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I’m protesting Georgia’s ‘Russian law’. The police beat me up mercilessly

I’m protesting Georgia’s ‘Russian law’. The police beat me up mercilessly
Photo: Giorgi Arjevanidze / AFP via Getty Images

One Gen Z protester’s story of police brutality in Tbilisi, where tens of thousands are marching on the streets to protest against the Kremlin-inspired ‘foreign agents’ law.

Georgia is in turmoil over a law that threatens to stamp out opposition, independent media and activist groups by forcing them to declare their foreign funding sources. The Georgian government says it will make the country more transparent. But the law, which has now been approved by parliament, is a carbon copy of Russia’s foreign agents legislation, which Vladimir Putin’s government has used to wipe out all remnants of a democratic society in Russia. The foreign agents law, which pushes Georgia towards Russia’s orbit, is a major shift in the country’s direction. Since mid-April, the Georgian capital Tbilisi has erupted with protests, with tens of thousands of people taking to the streets each day. Luka Gviniashvili, 24, is part of the protests’ impassioned contingent of Gen Z participants, who are leaders in the movement.

I was born in Tbilisi’s ancient bathing district, where hot, sulfurous water bubbles up from beneath the earth and steam escapes through the domed roofs of the old bathhouses. 

As a kid, I always bubbled with energy too. I talk at triple speed, and people often have to tell me to slow down. My childhood neighborhood, the Abanotubani district, lies beneath a great gorge in Tbilisi. A huge, ruined fortress overlooks our neighborhood —- for centuries, it served as a stronghold for Tbilisi, protecting it against invaders.

Now, views of the fortress are obscured by an even bigger mansion, built by the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, the richest man in our country. His wealth is about a third of our gross domestic product. Construction on his house began when I was a toddler: a great sea of glass and metal dominating the gorge. I remember looking up and thinking it looked like a Bond villain’s lair. 

Ivanishvili became the biggest philanthropist in Georgia, supporting arts and culture, fixing schools, houses and hospitals. But even as a young kid, I was doubtful that some billionaire was truly going to help our country. 

Protests were the backdrop of my childhood in Georgia. One of my earliest memories is sitting on my dad’s shoulders during the Rose Revolution. I was three. It was a peaceful uprising to oust the then-President Eduard Shevardnadze, ending his reign of chaos that had lasted more than a decade. A man called Mikheil Saakashvili was elected after him and set about trying to rid the country of the corruption that had plagued it for so long. 

Georgia Tbilisi

Young Georgians sit on a balcony above the protests in Tbilisi, April 2024. (Photo: Luka Gviniashvili)

While there were problems during Saakashvili’s rule, there was also a huge shift in the country towards democracy and reform. For a while, things felt hopeful. 

Of course, we always lived below our powerful billionaire neighbor — the oligarch Ivanishvili in his spy villain-worthy lair. But I also grew up being aware of another big neighbor, one that sat right above Georgia. On a clear day in the hills above my house in Tbilisi, you could see the Greater Caucasus mountain mange — the natural border with Russia.

I was on holiday in those hills above Tbilisi in 2008 when Russia invaded Georgia. I remember the warplanes buzzing overhead and how my mom went into a panicked frenzy. During that war, Russia occupied South Ossetia, a region to the northwest of Tbilisi. I guess that was when I started to absorb the idea that Russia was not our friend. 

When I was 12, a party called Georgian Dream came to power, backed by Ivanishvili, the billionaire who lived above us. Ivanishvili, like many oligarchs from the former Soviet space, has close ties to Putin. My parents felt uneasy about it all and moved the family to Paris, where I spent my teenage years. 

We lived in the bougie 6th arrondissement. Kids at my school had no idea where Georgia was — I was constantly having to explain that I was from the country, not the U.S. state. The country by the black sea — “la mere noire,” I would intone, again and again. It was Georgia for dummies. People would nod, not quite knowing. One girl literally thought Georgia was a place in the Arctic region of Lapland. If I was giving her the benefit of the doubt, I guess she was thinking of the island of South Georgia in Antarctica. Wrong again. I realised it was often easier to just pretend I was French like everyone else. 

