashvili told TMD. “Because many people think that [the] inaction of the West enabled Ivanishvili as well as Russia’s increased influence in Georgia.”

Kramer believes the U.S. should individually sanction Ivanishvili, followed by Prime Minister Kobakhidze, and, if necessary, the GD lawmakers who supported the foreign agents law. “They need to understand that it is time to pay a price for what they’re doing,” Kramer said, arguing the stern statements from the Biden administration aren’t deterring GD. “We are in a position to impose such a price.”

Sanctions or no sanctions, the protests continued late last night. “Georgia is on the verge of a major cataclysm unheard of since independence,” Kandelaki said. “People have this sense of what this is about. It’s a major geopolitical shift. And that’s why people are in the street.”

Worth Your Time

  • Who’s funding the ongoing anti-Israel protests across college campuses? A report by Politico paints a politically complicated picture. “President Joe Biden has been dogged for months by pro-Palestinian protesters calling him ‘Genocide Joe’—but some of the groups behind the demonstrations receive financial backing from philanthropists pushing hard for his reelection … include some of the biggest names in Democratic circles: Soros, Rockefeller and Pritzker,” Shia Kapos reported. “Two of the organizers supporting the protests at Columbia University and on other campuses are Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow. Both are supported by the Tides Foundation, which is seeded by Democratic megadonor George Soros and was previously supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. … Another notable Democratic donor whose philanthropy has helped fund the protest movement is David Rockefeller Jr., who sits on the board of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. In 2022, the fund gave $300,000 to the Tides Foundation; according to nonprofit tax forms, Tides has given nearly $500,000 over the past five years to Jewish Voice for Peace, which explicitly describes itself as anti-Zionist. … The trail of donations shows a series of blurred lines when it comes to liberal causes and Democratic politics. Often those missions are aligned, but they also sometimes have different and—particularly when it comes to Gaza—conflicting agendas and tactics.”
  • There’s been a rash of congressional retirements from the 118th Congress, and a handful of those heading for the door are ready to talk about it. Twelve members of Congress leaving office gave video exit interviews to the New York Times, discussing topics ranging from “corruption, money, perks, frustrations, [and] solutions” in our nation’s capital. “When I became a member of Congress, I was conscious of the fact that I was joining an organization that, according to recent polling, is less popular than head lice, colonoscopies, and the rock band Nickelback,” said Democratic Rep. Derek Kilmer of Washington. Asked to describe today’s Congress in one word, former Republican Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado replied: “dysfunctional.”

Presented Without Comment

New York Times: At Donor Retreat, Trump Calls Biden Administration the ‘Gestapo’

Also Presented Without Comment

National Review: MIT Scraps Diversity Statements in Faculty-Hiring Process after Discovering ‘They Don’t Work’

Also Also Presented Without Comment 

Politico EU: [Russian President] Vladimir Putin Cut Out the Heart of a Deer and Gave It to [Then-Italian Prime Minister] Silvio Berlusconi

In the Zeitgeist 

It’s apparently a big year for movies about photojournalists named “Lee.”

Toeing the Company Line

  • In the newsletters: The Dispatch Politics crew covered Biden’s handling of the campus protests, Nick suggested (🔒) the demonstrations are elite students’ attempt to atone for their undeniable privilege, Jonah dove back into some Kristi Noem and Ron DeSantis punditry, and Chris crunched (🔒) the numbers to understand how the electorate is different now than it was in 2020.
  • On the podcasts: Jonah ruminated on Robert Kagan’s criticisms of conservatism on this weekend’s episode of The Remnant. Today, CBS News correspondent Robert Costa joins Jamie on the Dispatch Podcast to discuss what a second Trump administration could look like. 
  • On the site over the weekend: Michael Lucchese reflected on the American Revolution as displayed in Apple TV+’s Franklin, Tim Rice critiqued Lyndsey Stonebridge’s portrayal of Hannah Arendt in her new book, and Scott Salvato penned an ode to the Catholic-Jewish neighborhood on Long Island in which he grew up.

Let Us Know

Have you ever attended any protests?

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Mary Trimble

Mary Trimble is the editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, she interned at The Dispatch, in the political archives at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), and at Voice of America, where she produced content for their French-language service to Africa. When not helping write The Morning Dispatch, she is probably watching classic movies, going on weekend road trips, or enjoying live music with friends.

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Grayson Logue

Grayson Logue is the deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he worked in political risk consulting, helping advise Fortune 50 companies. He was also an assistant editor at Providence Magazine and is a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh, pursuing a Master’s degree in history. When Grayson is not helping write The Morning Dispatch, he is probably working hard to reduce the number of balls he loses on the golf course.

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Peter Gattuso

Peter Gattuso is a reporter for The Morning Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2024, he interned at The Dispatch, National Review, the Cato Institute, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Peter is not helping write TMD, he is probably watching baseball, listening to music on vinyl records, or discussing the Jones Act.