The Russian Threat That Triggered a Fistfight in Parliament

Irakli Gedenidze/Reuters
Irakli Gedenidze/Reuters

Chaos erupted in the Georgian parliament on Monday when opposition leader Aleko Elisashvili took a running head start and slammed his fist into another lawmaker during a debate on a controversial new “foreign influence” bill.

The punch then spiraled into an all-out brawl between politicians over the controversial bill, which would require organizations with over 20 percent of their funding from abroad to register as agents of foreign influence. Critics in Georgia have compared it to laws in Russia that Moscow has used to tamp down on dissent.

While politicians brawled inside parliament, another hectic scene unfolded outside, with thousands of demonstrations taking to the streets in protest of the law chanting “Russians! Russians!”

“We must shove this law up their asses,” Elisashvili said after punching Mamuka Mdinaradze, the leader of the ruling party Georgian Dream. “Fuck them… there is no time for politeness, they are dragging us into Russia.”

Already, authorities are using pepper spray and tear gas against protesters, one Georgian democracy activist who had just left the protests told The Daily Beast. The protests were ongoing late into Tuesday evening, Georgian activist Ketevan Chachava, the deputy executive director at the Tbilisi-based Center for Development and Democracy (CDD), told The Daily Beast. The Ministry of Internal Affairs confirmed it used pepper spray on protesters. 11 people were detained in the protests, according to the authorities.

Tina Bokuchava, a leader of the opposition party the United National Movement, demanded lawmakers from the ruling party withdraw the proposal immediately. “Recall this law, once and for all! There is no place in Georgia for a Russian law. Europe is the choice of the Georgian people,” Bokuchava reportedly said.

A photo of a crowd outside of the Georgian Parliament.
Ketevan Chachava

Despite the protests, the Georgian parliament moved forward with further deliberations about the bill on Tuesday, with civil society leaders calling for further protests. The parliament announced it was using heightened security measures at the “yellow level” on Tuesday in advance of the controversial debate—an effort to prevent “visitors” from disrupting the proceedings.

The clash over the bill is emblematic of a broader struggle in Georgia over the future of the country, its lean to the west, and Russian influence. Just in December the European Union gave Georgia candidate status, and although it’s a step toward the west, Georgia’s future in the EU is still fragile.

Although the Georgian Dream party had dropped the campaign for the bill months after protests—which saw authorities use tear gas and water cannons against demonstrators—the ruling party unexpectedly reintroduced the influence bill earlier this month.

This is a “deeply” troubling moment for Georgia’s aspirations for joining the European Union, Chachava told The Daily Beast.

“It’s truly disheartening to witness the reintroduction of this law just one year after Georgian society rallied against it. This legislation not only threatens the freedom of independent media and civil society but also undermines our country's aspirations for European integration,” Chachava said.

“The law poses a significant threat to transparency and democracy in Georgia. It is imperative that we stand united against such regressive measures and reaffirm our commitment to upholding the principles of democracy, human rights, and European values."

Critics and supporters of the law both accused one another of aligning with Russian interests on Tuesday. In one statement, Maka Botchorishvili, a Georgian Dream MP, accused critics of “looking to revolutionary scenarios” to push Georgia to the West while also claiming the protesters were “serving Russian interests.”

A photo of a crowd of people outside the Georgian Parliament.
Ketevan Chachava

Red Flags

The President of Georgia, Salome Zourabichvili, claimed the push for the bill was part of a broader Russian “destabilization” operation in Georgia.

“Insistence of the authorities to push through this law against the will of the population and despite partners' protest is a direct provocation—a Russian strategy of destabilization,” Zourabichvili said Tuesday.

The EU has said the “foreign agent” bill is “incompatible” with the EU’s values. The United Nations has warned that the bill, if passed, would jeopardize non-governmental organizations with funding from abroad and damage Georgia’s democratic path and freedom of expression. The U.S. State Department warned last week that it was “deeply concerned” about the bill, noting that the bill would “derail Georgia from its European path.”

Georgia, which declared independence in 1991, has long had a tense relationship with Russia. Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and expanded its military footprint in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The United States has been calling on Russia ever since to reverse its recognition of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Georgian Dream has for years accused the west and the opposition of working to overthrow the government. After Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, it has increasingly echoed Kremlin narratives and anti-West rhetoric.

Western leaders doubled down on their opposition to the bill Tuesday. Minister of Foreign Affairs of Lithuania, Gabrielius Landsbergis, warned Georgians to not “derail” that dream on Tuesday.

“Georgia's destination is Europe,” Landsbergis said on social media. “Don't derail that dream.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

Get the Daily Beast's biggest scoops and scandals delivered right to your inbox. Sign up now.

Stay informed and gain unlimited access to the Daily Beast's unmatched reporting. Subscribe now.