As I grew older, though, I became prouder of my roots. I found a group of friends who came from all over. They introduced me to an important part of French life: going to protests. At those protests, I learned a lesson — my voice matters. 

The French really put the “pro” in protests — they do not mess around. While I was in high school, the cops killed a French activist with a police grenade during a protest. It caused uproar across the country, so I tagged along with older kids to blockade our school, barricading it with trash cans for two weeks to push for justice for the guy who was killed. 

I started to learn that protest actually works in a democracy. I would go between Paris and Tbilisi, taking lessons from my French friends and bringing them to Georgia. “You guys go home too soon when you protest. You stand there and think stuff is going to fall out of the sky,” I would tell my Georgian friends. Last year, though, a new law was proposed in Georgia, and things went full chaos-mode. 

It’s called the foreign agents law. It’s a copycat of the same regulation in Russia. It dictates that any institution getting 20% of its money from abroad has to register with a statewide system as an agent of foreign influence. 

In practice, it makes it easier for the state to crush opposition, get rid of foreign-aided projects that make our life better and stamp out free expression by creating scapegoats. It gives the government arbitrary reasons to arrest anyone they deem a “foreign influence operation.” 

Georgia Gen z

Gen Z Georgians have been spearheading the activism against the Russian-style ‘foreign agent law’. (Photo: Luka Gviniashvili)

Loads of my friends in Tbilisi work on projects that would be deemed a “foreign agent” by this new law. Whether they work in plastic recycling programs, as independent journalists or as human rights lawyers, they now face extra interrogation by the state. It’s basically a tool for political repression. 

The law’s proposal last year lit a flame under us in Tbilisi. We organized big protests and for a while, it worked — the government didn’t press ahead. But this year, they tried again. 

On April 3, the Georgian Dream party announced plans to bring back the bill. I felt a mixture of anger and hopelessness when I heard. Here we go again, I thought. Here’s undeniable proof of our government blindly trying to follow Russia’s lead. I got ready to fight. 

Maybe if you had the privilege of growing up in a first-world country, you don’t understand, but for us this law means the difference between having a functioning democracy and existing as a puppet for Russia. It means losing our freedom of speech. 

Context

Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgia has looked westwards. Polls consistently show that around 80% of Georgians want the country to join the European Union and NATO. The ambition of being part of the European family is seen as the only way to protect Georgia from Russia, whose military already occupies a fifth of Georgia’s internationally recognized territory. Since the foreign agent law was introduced in Russia in 2012, it has become a Kremlin soft power export and a major feature of the modern-day authoritarian playbook around the world, with countries including Nicaragua, Poland, Belarus, Hungary and Egypt all adopting copycat versionsof the legislation.  

On the morning of April 15, the protests began. 

My friends and I have joined the demonstrations every day, trying to put the lessons I’d learned in France into practice. I believe that if we can inspire enough people to get out on the streets, we can overwhelm the brutality we are fighting against. For now, the state is fighting back hard, with tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannon and by simply beating protesters to a pulp. I’m worried things are going to descend into even more violence, though I hope we can avoid it.

On the night of April 30, I put on a gas mask and assigned myself a task: deactivate as many tear gas canisters as I could. There’s a couple of ways to do this. You can put a plastic cup over the canister before it starts to smoke, which snuffs it out. Or, if it’s smoking already, you can dunk the canister in a bucket of water.

Things escalated fast that night. Protesters surged onto Tbilisi’s main street, Rustaveli Avenue, and as they did, police unleashed a torrent of tear gas canisters onto us from the side streets, scattering the crowd. I ran forwards into the impact zone, grabbing the canisters and submerging them into bottles of water that I had previously set out. It was a race to get to the canisters before they started spinning out of control. 

The police began advancing from the side streets and blasting everyone in the area with water cannon, throwing them to the ground. They didn’t care if they hit protesters or journalists — and they hit both. Officers also beat up anyone they could get their hands on. A no man’s land emerged between the protesters and the police. In the buffer zone were journalists — and me. Along with dealing with the tear gas, I was also taking pictures — using loads of flash to annoy the officers — just for my own personal project. I managed to capture several instances of how police laid into the protestors. 

