TBILISI -- Forged amid the brutality of a police crackdown on protesters three years ago, one of the Georgian government's most consistently audacious critics is staging another showdown.
If Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and his cabinet don't resign to make way for a caretaker government "of national consent" by July 3, the Shame Movement has vowed to raise protests that have already mobilized tens of thousands of Georgians to a "larger stage."
Shame and its NGO allies are gambling that they can leverage their limited foothold on Georgian society into a sustained push to reform and "de-oligarchize" their Black Sea nation of nearly 4 million people.
Civil society in Georgia is both strong and weak. It's very visible, and we hear it in the West.... On the other hand, it doesn't have that much support in Georgian society as a whole."-- Stephen Jones, Harvard's Davis Center
Their aim is to prod Georgia closer to its constitutionally declared goals of European and transatlantic integration. But if their pressure campaign fails, it could instead highlight the groups' lack of genuine traction despite fervent activism to improve governance and transparency in the face of a decade of dominance by the ruling Georgian Dream party and its oligarch founder, Bidzina Ivanishvili.
"Civil society in Georgia is both strong and weak," Stephen Jones, director of Georgian studies at Harvard's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, told RFE/RL. "It's very visible, and we hear it in the West -- that's important. On the other hand, it doesn't have that much support in Georgian society as a whole."
The specter of tent cities and other forms of civil disobedience is not new in the Caucasus home of the first of the bloodless "color revolutions" in the former Soviet Union, the so-called Rose Revolution in 2003.
But the timing, with an unprovoked Russian war raging in nearby Ukraine and Tbilisi still stinging from the European Union's pointed snub to deny Georgia "candidate" status, threatens to slow down reforms and shape perceptions in the West of eroding democracy and freedoms, just when Georgians are hoping for closer political and defense ties in the shadow of an assertive Russia.
Close followers of Georgia and its three decades of independence suggest Shame and the other protesters' demands might be an overreach, despite popular discontent, given Georgian Dream and its 66-year-old billionaire backer's political and economic hold on the country.
But Shame and its diffuse leadership have shown from their inception that they're not afraid to swing and miss.
The Shame Movement was born of a violent crackdown in June 2019, when protesters surrounded parliament to express anger after a visiting Russian legislator, Sergei Gavrilov, spoke from the speaker's rostrum in what came to be known as "Gavrilov night."
Many regarded it as a national indignity, since thousands of Russian troops were still occupying Georgia's separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia 11 years after a lightning war with Russia in 2008.
More than 200 demonstrators were injured amid the use of tear gas, rubber bullets, and truncheons by riot police and special Interior Ministry troops, and even more were arrested.
Wary of opposition parties whose participation they blamed for escalating the threat of violence, some protesters banded together under the Shame Movement banner.
Since then, Shame has repeatedly reemerged to spearhead protests -- eventually unblocking promised electoral reforms and, less successfully, demanding a recount and rerun of elections in 2020, as well as challenging a pandemic curfew it feared was aimed at curbing demonstrations.
Shota Dighmelashvili, who has worked as an editor and TV presenter and founded the Governance Monitoring Center NGO in 2017, emerged as a key speaker within the movement.
Of its 2020 rallies to warn of potential election fraud and to force the government to fulfill its pledge to fully introduce proportional representation in parliament, Dighmelashvili boasted, "If before, people were joining rallies organized by politicians, now politicians came to the rally organized by people."
But while the protests have attracted many Georgians in the past, it is unclear if they can expand their influence sufficiently to bring decisive pressure to bear on the government in the current standoff.
"Shame is active, but I'm not sure how many Georgians are aware of its activity," Harvard's Jones said. He said Shame's effort to remain nonpartisan was admirable because Georgians are "totally disillusioned with parties."
But he warned of a "disconnect" between Shame and ordinary Georgians, despite the apparent vibrancy of Georgian civil society compared with neighboring Armenia and, especially, Azerbaijan.
"The reality of Georgian politics and society is they are one voice among many and, quite frankly, don't have much power or leverage to influence political opinion," Jones said. "It's a shame."
Beyond the usual obstacles, he suggested, some groups that "do good work" but rely on Western funding can lack "indigenous connections." Shame is supported by the European Endowment for Democracy, an independent organization to promote democracy that was established by the European Union.
Georgian Dream's uninterrupted rule since its founding in 2012 has been accompanied by slippage in key metrics on democracy and media freedoms, human and minority rights, and the fight against corruption and political polarization, among others.
In early June, the European Parliament passed a nonbinding resolution calling on the EU to impose sanctions against Ivanishvili for his "destructive role" in Georgia's politics and economy, including risks to free media and journalists' safety.
