Poisoned, soaked, but still dancing: Georgia’s ‘Zoomers’ enter the political arena

Image by Tata Shoshiashvili/OC Media. Used under a content partnership agreement.

This article was first published on OC Media. An edited version is republished here under a content partnership agreement. 

Sassy posters, raving to sirens, dancing with water jets, and barricades made of scooters: these have become some of the symbols of the demonstrations that defeated Georgia's controversial foreign agent bill, as well as symbols of Generation Z’s (those born from 1997–2013) entrance into politics.

“This protest was different; there was more humor in it,” says 21-year-old Anastasia Pirtskhalaishvili. Pirtskhalaishvili was among thousands of young people who took to the streets in early March after the ruling party passed the foreign agent bill in its first reading. The proposed bill, “on transparency of foreign influence,” was similar to Russia's 2012 “foreign agent” law, which has been used to crush dissent and opposition in Russia since it came into force. It was proposed by a group of parliament members, formally from the ruling Georgian Dream party who quit the party ranks last year and formed their own political party called People's Power in August 2022. If approved, the bill was going to “compel foreign-funded non-governmental organizations to register as foreign influence agents,” reported Eurasianet.

Thousands of Georgians took to the streets to protest the bill. Images of young people like Pirtskhalaishvili standing unflinchingly as they are shot with water cannons, wearing snorkels and goggles, face masks, and scarves to protect from pepper spray and tear gas, or dancing as the riot police advance, have spread widely online.

But despite the playfulness of some of their protests, Pirtskhalaishvili says young people were sending a serious message. “Dancing to the background of the sirens was also to demonstrate that we are not afraid and we can overcome this.”

Pirtskhalaishvili was standing opposite the Parliament building on March 7 as part of a largely peaceful protest. Still, she did not escape either the tear gas or arrest. “Twice they dispersed people, and both times we returned to the area in front of the Parliament, but so much gas was released that my throat burned terribly,” she recalls. “I was standing on the side of a peaceful demonstration and shouting with others when two policemen snuck up behind me and arrested two of my friends and me.”

She says she was charged with a public order violation and insulting law enforcement officers. Although she was released soon after, her trial is ongoing. Despite her arrest, Pirtskhalaishvili was back at the protests the following day.

“Georgia’s place is in Europe”

“When [tens of thousands] of people tell the government they should not adopt a law, they should not do it,” 22-year-old Nikoloz Arobelidze tells OC Media.

Even though he knew he could get hurt, Arobelidze came to the protests on March 8 after watching riot police suppress the previous night’s demonstration. “I was standing in front of parliament when I heard chaotic sounds, how people shouted: ‘Run, help, they are shooting at us.’ I remember at some point how people started to run away,” he recalls.

“Seconds before that, I thought nothing bad would happen to my friends and me because we were just standing peacefully, but suddenly I saw some [tear gas] thrown, which burned my face, eyes, nose, and throat terribly. I understood that I should have breathed less, but because of the panic, it became more frequent,” he recalls, adding that the coughing did not stop for several days.

Arobelidze, like many others, said that for young people like him, the protests were about much more than this specific law — the country’s future as a democracy and its place in Europe were at stake.

“We stood there and told the government that we want a bright future where we don’t have to fear that the Russians will come and take the country from us, or that their tanks will hit us,” he said. “Everyone thinks that Georgia’s place is in Europe.”

As riot police attempted to break up the demonstration on March 8 and drive protesters away from the Parliament building with tear gas and water cannons, protesters took shelter at the nearby Kashueti Church. Among them was 23-year-old Gvantsa Seturidze, who had been protesting since the demonstrations began the previous week. Gvantsa says that there was a special energy during these demonstrations on March 7 and 8, as the voice of a new generation grew louder.

During these days, she highlighted how people helped each other, distributing eye cleaning products, water, and face masks, while others physically helped people find refuge. She said it was a “very difficult period,” but that, nevertheless, “the young people somehow lightened everything.”

“Gen Z’s protest is different. At the rally, I saw children handing a police officer pretzel sticks, [and asking] ‘Do you want them?’ The police officer [replied]: ‘Don’t think that I’ll refuse,’ and he took it,” she recalls.

All the young people who spoke with “OC Media” emphasized that they had stood together with people of all generations during protests in Georgia, with rallies against the draft foreign agent law being no exception. However, the voices of Gen-Z and millennials were especially loud at this demonstration.

“Slay generation, lame government”

The protests were full of sarcastic and satirical posters, images of which were widely spread online. “You can’t troll Gen Z,” “Hello, is it 112? 78 of us pressed a button, and we are all fucked now” (a mistaken reference to the 76 MPs who voted for the law and Georgia's emergency response number 112), “We go to clubs because of the sirens and smoke, you bastards!” and “You can’t poison me with your gas 'cause my ex was more toxic.” The list goes on.

One poster reading “SLAY generation, LAME government can’t deceive us” was widely shared online. Its author, 23-year-old Mariam Kereselidze, told “OC Media” that at first, she was reluctant to show the poster at the demonstration, but in the end, decided to use it. “I’m a content manager by profession, and I work with texts daily. This is why this message suddenly occurred to me. Many people looked at my poster, smiled, and complimented it, which made me happy. Some people didn’t understand what ‘slay’ or ‘lame’ meant, and [when] I explained it, they laughed,” says Kereselidze.

“I went to the rally because I believe that a big victory can be achieved with small steps,” she says. “The approval of this law would remove us from the European Union forever,” she said, adding, “We have lost many battles in recent years, but this one, in my opinion, was decisive.”

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