It was time to build barricades, French style, and invoke the lessons I had learned in Paris. I started dragging metal barrier fences together and getting people to help. I then told people to gather up trash cans, just like we did in high school. Five guys started to help me. From that moment on, I was standing in the buffer zone in front of the barricades, directing people like an orchestra conductor. I got them to add umbrellas to the structure — a tactic inspired not by the French, but by pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong — to protect from the water cannon. 

The crowd of police just watched as I directed the resistance. They recorded everything, sussing me out. Then, they mobilized the arresting squad. The police surged forward, grabbing anyone they could — journalists, protesters, they didn’t care. I started to run, but my fashion-victim status let me down, badly. I was wearing my cute new purple Adidas Sambas. But those shoes have no grip, as anyone who owns a pair knows. I slipped on the wet ground. 

A bunch of masked police jumped on me and began beating me mercilessly. At one point I nearly scrambled away, but again my sartorial choices screwed me over. My blazer was tied around my waist and they grabbed it and pulled me back.

By law in Georgia, all police officers have to wear a visible badge number. But during the protests, police hide their badges and mask up with balaclavas, so it’s difficult to prosecute them for brutality down the line.  

They started hitting the back of my head hard, and all I could do was protect my eyes and curl into the fetal position. They dragged me behind the police line and continued laying into me. Then they surrounded me, taunting me, telling me to hit myself and say that I was a little bitch. My legs were like jelly and I could barely stand. I did whatever they ordered, desperate, until they threw me into a van. Already, there was a lump the size of a bar of soap on the back of my head, with deep blue panda rings forming around my eyes. 

Georgia

‘We don’t remember the chaos and corruption of the 1990s. We’re not worn down, like older people, by decades of protesting,’ says Luka Gviniashvili of his generation of Georgian demonstrators. (Photo: Luka Gviniashvili)

They hauled me to prison, but it took them six hours to get me inside. There was already a queue of other protesters they’d caught. My captors waited in the van with me, watching Russian TikToks for hours on end. Honestly, that was almost worse than the beating.  

The atmosphere inside the cells was desperate. People were silently pacing up and down, their spirits hitting rock bottom. Police were bringing in more protesters all the time, their radios crackling. I was in a cell with three other guys. “They beat me like a dog,” one of them said, showing me a bootprint-shaped bruise on his back. I realized we had to get the morale up, fast — and show the guards they couldn’t break us. 

We sang all the songs we could think of — “Bella Ciao,” the European anthem, a bunch of Georgian songs. At one point I even sang the Marseillaise. The police told us to shut up. We kept singing, and cracked terrible jokes that this was a five-star digital detox. 

I got out of jail because a lawyer helped me, pro bono. She works for the Young Lawyers Association, a group of human rights lawyers here in Georgia that under the new law would be at the top of the state’s list of “foreign agents.” That lawyer, she probably weighs 120 pounds, isn’t much more than 5 feet tall, and she’s formidable. When she goes into the police station, you see the fear in their eyes. She’s the best. If it wasn’t for her and her organization, I would still be in jail. This Russian law wants to take away our access to human rights lawyers like her. 

Two weeks on, and my concussion is getting better, day by day. The nausea has eased and the daily headaches are becoming less intense. 

I’m back on the streets. At these protests, the energy feels different. There’s a crazy electricity in the air. Everyone is singing, fighting, determined not to lose their country. A lot of the protesters are my age — Gen Z. We don’t remember the chaos and corruption of the 1990s. We’re not worn down, like older people, by decades of protesting. We’re also more savvy than our parents’ generation about fact-checking. We don’t just swallow the stream of propaganda that’s fed to us. We’re ready to fight. I spoke with my uncle on the phone about it yesterday morning, just before the law was passed — he told me “my hopes are in Gen Z and a miracle”. DM 

By Luka Gviniashvili as told to Isobel Cockerell

This story was originally published by Cody Story.

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