The resolution said that Ivanishvili, "despite not holding any official political position, still plays a major role in the country and is believed to be de facto in control of the government and economy, with at least four of the cabinet members being former employees or close associates of Ivanishvili, including the prime minister, who was his personal assistant."
Then, a week ago, the European Council granted candidate status to war-torn Ukraine and longtime laggard Moldova but deferred on Georgia until "the priorities specified in the commission's opinion on Georgia's membership application have been addressed."
The commission cited missing "key reforms" including in the areas of governance, justice, tackling organized crime, respecting human rights and minorities, and the rule of law.
"Crucial challenges nevertheless remain in particular due to the overly divided political scene," the commission said. "There is an urgent need to address this political polarization and enhance democratic oversight. Eradication of vested interests needs to be a high priority."
The European Commission will issue a progress report at the end of this year to assess Georgian progress.
Filling The Streets
Even ahead of the EU's formal mothballing of Tbilisi's application, the signals from Brussels were clear.
As a result, pro-EU demonstrations organized by Shame and others drew tens of thousands of people into the streets of Tbilisi on June 20 and June 24, underscoring the dampening effect on Georgians' morale.
If the Georgian government violates the constitution and we see signs of that, then the Georgian people have every right to tell the government that it is illegitimate."-- Shota Dighmelashvili of the Shame Movement
At the second rally, outside parliament, Dighmelashvili issued two demands on behalf of what he dubbed a new Home To Europe movement. He called for Prime Minister Garibashvili's resignation and a caretaker "government of national consent...to implement all 12 EU recommendations."
He called the situation an "oligarchic dictatorship" and accused the government of abrogating Article 78 of the Georgian Constitution, which obliges it to "take all measures within the scope of their competences to ensure the full integration" of Georgia into the EU and NATO.
"If the Georgian government violates the constitution and we see signs of that, then the Georgian people have every right to tell the government that it is illegitimate," Dighmelashvili said.
"This protest has two demands that strive to encapsulate the sentiments of as many Georgian citizens as possible and avoid entering the field of polarization," Dighmelashvili told RFE/RL's Georgian Service. "The first is the resignation of the head of the government, the prime minister…who should take political responsibility for the fact that once the leader country of the Association Trio [of Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia] is now left out of it."
He said the demand for a "government of national consent seeks to avoid any one party" taking control, adding, "This should be a team chosen by consensus, according to their professional merits."
Shame has given the Georgian government until this weekend to meet its movement's demands to avoid "a larger stage of protest." The group announced a demonstration for the evening of July 3 that "won't disperse until oligarchic rule is dismantled."
Garibashvili has vowed to meet the EU's terms "so that we get candidate status as soon as possible." But following three divisive years since the bloody dispersal of the 2019 protests, there are doubts about the willingness of the prime minister and Georgian Dream to move.
"I don't think they will consider this proposal seriously. And there's no need to, quite honestly," Jones said. He cited Georgian Dream's "strong position" thanks to its grip on power and its parliamentary majority.
"They will move ahead, and they will tackle some of the demands that the EU commission has made," he said, "but we'll see how successful they are."
Debate Or Disconnect?
Georgians are among Europe's most enthusiastic supporters among nonmember states of European and transatlantic integration, with polls consistently showing around 80 percent of the country in favor of EU membership.
That support almost inevitably brings them into conflict with the government, Jones said, "because there is a sense that the Georgian government is either deliberately sabotaging the application -- I don't think that's the case, but there is a sense that that might be the case -- or that they are simply insufficiently committed to becoming members of the EU, or at least their policies suggest that they're not ready to fulfill the conditions that the EU is asking them to fulfill."
This week, the U.S. ambassador to Tbilisi, Kelly Degnan, highlighted Georgian public support for the reforms at the center of the EU recommendations for membership status, particularly among "stakeholders" including "the people, civil society, opposition parties, and some members of the government."
She added that "we know the government can move quickly when it wants to."
"The next six months will be an important opportunity to get started," Degnan said. "Everyone wants to see a very positive report for Georgia by the end of the year -- before that, if possible, but by December most certainly."
Some other prominent outsiders believe a technocratic approach -- skirting Georgian Dream's firm grip on power and decision-making -- is the best way to do that.
Veteran U.S. diplomat Kurt Volker, in a piece for the Center for European Policy Analysis, argued that "the best response" for Georgia to the EU's challenge would be a "nonpartisan, technocratic commission, including international and domestic experts," to map out how to meet all 12 of the EU's recommendations for candidate status.
"Without such concrete steps, the symbolic separation of Georgia from Ukraine and Moldova made today may become more than symbolic tomorrow," Volker warned.