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Smarting from mass protests that led to a government climbdown last week, the Georgian ruling party found a culprit: what it said was a group of anarchists and satanists, operating with a $100 million budget.
That was a surprise for the teenagers — and their parents — who are members of the Franklin Club, an organization “dedicated to promoting classical liberal/libertarian values,” which offers lectures and workshops at the University of Georgia.
The club found itself in the crosshairs of the ruling Georgian Dream party, after tens of thousands of people took to the streets of the capital, Tbilisi, on March 7-9 to demand that parliament drop a controversial “foreign agents” law.
The law would have required media and nongovernmental organizations that receive more than 20 percent of their funding from foreign sources to register as “agents of foreign influence.”
Critics said the bill, much like similar legislation in Russia, would enable billionaire and former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and his Georgian Dream allies to establish government control over the media and civil society organizations. That, critics argued, could damage Georgia’s chances of eventually joining the European Union, which last June decided not to grant the country candidate status, citing the need for further reforms.
In the face of the mass protests — sometimes violent with demonstrators facing tear gas and water cannons — the Georgian government dropped the controversial bill on March 10. That policy setback was chalked up in part to the role played in the protests by Georgian youth, so-called Generation Z or zoomers, who are keen to see their country remain on a Westward trajectory.
After the demonstrators had gone home, on March 12, Prime Minister Irakli Gharibishvili told the pro-government Imedi TV that extremist forces were trying to destabilize the country, referring to the Franklin Club (and not only them) as an anarchist group.
“They had a direct task to enter into confrontation with the special forces, the police, to provoke them with Molotov cocktails,” Gharibishvili said, according to the news site Civil Georgia. “[They] were wearing the uniforms of satanists. I do not want to show their faces, but it is disturbing what is happening here.”
Then, two days later, the chairman of Georgian Dream, Irakli Kobakhidze, also said that “extremist youth political groups emerged” at the March rallies. Speaking at a press conference in Tbilisi on March 14, Kobakhidze said that among the groups he mentioned as being “agents of foreign influence” was the Franklin Club, which he said received funding from the U.S.-based Atlas Network.
Rezi Topuria, one of the founders of the Franklin Club, told RFE/RL’s Georgian Service that the smears against the organization began to appear in the media back in November 2022. He said that the Georgian tabloid Asaval Dasavali referred to the club as a Masonic Lodge. After that, he recalled, the pro-government Imedi TV claimed the group had a budget of $100 million.
“It is clear that we do not have millions of dollars in funding, and we are not an anarcho-satanist organization,” the bearded and mustachioed Topuria said, laughing.
The Franklin Club was founded about a year and a half ago, Topuria said, with the goal of promoting freedom and other classic liberal values. “In short, the ideas that Benjamin Franklin defended in America and Ilia Chavchavadze in Georgia,” Topuria said, referring to one of the founders of American democracy as well as the Georgian writer and poet who led Georgia’s national revival in the 19th century.
To spread the word, the Franklin Club offers 10th, 11th, and 12th graders lectures and workshops on the meaning of freedom, economics, and fundamental rights, among other things, at an auditorium provided by the University of Georgia, which has extended a helping hand to the Franklin Club as a sponsor.
‘A Generation That Is Not Afraid Of Anything’
While 30 students were present at the Franklin Group’s first lecture, today the club boasts it has to turn away interested individuals, flooded as they are with requests to attend their workshops and lectures. Some 2,000 young people are now associated with the club, according to Topuria.
The Franklin Group isn’t the only thing the ruling party in Georgia are worried about. Legislators in the 150-member parliament have spoken about anti-Western books being circulated in the chamber, including one called: Exposing Lucifer, the cover of which depicts the Statue of Liberty with a red, demonic face.
Regarding their funding, Topuria told RFE/RL’s Georgian Service that the club had received two grants from the Atlas Network, which says on its website that it “increases global prosperity by strengthening a network of independent partner organizations that promote individual freedom and are committed to identifying and removing barriers to human flourishing.” Topuria said those grants amount to “about 10-15 percent” of the Franklin Club’s budget.
Atlas Network did not respond to a request from RFE/RL for comment.
Georgian Dream chairman Kobakhidze has also tarred the University of Georgia, and another private university in Tbilisi, the Free University, for providing support to the Franklin Club, contending that unwitting Georgian youth are being recruited for political activism.
Taking umbrage, Koka Tofuria, the rector of the University of Georgia, said the government merely wanted to “discredit their university and its students.”
Parents of children who have attended Franklin Club workshops and classes have launched a social media campaign, mocking the notion it was a subversive group.
“This is my son, 15 years old, a graduate of the Franklin Club…[and] according to the country’s prime minister, an anarchist and a satanist,” wrote Keti Bojgua, posting a photo on Facebook of her son Lasha with a certificate clutched in his hand.
Giorgi Saitidze is another of the so-called Franklinites, as they jokingly refer to themselves. He posted that he and his friends had learned to think, analyze, and ask questions at the club. “We get informal education, which includes all the subjects that we don’t even come into contact with at school,” he said.
The protests proved the power younger Georgians can wield, said Topuria, in what is still a largely conservative country with many politicians still looking towards Moscow.
“They saw in action the power of Generation Z, a generation that is not afraid of anything, doesn’t have a closed mind and, most importantly, they don’t need a messiah to lead them. They think freely,” he said.
Written by features writer Tony Wesolowsky based on reporting by RFE/RL Georgian Service’s Eka Kevanishvili
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