Beyond top-down democratisation: protests of Georgian students, ‘ravers’ and workers

  • Georgia’s protesting scene: turning complaints into action

From ‘Solidarność’ to ‘Gilets Jaunes’, recent European history shows the sweeping power of protest movements in the process of democratisation and social transformation. However, such developments have largely been hindered in Georgia and some other Eastern European countries by civil wars, conflicts and economic collapse in the early 1990s.

While traditional institutionalised structures of civil society have long been around in the socio-political life of the country, in recent years, Georgia experienced an emergence of new social networks and left-leaning grassroots movements willing to mobilise, organise themselves, exert direct pressure on the state system and demand functioning social policies and thorough protection of their civil liberties. The wider society is not indifferent either. Since 2011, the number of those who think that people ‘should participate’ in protest actions almost doubled (62 percent in 2017).

The culture of civic protests is one of the prominent characteristics of modern Georgian society. Short-lived and thoroughly planned, anti-Western and anti-Russian, partisan and independent – we have seen all kinds of protests with political, social, nationalistic or gendered narratives over the past quarter of a century since Georgia broke free from the Soviet Union. As of today, “protesting everything” became such a basic feature of everyday life that touristic agencies could include it in sightseeing tours. Furthermore, being on a demonstration is the only time when people actually take back control over sidewalks, usually transformed into the parking lots in Tbilisi.

  • Emergence of self-organised social movements

In the last two years, however, something has changed in the very fabric of these protests. Previously, people took to the streets in a reactive manner and went back home after short outbursts. Otherwise, all the major long-lasting demonstrations were organised by political parties. Civic protests were mostly affiliated with political parties or NGOs and other organisations, which were demanding attention from the international community, embassies and major media outlets to have an influence on Georgian politics, counting on the normative power of the EU or the US.

But since 2016, we are observing signs of planned resistance activities from specific self-organised societal groups asserting their own agenda, instead of relying on political power mediums and external pressure. These groups are not many, although they have supported each other on several occasions and attempted to establish a basic network for cooperation. While they do not ban various political parties from attending their demonstrations, the organisers mostly distance themselves from political figures. Cooperation with a number of NGOs seems to be stronger – they provide legal support when dealing with law enforcement, for example, but those self-organised groups are leading the action and usually they do not share their power over the course of action with others.

Shortly introduced below are three major examples of movements or planned collective action that shared the aforementioned features, had their complications and interconnections, wins and losses: protests of students, ‘ravers’ and workers:

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